3 Expression of depression in Arabic Sara Najim

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3 - Expression of depression in Arabic

Sara Najim*

Human beings are unique in the animal kingdom by their ability to express themselves verbally in addition to their body language. Earlier definitions of human beings by philosophers such as Aristotle was ( Speaking animals then it was added as sociable ), therefore, human beings are able to verbalise their thoughts and feelings, which makes more easy for them to communicate with their fellow humans. This has made the vehicle of communication i.e. language is important part of different cultures and a way of measuring the development of that culture.

Psychological expressions are considered as sophisticated ways of human verbal expressions, as they form an abstract way of conveying a subjective experience and communicating with the outside world. If ordinary psychological expressions are important existential state of the human beings and their cultures, this makes the expressions of psychological distress and disorders more important as a way of studying the language and the culture it originated from.

Anthropologists classify the degree of development of languages by the number of abstract nouns it has. Depression, fed up , oppression are all abstract nouns which some languages don’t have for that reason people in some African countries would not be able to express their depressive feeling and they may try to somatise. This also applies for the individuals, the more sophisticated and articulate the person the more he/she is able to verbalise his complaint and vice versa.

This article is a modest effort to try to shed light on the Arabic language and how depression is expressed by Arab people, in history and at this present time.

It is a lucky coincidence as Arabic starts by the first letter of the alphabet. I live in the United Kingdom, but I was born in Iraq and came to this country at the age of 3 years. I still speak Arabic at home and in with other fellow Arabs.

Arabic is one of the world’s most ancient languages, while the exact origin is unknown it spans from before the Christian era, sharing roots with other Semitic languages such as Hebrew. Classical Arabic was developed in the 6th Centaury AD with the advent of Islam and has remained one of the most spoken languages in the present day. Although classical Arabic that has been preserved by the Quran is universal in the Middle East for formal texts, it is not actually spoken by Arabs in their everyday language. Each country has a colloquial dialect that, while sharing fundamental similarities, differs greatly across borders and from city to city. The CIA World Fact book recently calculated 206-422 million Arabic speakers, spanning over Western Asia and North Africa. This diversity within a language that is so historically rich makes it a particular subject of interest within trans-cultural psychiatry, how has the way people express depression in Arabic progressed over time? Furthermore, to what extent does its expression vary between the numerous modern dialects?

Evidence of the earliest accounts of depression in the Arabic language can be found in the Qur’an, the Islamic Holy Scripture. Depression is expressed as ‘Hozn’, the Arabic word for sadness where Muslims are advised to avoid it, as extreme cases can lead to suicide: ‘...nor kill (or destroy) your selves, for verily God hath been to you most merciful’. However, society has greatly progressed since the time of the emergence of the Quran, it is also necessary to understand the context in which depression is discussed by Arabs in the modern day when studying the expression of depression in the Arabic language. The progression of this language and its spread all over such a wide area, the Middle East, has resulted in many different dialects that still possess traces of the languages Arabic replaced.
Written Arabic language expression is more or less the same as the Holly Quran era. Hozn is sadness and hazeen is sad. There are other expressions in different writings about tightness of space or of breath to indicate discomfort and depression such dheeq.

Some educated individuals may use Kaaba for depression or describe themselves as Kaeeb when they are depressed, which is the translation of depression as a diagnosis in Arabic.


 A survey was done on middle aged women originally from Iraq and Egypt and currently living in the United Kingdom about their expression of depression revealed the following: 



Ihitisar literal meaning oppression but some people may express themselves when they are depressed.

Mutidhayq literal meaning compressed or uneasy but it means depressed.

Dhaig literal meaning means fed up.

Maqhoor literal meaning defeated but some people prefer to verbalise their depression this way, which means sad.



Zahaan literal meaning fed up but some people express themselves this way.

Mutidhayq literal meaning compressed or uneasy but it means depressed.

Therefore, depression has been identified and accounted in the Arabic language since its very origin, although, we don’t know how depression was expressed a few hundred years ago in the Arab population who lived at that time. It is fair to say that depression has been found in Arabic language from the primitive days where the condition was referred to as the emotion ‘sadness’, to a more serious, diagnosed illness in the 21st Century.

It has to be said that this is a preliminary finding of two local dialects and their expression of depression. Contributions are invited from other interested parties from other countries and give a comprehensive account about this very interesting aspect of expression of depression and to try to identify similarities and differences between different Arabic dialects from different Arabic countries.

It may be more interesting to investigate the influence of other cultures on Arabic people living in another culture i.e. Arabic people who live in the United Kingdom, and the influence of Arabic language on other Muslims who speak different languages and live in their home countries or they have migrated to the United Kingdom.

*6th Form Student

Chelmsford High School for Girls

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