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Fun with words or why I love Arabic

‘Somebody once said that every Arabic word means itself, its opposite or a camel.’  The professor I was trying to impress threw cold water on this vision of the language I had chosen to study: ‘Very funny, but not true’. Sigh.

I owed the quote to Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Arabist and travel-writer known as the sage of Sana’a. He had indeed tickled my fancy with his, Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land, in which ‘there was a zabab, “a messenger” or possibly “a huge deaf rat”, while in the distance grazed a na’amah, “an ostrich” although it might have been “a signpost”, “a pavilion on a mountain” or even “a membrane of the brain”’.

I went on to discover the huge chasm between this surreal literary Arabic and the spoken language of everyday use. I learnt that there was little chance of meeting anyone who wanted to chat about camels, and that whilst ‘Modern Standard Arabic’ is indispensable if you want to read anything and will give you a good grounding for any dialect, rocking up at Damascus airport and using it to direct the taxi driver to the hostel was tantamount to quoting Sheikh Speare (as our favourite language teacher liked to call him) to a London cabbie. But it was not all disappointing; I did have some fun with words.

Complementary compliments

A word game which Arabophones take very seriously is that of out-complimenting one’s interlocutor, a variation on the ‘no-I-love-you-more-no-you-get-off-the-phone-first’ of loved-up couples. Whilst much of Arabic conversation is plain sailing, you need to beware of conversational jet-streams. In these dangerous waters everything suddenly goes a shade of formulaic, you cannot back-paddle but must say certain things and if your sincerity is in any doubt you must repeat your sentiments with ever more feeling until someone runs out of nice things to say and backs down.

It might go something like this. You’re trying to make conversation with a new acquaintance and permit a harmless, ‘your watch is nice,’ to escape your lips. The watch-wearer will earnestly reply, ‘I’ll give it to you’, and begin to unfasten it. You, of course not coveting the watch, must quickly intone that, ‘it’s more beautiful on its owner’, to which the correct response is, ‘your eyes are the beautiful ones …’ And so on.

Master these formulae and you’ll give the impression of being powerful, witty, ‘you have a way with words’; get them wrong and you’ll have an arm full of watches and feel as silly as the birthday girl who says happy birthday back to her party guests. As I felt when I realised the answer to, ‘do you want anything else?’ (a standard sign-off to any meeting or telephone conversation) was not a grateful and unassuming, ‘no, thank you’, but a concerned and supportive, ‘your health!’

Breaking plurals

But neither a coward nor a flatterer, I naturally prefer the game of breaking plurals. Sounds painful. It’s actually good fun. In Arabic some plurals are formed by adding the ending ūn or īn to the masculine, and āt to the feminine singular. These are called ‘sound plurals’. They’re rather boring for the linguist. ‘Broken plurals’, on the other hand—and they are in the majority—are formed by breaking up the letters in the singular form and putting them back together with different vowels. For example, the word for camel (if you’re lucky enough to see one) is jamal, which, in the unlikely event of a plurality of camels (and we’re talking about more than two because Arabic has a different way of talking about pairs), becomes jimāl. The macron (the line over the a) indicates a long vowel.

A more probable bāb (door) becomes many abwāb, bayt (house) becomes biyūt, medīna (city) mudun, and the daftar (notebook, all good language students carry one) breaks into dafātir in the plural. As you can imagine, there are patterns for broken plurals (hence the notebook) but no hard and fast rules for what follows what, so uttering a good, correctly broken plural is a mark of familiarity with the language.

A game of loans

But you’ll be glad to know that correctness is of little importance in this game. The fun starts when you break a non-Arabic noun into a plural because, in a sense, your guess is as good as mine. Arabic speakers frequently throw into conversation foreign words like ‘computer’—usually pronounced combuter since the Arabic alphabet does without the letter ‘p’. Language learners are notorious for this: anything that doesn’t spring to mind in Arabic, just say it in English and the result is arabizi. It’s easy! (Arabic for English is inglizi. Think Frenglish.)

Whilst loan words are typically pluralised in Arabic as sound plurals (combuterāt), it’s much more fun to go for a broken plural. You’ve got the hang of the kinds of ways a noun breaks to form a plural so you chose a likely mutation from several options. This depends on your being able to treat the noun as though it were Arabic, which is tricky if it’s long (like computer) because Arabic words are based on three or four root letters. Since many borrowings are well established or, as linguists would say, ‘assimilated’ into Arabic, no one chuckles if you’re finding out which aflām are on at the cinema, deciding between a number of designer jawākit to wear, or you need to refuel but there are too many other muwātir at the petrol station. But, for some reason, breaking an entirely new plural always makes people laugh. Most damage, and therefore hilarity, occurs when you’re talking about things back home for which Arabic equivalents, if they exist at all, do not carry the full nuance of meaning. Start describing the cottages in your English village as kowātij, or is it kitāj (following the camel pattern?), the picnics (bikānik / bikānuk, the choice is yours), the scowānin (or does scnūn sound better?) with cream and jam that you crave, and the blikūberry you pick in late summer (when really you could just say blackberryāt and be done with it) and people will laugh with you, understanding that you’re just enjoying words. And that you miss home.

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