Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Adventures in Arabic

arabic, beauty, language
Recently, I decided to learn Arabic. Why? There's just something about those curlycued letters, the combination of gutteral consonents and singing vowels that appeals to me. Besides, amost 200,000,000 people speak Arabic, so it might come in handy someday.

So, I borrowed a copy of Rosetta Stone and set to work. These are my notes from the first week:

Day 1: After an hour with that program, I can tell you exactly why Middle Easterners all know English: once you've learned Arabic, any other language is a breeze. Heck, they probably all learn English by watching a week's worth of Judge Judy.

This is what I remember: (all Arabic words transliterated badly)
welladoon: boy
bintoon: girl
regulan: man
edgerrin: run

And I couldn't even begin to spell those. Honestly, I was sitting there looking at the words thinking, "I think the one with the two bunnies in it is the plural for boys. What's up with the smilie face?"

Day 2: I think maybe I should learn "I'm a total idiot, so I hope you speak English" first. The way this is going, I'm likely to be involved in an international incident if I actually try speaking to someone from the Middle East. It's very frustrating. I picked up Spanish so quickly. Of course, Spanish uses (mostly) the same alphabet, but still.

Day 3: I was watching al Jazeera videos in Arabic yesterday, and I came across this one where people were demonstrating, and some of them were holding signs that said "Go America Go". Of course, to an American, that's a sports chant: Go, Eagles, Go!, so I thought maybe they were cheering us on in the World Cup or something. Then they were singing "Go America Go", but the song sounded happy to me, so I thought they really were happy to see us go up against Brazil.

Then they started burning American flags.

Not cheering us on in soccer after all, I guess.

i really want to go to the middle east and help them with their signage. "oh, no, ahmed, you want to say 'Go away, America' not 'Go, America, go.' "

Day 4: i had a breakthrough: I realized that arabic is written in cursive. oddly, this realization helped me a lot. i also figured out how to pause the program so i can listen to pronunciations over and over and over again. i think i'm getting that glottal stop down. (in reality, i probably have the worst accent in all of history, but i'm trying.)

Day 5: Today I realized 2 things:

1) arabic does not have singular and plural, they have singular, dual and plural. for every noun.

2) in arabic, verbs are conjugated according to the gender of the subject. so, if i want to say something swims, it's a different word depending on whether the girl swims or the boy swims.

i start to cry.

Day 6: today i learned that there are no capital letters in arabic. good news: i don't have to learn to recognize letters twice! however, there's so many random dots and slashes (representing vowels) splashed everywhere, i can't tell where sentences end. is that a vowel marker, a period, wtf is going on? and what is up with the smiley face?

Day 7: I tried livemocha, and it seems very similar to Rosetta Stone. I suspect that LM is teaching a modern form of Arabic (maybe egyptian), whereas RS teaches classical Arabic. I suspect this because livemocha teaches girl as "bint", whereas Rosetta Stone teaches girl as "bintoon".

I also learned that I am apparently traffic-stoppingly gorgeous to middle eastern men. Using a not-very-great picture of myself, within 3 hours I had 54 "friends", 53 of them men. Who all want me to help them with their english. or something.

I had no idea middle easterners were so friendly!


  1. Your day 7 speculation is correct. It does appear that LM is teaching colloquial Arabic, while RS is teaching Classical (or at least Modern Standard Arabic). The difference between bint and bintoon is that of the case ending, where -"oon" (this is properly transliterated -un) is the nominative (mostly) case ending.

  2. edgerrin: run

    [football geek]
    I guess that explains why Edgerrin James is a Running Back. It's good to see his parent's high expectations paying off.
    [/football geek]

  3. Those 53 men might not just be there to help you with your Arabic.

    [/boringly obvious hint]

    Seriously though, I'd rather stick a fishhook under my eyelid than try to learn Arabic. First languages I'd learn if my damn Rosetta Stone actually *worked* (damn thing won't install) would either be Latin (cuz it's cool to insult people in a tongue they'll never understand), or Japanese (I just like it, can't explain why – plus then I could watch Princess Mononoke in its original language and understand what they're saying without the cruddy Americanized dub. Yay!).

    Good luck!

  4. I can't believe I missed that, Comradh! (I am such a football geek, too.)

    Joe: Latin is tough, too, but it does use the same alphabet as English, and you can't be wrong on pronunciation. It is a dead language, after all.

  5. bint? really, that's quite funny.

  6. "Bint" is simply due to the way Semitic languages work. For most roots, adding the suffix -t makes a word feminine. Hence, "bin" is son or boy, hence the reason it often appears in Arabic names.

  7. Yeah I get that, just as an english speaker I get cheap laughs out of seeing insults as common words in other languages.

  8. The Hubby actually went to school with a man from China who changed his name because it was "fuk yoo". no lie.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. There is an urban legend that says that "Gringo" means "Green Go." I was told that British soldiers wore green, and when Americans were trying to ditch them, they wrote on city walls, "Greens Go."

    I doubt the veracity of that story, but it may explain why gringo is such a derogatory term. In my country, all foreigner Caucasians are referred to as "gringos."

  11. Unfortunately the first thing you need to decide when learning Arabic is which form you want to learn. Classical Arabic (or rather "Modern Standard Arabic", or MSA as they called it when I was studying) is used for TV, radio, and pretty much all writing. The modern dialects are drastically different both from MSA and from each other. The modern dialects are somewhat grammatically simpler (they don't have the case system which MSA has retained, for example, and the verb system is somewhat simpler), but you do need to choose a specific one. Any one region's dialect is barely intelligible elsewhere.

    It's a complex language but a fascinating one. Good luck!

  12. My step sister learned Arabic in a military immersion program, and even she says if it hadn't ben for that program she might have never learned the language. It is that hard.

  13. Arabic sounds hard. It's a good thing the US military keeps firing gay Arabic linguists under Don't Ask Don't Tell.

  14. Yeah, Fannie, we wouldn't soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to understand the local language, would we?

  15. Lorena:

    There's almost no way that story is accurate.

    The British were much better known as "redcoats" during the colonial period from, well, the red coats they wore. Camouflage was a non-existent issue for the militaries of the day who were more concerned with being able to tell where their units were and which units weren't theirs. There's no British uniform I know of that wouldn't have been described as primarily red. I believe the dragoons had green trim, but they wouldn't have been called "green" and wouldn't have been singled out over any other British units.

    So, um, sorry...


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