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Thread: Arabic "mihna" (profession)

  1. #1
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    Arabic "mihna" (profession)

    Hello,

    There's a folk etymology that's been circulating in Arabic circles about the origin of the word mihna مهنة meaning "profession." The claim is that it is derived from mahaana, meaning lowliness, humiliation, etc. because the desert Arabs supposedly shunned and looked down upon manual professions like carpentry, smithery, and the like. Needless to say this is quite doubtful given that the two words come from completely different trilateral roots (the former from m-h-n مهن and the latter from h-w-n هون). However, it would still be nice to get an idea about the origin of the word mihna, especially since there are so few words that share the same root.

    Any of our esteemed philologists on the forum have an idea? I'm hoping especially for some insight from our resident Semiticists.

    Thanks.

  2. #2
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    Re: Arabic "mihna" (profession)

    mihna belongs (as you say) to the root m-h-n, intransitive mahuna “to be despicable” and transitive mahana “to degrade someone”. mihna is thus primarily “demeaning physical labour”, and took on the neutral meaning “work, profession” only in modern Arabic. It is obviously connected with h-w-n, as in hāna “to be despicable”, and indeed the dictionaries list the noun mahāna “disgrace” as the infinitive (maṣdar) both of mahana and of hāna. I would guess that h-w-n is older, that mahāna is derived (prefix ma-) from h-w-n, and that the stem m-h-n is a secondary (de-nominal) derivative of mahāna.

  3. #3
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    Re: Arabic "mihna" (profession)

    Quote Originally Posted by fdb View Post
    mihna belongs (as you say) to the root m-h-n, intransitive mahuna “to be despicable” and transitive mahana “to degrade someone”. mihna is thus primarily “demeaning physical labour”, and took on the neutral meaning “work, profession” only in modern Arabic. It is obviously connected with h-w-n, as in hāna “to be despicable”, and indeed the dictionaries list the noun mahāna “disgrace” as the infinitive (maṣdar) both of mahana and of hāna. I would guess that h-w-n is older, that mahāna is derived (prefix ma-) from h-w-n, and that the stem m-h-n is a secondary (de-nominal) derivative of mahāna.
    Thanks. So the folk etymology may be right after all. Is there a cognate in another Semitic language that you may know of by any chance?

  4. #4
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    Re: Arabic "mihna" (profession)

    The semantic development of Arabic h-w-n seems to be: “to be light” > “to be easy” > “to be insignificant” > “to be despicable”. The root h-w-n occurs in several other Semitic languages, but the semantic field is quite wide. The closest parallel in meaning seems to be Hebrew wattāhīnū “and you (pl.) find easy” (Dt 1:14), that is 2nd person plural imperfect (ta….ū) of the h- stem (causative).
    Last edited by fdb; 1st October 2013 at 4:14 PM.

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    Re: Arabic "mihna" (profession)

    Quote Originally Posted by fdb View Post
    The semantic development of Arabic h-w-n seems to be: “to be light” > “to be easy” > “to be insignificant” > “to be despicable”. The root h-w-n occurs in several other Semitic languages, but the semantic field is quite wide. The closest parallel in meaning seems to be Hebrew wattāhīnū “and you (pl.) find easy” (Dt 1:14), that is 2nd person plural imperfect (ta….ū) of the h- stem (causative).
    That's hwn, but what about mhn?

  6. #6
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    Re: Arabic "mihna" (profession)

    امتهن is not modern, is it? I think I have read it in older texts. But I should check. In any case it is said that names based on professions - خباز نجار وراق الخ - appeared only after Islam and where unheard of in preislamic Arabia or at least were uncommon, because of the link with degrading labour as you described.
    اذكر الله

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