The Concept of Honor in the Language of Early Arabic Poetry

A Cultural Linguistic Study

by Bartosz Pietrzak (Author)
Monographs 358 Pages
Series: Lodz Studies in Language, Volume 72


The book presents an ethnolinguistic study on lexical expressions of honor in the Language of Early Arabic Poetry. It is the first application of Cultural-Linguistic methodology in research on the language and culture of al-Jahiliyya Arabs. Consequently, it is one of the first cultural cognitive linguistic studies on Classical Arabic semantics and lexicology. The book examines the use of Arabic honor-related lexis in the oral-formulaic pre-Islamic poetry, and interprets lexical expressions as encoding cultural conceptualizations: cognitive schemata and categories, and conceptual metaphors and metonymies. An exhaustive description of pre-Islamic Arabic cultural models of honor and social evaluation is offered alongside semantic frames for discourses of honor available to pre-Islamic Arabs.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Technical notes
  • 1. Introduction: the case study
  • 1.1. Pre-Islamic Arabs, their poetry and their (?) language
  • 1.1.1. Early Arabic Poetry (EAP) – the register of Arabs
  • 1.1.2. Authenticity of EAP and its oral-formulaic nature
  • 1.1.3. Language of Early Arabic Poetry (LEAP)
  • 1.1.4. The history of LEAP: a hypothesis
  • 1.2. Studying LEAP and the culture of pre-Islamic Arabs
  • 1.3. Cultural Linguistic case study on honor in LEAP
  • 2. Theories and methods
  • 2.1. Culture, cultural cognition, and language
  • 2.1.1. Cultural Linguistics (CL) in a nutshell
  • 2.1.2. History of Cultural Linguistics
  • 2.1.3. Current development of Cultural Linguistics. State of CL research in Arabic language
  • 2.2. Tools of Cognitive Linguistics for studying cultural grounding of language
  • 2.2.1. Cultural Models and Cultural Schemata
  • Cognitive schemata
  • Cultural schemata
  • Cultural schemata and language: encyclopedic meaning and semantic frames
  • Major types of Cultural Schemata
  • Event schemata
  • Object Schemata
  • Role Schemata
  • Proposition Schemata
  • Image-Schemata
  • Cultural Models vs. Idealized Cognitive Models (ICMs)
  • 2.2.2. Cultural categories
  • 2.2.3. Cultural metaphors
  • 2.2.4. Cultural metonymies
  • 2.2.5. Metaphors and metonymies – summary
  • 2.3. Applied methods
  • 2.3.1. Objectives
  • 2.3.2. Methodology of the study on cultural conceptualizations of honor in LEAP
  • Dictionaries analysis
  • Corpus-based study
  • Data integration
  • 3. Honor
  • 3.1. The essence of honor
  • 3.2. The ambiguity of European notion of honor
  • 3.3. Studies on honor in Arabic context
  • 3.4. Linguistic studies in conceptualization of honor
  • 4. Karam – Karīm – Karāma
  • 4.1. The concepts of karam, karīm, and karāma in CAD
  • 4.2. CEAP data on karam-karīm and karāma
  • 4.3. Role schema of karīm: the script of nobility, the code of honorable conduct
  • 4.3.1. Generosity and hospitality – essence of karam
  • The major cultural metonymic model of karīm
  • Wealth helps one being karīm
  • 4.3.2. Magnanimity, noble-heartedness
  • 4.3.3. Bravery
  • 4.3.4. Loyalty
  • 4.3.5. Endurance
  • 4.3.6. Customs obedience
  • 4.3.7. Reason, moderation, and forbearance – the concept of ḥilm
  • 4.3.8. Eloquence
  • 4.3.10. The deeds of karīm – makārim – and the expectations as for the conduct of sayyid
  • 4.4. Propositional subschemata of karīm
