A female pearl diver

English is a wonderfully flexible language. We make up new words all the time, often combining bits borrowed from Latin and Greek: photography (light+drawing), submarine (under+sea) etc.

In Arabic this is much more difficult because the whole language is based on a system of three-consonant word roots. Where there’s nothing suitable in Arabic, foreign words get picked up and Arabised but as far as I’m concerned adaptations like “dimukratiyya” and “talavizyoon” never sound quite right. Many Arabs use “talafoon” for telephone but my teacher always favoured “haatif” (from a genuine Arabic root meaning to call out or, in the case of pigeons, to coo).

It’s always nice to come across modern Arabic words that show some creativity in their derivation, and so this week I was delighted to find “ghawwaasa” – meaning a submarine – which also serves as a reminder of ancient Arab traditions. A ghawwaas is a diver or, more specifically in the waters of the Gulf, a pearl diver. Add a feminine ending (as happens in Arabic with other modes of transport like cars and planes) and you have a submarine. Or, conceivably, a female pearl diver.