Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ana mabsoota lamma ana be7ki arabi... sort of...

The moment you've all been waiting for is here. No, not the season finale of Mad Men. I'm finally going to devote the time to writing a post that has been in the works since my second week here: the joys of learning Arabic.

My continuing observation is that Arabic is a doozy of a language to learn. It's not just the backwards curlicue letters I had to memorize, though I'm not going to lie, those took a while. Because 1) you have to completely flip your brain around to start on the right side, which is a bit like an American trying to drive on the left side of the road, 2) all those silly little squiggles look alike and 3) those quirky worms change COMPLETELY depending on where they are in the word. All the fancy calligraphies they use here do not help in distinguishing that circle/line/wiggle with this circle/line/squiggle.

What makes reading Arabic even harder is that they LEAVE ALL THE FREAKING VOWELS OUT OF WORDS! Instead of true vowels, in Arabic they have "voices," called harakots. These voices tell you whether you should use an "a" sound, an "oo" sound or an "e" sound in between the consonants. And no one ever bothers to actually put them in words because they already know how the word is pronounced. I do not. It would be a bit like trying to pronounce English properly f w snck ll th vwls t f th lngge drng th nght (if we snuck all the vowels out of the language during the night).

Plus, if you want to type Arabic easily on cell phones or Facebook messages, you have to transliterate it into Latin letters. So it's basically like learning two different languages: one in a readable alphabet and one made of curled up bits of ribbon.

Actually, it's even more like learning two different languages because of all the different Arabics out there. There's fus-ha, which is the classical Arabic taught in schools and nearly completely useless if you want to be understood in the taxi. It's a bit like if someone jumped off the plane in rural West Texas and said, "Charming morning, good sir. Wouldst thou assist me in obtaining my belongings?" What I'm learning is amia, the spoken Arabic language of Jordan, which will be useless in any other Arabic-speaking country.

And don't get me started on the wacky conjugations this language employs. First of all, the infinitive is in the past tense. PAST TENSE! So no cheating like my mom did in France by using all infinitives. "I to have to go to eat now." And though I am getting better at figuring them out, to me the conjugations only bear the slightest resemblance to the original word. For example, long before we started conjugating verbs, our teacher taught us the word "btodros" means "you (masculine) study. While looking at another sentence, we came across the word "darast" and didn't know what it meant. "Well what word does it look like?" she asked. Apparently the answer was "btodros," though I'm definitely not seeing it. But yes indeedy, "darast" does in fact mean "you (masculine) studied." Weird.

Another fun fact about Arabic is that they don't just stick a fun "s" on the end of a word to make it plural. No, no, that would be much too simple. They actually have TWO different plurals for every noun. One plural means two of something, which you make by adding "een" or "teen" to the end of the word, and one plural that means three or more, which is usually a different word entirely. For example, "osboa3" is week, "osboa3een" is two weeks and "asabee3" is three or more weeks.

In the end, though, it will all be worth it. When Arabs speak Arabic, it is a beautiful language. All the sounds are subtle and flow gently like water over a stream. For some reason, when they speak, all the harsh sounds are swept into the other sounds so that it is still soft and musical.

When I speak, it sounds like I am coughing up a hairball. They have one "H" sound, similar to the French "R," that literally sounds like you are gagging. When Heather and I have to spell words, we call that sound "phlegm." As in spelling Ahmad: A... phlegm...

Ahmad the Dead Terrorist aside, we also have to pronounce a "Qa" sound from the back of the throat, possibly from somewhere near the rib cage. To do this, unhinge your jaw and drop it somewhere around your belly button while jutting out your chin, bugging your eyes out and doing a credible impression of saying "aaah" at the dentist's, only with a "Q." There's a breathless "H" sound that is more like a wheeze from an emphysema patient or perhaps Darth Vadar, and of course the guttural stop that sounds like someone just clapped a sweaty palm over your mouth mid-word with an audible pop.

But my two favorites are an "R" sound that sounds like the "GRA" sound a baby makes when it has just dumped dinner down its shirt and an "A" sound that is basically a nasalized, controlled yell. This war cry is tragically in what seems like half the words in the Arabic language.

So while Arabs get to sound smooth and cultured, we foreigners get to sound like we are slowly going criminally insane. EstAna DaEEaA. Ya tEEk AAAl AAAfia! I say hysterically to the taxi driver, imagining the men in white coats sneaking up behind me with a restraining jacket. "Quick grab her now! While she's in mid-wail!"

Should have stuck with being fluent in Texan.

No comments:

Post a Comment