  • 4.4.1. Karīm is excellent and deserves respect
  • 4.4.2. Further metonymic extension of karīm: excellent said about object
  • 4.4.3. Karam and nobility – a complicated relationship
  • 4.5. Other cultural conceptualizations of karam
  • 4.5.1. The image-schematic model of karam
  • 4.5.2. Karam and murūˀa
  • 4.6. Cultural script of karāma (ˀikrām)
  • 4.7. Conclusions
  • 5. Ḥasab – Ḥasīb
  • 5.1. Ḥasab and ḥasīb in CAD
  • 5.2. CEAP data on ḥasab
  • 5.3. Ḥasab is a count of honorable deeds
  • 5.3.1. Ḥasab is a value
  • 5.3.2. Where does ḥasab come from?
  • 5.4. Image-schematic model of ḥasab: to possess ḥasab
  • 5.4.1. Having ḥasab is to be ḥasīb
  • 5.4.2. Ḥasab as integrity
  • 5.5. Ḥasab is a reason to be proud
  • 5.6. Conclusions
  • 6. Šaraf – Šarīf
  • 6.1. Šaraf and šarīf in CAD
  • 6.2. CEAP data on šaraf and šarīf
  • 6.3. Šaraf is the “high” social status
  • 6.3.1. Reaching šaraf is climbing up
  • Possessing šaraf-elevated place
  • 6.3.2. Šarīf is above, non-šarīf is below
  • Šaraf is the precedence in leadership
  • Šarīf is from the best of his people
  • Šaraf and nobility
  • Society venerates šarīf people: šaraf is the reason of pride
  • 6.4. Karīm and šarīf: šaraf must be constantly proved in karam
  • 6.5. Šaraf and maǧd
  • 6.5.1. A famous karīm builds maǧd for his descendant – maǧd is glory
  • 6.5.2. Maǧd assures šaraf
  • 6.6. Conclusions
  • 7. ˁIrḍ
  • 7.1. The concept of Arabic ˁirḍ in anthropological and philological literature – a brief synopsis
  • 7.1.1. The phenomenon of ˁirḍ in pre-Islamic Arabic culture in the writings of Bichr Farès
  • 7.1.2. Modern conceptualization of ˁirḍ – the data from 20th c.
  • 7.2. ˁIrḍ in CAD
  • 7.3. CEAP data on ˁirḍ
  • 7.4. ˁIrḍ-honor-right to respect is one’s exposed side
  • 7.4.1. One’s ˁirḍ-right to respect might be diminished
  • 7.4.2. ˁIrḍ is reflexive honor
  • 7.5. Embodiment of honor in pre-Islamic Arabic culture – ˁirḍ is bodily
  • 7.5.1. One’s honor and one’s self
  • 7.6. Covering the ˁirḍ: right to respect must be protected
  • 7.6.1. Honorability is the vail for the ˁirḍ
  • Karīm has white clean ˁirḍ – karīm is white/of white face
  • One covers their ˁirḍ with a cloth of ḥasab – ḥasab makes up one’s honor
  • 7.6.2. One keeps their wealth near to or under their ˁirḍ
  • 7.7. One’s lineage is one’s honor
  • 7.8. Conclusions: why is ˁirḍ-honor so vulnerable in LEAP?
  • 8. Shame & dishonor
  • 8.1. LEAP concepts of shame and dishonor.
  • 8.1.1. The concept of ˁayb
  • 8.1.2. The concept of ˁār
  • 8.1.3. The concept of ḥayāˀ
  • 8.2. Conclusions
  • 9. Conclusions: honor and shame in LEAP
  • 9.1. The cultural model of honor in LEAP
  • 9.1.1. Honorability – the essence of honor
  • 9.1.2. Right to respect
  • Acknowledgment of one’s worthiness: horizontal honor
  • Honor-paid and acceptance
  • Honor-precedence
  • 9.1.3. Honor and the group: role of nasab-lineage
  • 9.2. The cultural model of social evaluation of community member in LEAP: worthiness
  • 9.2.1. Default worthiness: ˁirḍ is at the center of social evaluation
  • 9.2.2. Shame: a statement of unworthiness
  • 9.2.3. The shame-culture of pre-Islamic Arabs
  • 9.3. Further aspects of LEAP cultural conceptualizations of honor
  • 9.3.1. Honor is like body
  • 9.3.2. Arabic-European contrast, which does (not) exist
  • 9.3.3. The collapse of honor – is it really a thing?
  • 10. References
  • 11. Index of Authors
  • Series index

