Swimming in a Linguistic Ocean

When I signed up for Arabic my first semester of college, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. I had chosen to study Arabic for a couple of reasons: I was interested in living and working in the Middle East, it was an important language for the future, its script is beautiful and, in comparison to Chinese (another language of the future), it has an alphabet.

I didn’t expect, however, that it would take me an entire month just to learn that alphabet. While students in Spanish or French where quickly putting together sentences and starting to describe objects, I was standing in front of a mirror with a glass of water gargling. “Now do that without the water”, a CD instructed me, “and that is the letter ghayn”.

There are a number of sounds in Arabic that simply do not exist in English. For example, there are three “h” sounds, one similar to ours, another that is the sound you make when you are trying to fog up glasses and another which can best be described as the sound some people make before spitting.

My good friend. Once I learned how to use it anyway...

In addition to the sounds, the writing also goes from right to left and all of the letters are connected, but take different shapes based on whether or not they are in the beginning, middle or end of a word. Words are also categorized by their three-letter root so that when you look up maktab (desk) in the dictionary, you do start at “m” but instead with its root k-t-b. All this combines to make Arabic one of the world’s harder languages to learn.

People in the Middle East are fairly cognizant of the difficulty of their language and it makes for some great interactions. Often they will complement you on your Arabic after only 2-3 words, responding with “ma sha allah! Arabic good! after you have only said “Good Morning”. People are so happy that you have put in the effort to learn their language that they are also eager to teach you, inviting you to drink tea or just chat for a bit longer to practice. This can at times manifest itself in a comical fashion. After having bought green onions one day, I was walking back home with them in my hand (I try not to use plastic bags when I can avoid it) and I had no less than ten people point to them and tell me their name in Arabic, smiling joyfully.

and I have a long way to go until I reach the bottom...

When asked if learning Arabic is hard, I often respond that Arabic is an ocean. In addition to having words that cover every shade of meaning and a grammatical structure that meticulously covers every irregularity, you can also learn a lot about the culture of the Middle East by diving in to the language. Having recently finished the Arabic portion of my Fulbright grant, I wanted to share some words and phrases that I have picked up in my studies and might give you a glimpse into life in Egypt and the Islamic world.

Al-Hamdulilah – Praise be to God – This is most often used when someone asks you how you are and you simply respond with “praise be to God”, which has the meaning of being thankful to the Divine no matter what situation you are in. This is one of the hundreds of phrases and words that invoke God and are used constantly in everyday life. It gives one a sense of the nature of Islam, that for many, it is not a religion to be put in one of the boxes of your compartmentalized life, but instead a way of life whose perspective and practice in some way touches every part of your day.

‘Aysh – Bread – This is specifically Egyptian colloquial (as are the following words) and is derived from the same linguistic root as “to live”. Bread is a central part of people’s diet throughout the Middle East, being served at almost every meal. This has been true in Egypt for millennia. So much so that laborers on the pyramids ate as much as five pounds of bread a day and other ancient peoples referred to the Egyptians as “Bread Eaters”!

Suda’ – Headache – When you begin to read Egyptian literature, you encounter this word a lot and it tells you a little bit about life in Cairo specifically. Cairo has some of the worst traffic and congestion in the world, which is a headache in itself, but the 4,500,000 cars also contribute to the terrible air pollution as well as the incredible levels of noise. One common way to express happiness after a wedding for example, is to drive around the city in a caravan of cars, each honking a rhythm of “beep, beep…beep, beep, beep”. Combined with widespread poverty, life here is enough to give many a constant suda’.

Ya Amina Rizq – Oh Amina Rizq – This term is straight out of Egypt’s widely popular television shows and is the equivalent of calling someone a drama queen as Amina was the drama queen of Egyptian cinema. Egyptian television and music are followed throughout the region and although this influence is slowly waning, people in any country you visit will know many of the movies produced in what is the third greatest movie production center after Hollywood and Bollywood. Our Arabic tutor once jokingly said in relation to music, “if you are not famous in Egypt, you are not famous.” Whether or not this is still true, singers continue to come from around the region to try and make it big in Cairo.

Abu kirsh – Someone with a potbelly – Abu means father so you are literally calling someone “father potbelly”. This is another great term, which speaks to how family relations have seeped into language. In many families, the father and mother adopt new names after the birth of their firstborn son, and are then referred to as “Abu Ahmed” and “Um Ahmed” or father and mother of Ahmed for example. Linguistically you can then give people attributes using the same formula so that people can be referred to as “abu nus lisan” which literally translates to “father half-tongue” and means someone who talks a lot but doesn’t say much.

‘Amila zay illi raqist ‘ala as-silm – She is acting like she is dancing on stairs – The people at the top of the stairs can only see and the people at the bottom of the stairs can only hear. This means that someone is trying to do too much and not achieving any of the results well. Colloquial Arabic is full of these sayings and you have to know a good portion of them to be considered fluent. That said, if you know some, people love it! I thought one taxi driver was going to have a heart attack he was so excited after we told him that the subway was like a “jar of salmon” (the equivalent of a can or sardines).

‘Ayni – My eye – This is one of the perhaps hundreds of terms of endearment in Arabic. The language has an incredible amount of ways to express your love for someone and many of them are very strong. It is not uncommon to hear “you are the light of my life” being told to a beloved, even though such expressions in English seem over the top or cliché.

Oneayn – Two ones – This word is the English “one” combined with the Arabic grammatical dual to make it mean “two ones”. We saw this in a movie recently but it is a good illustration of the fact that Arabic is adopting English words and very rapidly bringing them into the common vocabulary. Although this is particularly clear with technology such as “moobile”, “coomputer” and “faks”, it also occurs with food like “ice cream”. At times you will hear English words randomly pop into Arabic conversations (especially for those with higher education) such as, “wa ana kunt really mad ashano ragl mish quiyis.

I hope you have enjoyed this short linguistic journey and that you learned something more then how to covertly point out someone’s potbelly on the street! :)


7 thoughts on “Swimming in a Linguistic Ocean

  1. “Mashallah! Arabic good!” seemed to me to be just a phrase to start a conversation with the intention to bring you in business. I never considered that man really being interested in my language skills. ;-)

  2. Hey Luke!
    Really enjoyed your post on language! I’m gonna have to do the same for Tongan words after my “Fakalaklak fakalaumalie” post! Such a rich culture and linguistic history there. Definitely reminds me of the random sayings and translations for Chinese – like who knew that being so-so meant being “mama huhu” or “horse horse tiger tiger”?
    In an unrelated story, I left my laptop and bag on a desk in my classroom and halfway through the day saw a line of tiny ants emerging from it with some sort of crumb prize. I thought nothing of it, that maybe they were eating the crumbs on the bottom of my bag and checked to make sure my lunch bag was still sealed, which it was, and went back to teaching the junior youth program in the school. After lunch, however, I removed my laptop to read your blogs only to find that THE ANTS WERE EATING THE CRUMBS FROM UNDER MY KEYBOARD! It was full of little ants that continually emerges in swarms as I tried to type. Hahaha! That’s the tropics for you!
    Both of you stay safe and know we love you and are sending out prayers to you and Egypt, even the ants!

    Keep us updated. Much love!

    • I look forward to your Tongan language post!

      That is a hilarious story about your laptop too! :P I guess this is one of those waste not, want not moments for the ants… :) Thanks for the prayers too!

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