←12 | 13→


If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

Isaac Newton

This book would not have been written without the guidance of the “Giants” of Polish Arabic studies. It is a record of my Ph.D. thesis I wrote under the supervision of prof. Elżbieta Górska, to whom I would like to express my deepest thanks. It could not have been accomplished without her constant support as my mentor, scientific advisor, and a source of inspiration. Also, I would like to extend my gratitude to the reviewers of the thesis, prof. Janusz Danecki and prof. Marek M. Dziekan. Their invaluable critique helped me shape and refine the ideas I present in this book.

A big thank to those who contributed unknowingly: family and friends.

←13 | 14→←14 | 15→

Technical notes

In the body of the text in this book, I will differentiate between English lexemes and names of the concepts/schemata these lexemes refer to in English. The former will be rendered always in italics, whereas the latter in small caps. In the case of Arabic, since small caps do not always work with the special characters used in the transcription, I decided not to make any graphical difference between names of the concepts/schemata and the lexemes that refer to them. Thus, by honor, I will mean the entire notion of this phenomenon, whereas honor is my way of mentioning English lexeme used in reference to it. In Arabic, however, by ˁir I will mean either a transcription of Arabic عِرْض or the concept/schema this Arabic lexeme refers to. In my work, I understand the lexeme in the traditional way as a lexical (or dictionary) item that stands for a cluster of textual forms, i.e., different nominal/adjectival (e.g., plural) and verbal (aspectual, modal, etc.) forms.

Sometimes in the text, I use so-called curly brackets, i.e., {}, to depict a propositional conceptualization, i.e., a statement of knowledge. Thus, {karīm is the best of his people} is an encoded chunk of culturally shared knowledge, which served as a basis for different kinds of inferences.

When it comes to the transcription of the text in Arabic, I decided to limit it only to particular lexemes. The supporting examples quoted in Arabic are not transcribed, since in my opinion, in a semantic study, in which none syntactic or morphological dependencies are of great importance, the transcription seems to be unnecessary.

The supporting examples are fully translated and commented on in the main body of text. The translation – if not indicated otherwise – is mine. I aimed to render the intended meaning of Arabic sentences in the manner as faithful as it was possible. This, however, could be achieved in most of the cases only on the expense of the artistic value of the translation. Thus, instead of providing more or less coherent interpretation of Arabic verses, I choose to render as rigid literary, verbatim reading of the text as it was possible. Consequently, I often resort to use of square brackets [], in which I provide – sometimes cumbersome – complements needed for the faithful rendition of Arabic sentences, especially in the frequent cases, in which appellatives are omitted by poets for sake of the poetic license (cf. Kowalski 1997: 55).

While transcribing Arabic lexemes and the concepts they refer to, I use italics. In my transcription, I followed ISO-233 (1984 version) and Górska (2015: 13–4) with minor exceptions. I transcribe ˀalif maqūra (ى) as à. Tāˀ marbūa (ة) in the absolute state is rendered as only if it follows a long vowel ā (e.g., حَيَاة = ayā). ←15 | 16→Otherwise, it is not transcribed (e.g., كَرَامَة = karāma). In the construct state, it is always rendered as t. The short-vowel inflectional endings are rendered only if the context requires it. In the case of the hamza, I consequently render any instance of hamzat al-qaˁ – even when it occurred at the beginning of a word (e.g., أَعْرَاب = ˀaˁrāb) – except for Arabic proper names, in which I omit any initial hamza, including hamzat al-qaˁ (e.g., الأعرابي = al-Aˁrābī). The Arabic proper names are not italicized.

The table below presents the general rules I applied in my transcription.

Transcription of Arabic text
























































(status absolutus)



(status constructus)

←16 | 17→

1. Introduction: the case study

This book is about meaning of certain words and expressions used in the language of Early Arabic Poetry in reference to honor. It means that it is about something that for many might be controversial in a lot of different ways and for a lot of different reasons.

First of all, the method of studying the meaning I will present in this book is at the center of a heated debate that has been running since at least 19th c. This is because in this book I argue that meaning is not universal, what is a troubling statement making many linguists uneasy to the point some of them choose to withdraw from studying meaning whatsoever (Wierzbicka 1996: 3–8). But can we really imagine the study of language without studying meaning? Because what is language, if not – as Anna Wierzbicka (1992: 3; 1996: 3) put it – a “tool”, an “instrument for conveying meaning”? Isn’t it that the sole purpose of our language is to express “our thought, our feelings, our perceptions (Wierzbicka 1992: 3)” to share them with others, be them those with whom we are here and now, or those distant in time and space? In language, while speaking, expressing utterances, first and foremost, we mean. So, can one “professionally” study language without any reference to meaning? Wouldn’t such a study be “like studying road signs from the point of view of their physical properties, (…) or like studying the structure of the eye without any reference to seeing (Wierzbicka 1996: 3)”?

Thus, in this book, the meaning is at the center of the linguistic inquire. Moreover, this meaning is claimed to affect the shape of the language system as a whole; and it is strongly held to be culture-specific. The latter claim was at the core of a long-lasting debate between universalist and relativist linguists, which became so well embedded in academic discourse (and its social perception) that it has even traveled into the realm of internet meme strings. Thus, in my opinion, the best epitome of universalist approach to meaning is the following meme by an anonymous Tumblr user:

source: Tumblr1

This meme clearly tells us that the way languages work does not have too much to do with meaning in general. Meaning seems here a matter of quite redundant labels attached to words and expressions of different linguistic shape that are implicitly presented here to be of much more importance for professionals who intent to study “how language works”. One can read the message implied in the meme as a statement: there nothing about meaning worth a serious linguistic inquiry.

I claim contrary to that. Language is a phenomenon much more complex than a mere record of grammatical and syntactical functions – and meaning is what makes a particular language itself. It is true that English moon and Japanese 月-tsuki are – dictionary-wise – replaceable. Still, does English moon evoke the same whole universe of associations as Japanese 月-tsuki does? Can we replace them easily by Arabic qamar, which refer to the same celestial body? If so, then why is it that in Arabic, the phrase “oh my moon (ya qamarī)” would be a way of referring to one’s lover rather than praying to the satellite of our Planet? Thus, do moon and qamar still have the same meaning?

←18 | 19→My answer to this question is negative, and in this book, I will try to prove that any other answer is simply not possible. That is because the meaning I discuss in the following chapters is a much more complicated thing than most of us are used to imagine. It cannot be described by a definition or an explication. In fact, what I propose in the following chapters might resemble more an encyclopedia entry or an ethnographic report rather than a dictionary. This is because my goal was not to suggest how one could render some Arabic words in their native language, but to understand a complex way, in which Arabic language encoded the knowledge about some elements of the social life of people who used it.

The meaning, which I intend to describe is thus encyclopedic in nature. We should read it that while meaning, we always mean what we know about the world. This was noticed already centuries ago by Islamic scholar, ar-Rāzī († 1210), who said:

للألفاظ دلالات على ما في الأذهان لا على ما في الأعيان ولهذا السبب يقال: الألفاظ تدل على المعاني، لأن المعاني هي التي عناها العاني، وهي أمور ذهنية

[People’s] utterances refer to what is in [their] minds and not to what [appears] in [their] eyes, and for that reason we say: the utterances point towards the meanings (maˁānī), since the meanings are what is meant by the one who means (ˁanā-hā al-ˁānī) – and [thus] they are mental phenomena (ar-Rāzī 1981: 31).

In other words, ar-Rāzī insisted that while talking, one never means things, which are “out there” – which they see with their eyes – but they can talk only about the way they perceive those things. We do not talk about the “objective” world, but – to use Ray Jackendoff’s term – about our “conceptualized world” (Jackendoff 2002: 304), das Ding an mich of Immanuel Kant. And this conceptualized reality is not our own – we share it with others, participating in a complicated, constantly evolving system we call culture (cf. Kövecses 2017: 308).

Thus, this book is about such a meaning – a complex structure, which emerges as a part of the shared knowledge of people, and by that – to a certain extent – it is relative to their culture. Such a meaning is a powerful factor in shaping our linguistic behaviors, since it contains not only the more dictionary-like information, but also the encodement of the place of a given concept within a thick network of the conceptualized world. Therefore, I will not present just definitions of the analyzed vocabulary, but – perhaps more importantly – I shall reconstruct all the connections between domains of knowledge that account for everything (or at least most) the people who used some words meant. What I want to show is the native perspective of these people – the way they perceived the world – which was encoded in their language and linguistic practices they performed. Hence, my study is an example of Cultural Linguistics, being a culture-focused branch ←19 | 20→of cognitive linguistics. Its major focus is then on the conceptual system – the culture – which shapes a particular language in a unique way.


Of course, this book is not about such a meaning in general. As I mentioned, it presents a case study that examines the way, in which pre-Islamic Arabs used to talk about honor – or more precisely – what they meant while using different linguistic tools to express their thoughts about this social phenomenon. Hence, my study is an example of the application of Cultural Linguistics in Arabic philology, which follows the long tradition of oriental studies, the methodology of which “is primarily a translation of one culture to another” (Dziekan 2008: 20). Being the analysis of a past stage of Arabic language, my research is certainly a historical study, yet in the most part it is not diachronic. This is because I am interested mostly in the synchronic features of the conceptual system persisting in a specific moment in time, rather than in how this system evolved or came to be. Nevertheless, sometimes, I could not hold myself from positing etymological hypotheses, especially where they seemed helping in the overall argumentation.

I focus on language and culture of Arabs of the so-called al-Ǧāhiliyya period, which extended up to a century and half back before the rise of Islam (Dziekan 2008: 32). I decided to so, because of the importance of this period for the development of the whole Arabic and Arabo-Muslim civilization. Even though it was named by Muslim scholars al-ǧāhiliyya, i.e., [the time of] ignorance or barbarism, by no means was it ever intended to be forgotten (Dziekan 1998: 88–9). In fact, the opposite is true – the whole Arabic culture after the emergence of Islam would always refer to it as an undisputed reference point (Dziekan 2008: 82). Therefore, in studying it I was motivated by the belief expressed by Marek M. Dziekan (2008: 81) that “more comprehensive knowledge of al-Ǧāhiliyya can afford better understanding of some phenomena, which are usually considered Islamic, however, they bear in their nature an early Arabic pagan imprint”. Such a phenomenon explored in this work is honor.

As I have mentioned, I employed in my case study the methods and theoretical frame of Cultural Linguistics. It means that although my focus was always on the language and its use, in fact, my analyses could be seen aiming twofold. On the one hand, I intended to describe the repertoire of lexical tools available to pre-Islamic Arabs in their discourse on honor. On the other one, however, I was interested in the way they used to perceive this social phenomenon. This second goal might be considered a more ethnographic in nature, and it correlates with goals of numerous anthropological studies, in which the descriptive approach was adopted (cf. Stewart 1994: 5). Nevertheless, this ethnographic interest was ←20 | 21→rooted in the linguistic one since the description of the native perception of honor served characterizing encyclopedic meanings of analyzed lexical items.

Following Cultural Linguistics, and more precisely, one of its major theoretics, Farzad Sharifian, I prose to describe these meanings in terms of cultural conceptualizations. i.e., (cultural) schemata, categories, metaphors, and metonymies. They might be understood in the simplest way as conceptual devices encoding certain pieces of knowledge of people. In other words, my case study – like any cultural linguistic examination – aimed to define the way, in which a particular piece of the cultural knowledge was encoded, and how this encoded knowledge affected the language – most importantly its lexicon – by being in fact the whole meaning meant by speakers of this language. Consequently, in whole, I depicted so-called semantic frames, i.e., encodement of this piece of knowledge, as well as linguistic items associated with it.

Therefore, in short, one can see my methods as describing the way some people – i.e., pre-Islamic Arabs – used to think and talk about a certain social phenomenon – i.e., honor. Perhaps even better, one can say that I intended to characterize – semantically and ethnographically – all linguistic choices that Arabs of al-Ǧāhiliyya were provided with to convey their thinking about honor. For the examination in my study, I selected five most obvious of such choices, i.e., lexemes karam, karāma, asab, šaraf, and ˁir, which by Edward Lane, were rendered as somehow the closest correlates of English lexeme honor/honour. My selection was further refined in a pre-study on Classical Arabic dictionaries explications. Consequently, I included in my analysis also the concept of maǧd “fame, glory”, closely related to pre-Islamic Arabic conception of honor. Moreover, in order to complete – or at least to attempt to complete – this conception, I also decided to represent the conclusions of my preliminary study on the most important profiles of pre-Islamic Arabic shame-dishonor, i.e. the concepts of ˁayb, ˁār, and ayāˀ (cf. Pietrzak 2022).

All in all, my sole goal was to contribute to the understanding of pre-Islamic Arabic honor – linguistically and anthropologically – by applying relatively novel methods, which have not been used yet in studying Arabic language functioning before Islam. Consequently, by this case study, I intend to submit the cultural linguistic approach for discussion as a methodological frame for future studies in Arabic and other oriental languages of the past and present.

Naturally, one can ask a question why I decided to make honor the theme of my study. I must admit my choice was dictated by a more or less common belief that honor, dignity, sense of pride – all of these phenomena – are at the core of the interests of people, whose way of life might be subsumed under the umbrella term of Arabic culture (although, I am aware how much oversimplifying this term is). ←21 | 22→Sometimes, this culture is even termed as honor culture (cf. Osh et al. 2013: 334), that is, a culture, in which “[i]‌nsults to honor should be retaliated against quickly and with force (Osh et al. 2013: 334).” Because of that I found it very interesting to take a closer look at the origin of this Arabic sentiment of honor, which must naturally trace back at fontes of Arabic culture, i.e., to al-Ǧāhiliyya.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (December)
Classical Arabic pre-Islamic Arabs Ethnolinguistics Semantic Frame Cognitive Schemata Conceptual Metonymy
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 358 pp., 1 fig. b/w, 29 tables.

Biographical notes

Bartosz Pietrzak (Author)

Bartosz Pietrzak, Ph.D., works at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland. His interests lie in Cultural Linguistics and Frame Semantics research in Semitic languages. He studies the cultural conceptualizations encoded in the formulas of the Language of Early Arabic Poetry, as well as in modern Arabic dialects, Modern Hebrew, and Maltese.


Title: The Concept of Honor in the Language of Early Arabic Poetry
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