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A Rambling Discourse on Language

June 20, 2012

A lovely little girl I met there.

I was in a small village in the Northern tip of South Africa.  Of South Africa’s eleven official languages, the people here spoke the most obscure: Tshivenda.  And, unlike the rest of South Africa I visited, the people here were not exposed to English at all: they didn’t have televisions, so no American movies, they didn’t have radios, so no American songs.   As for me, I knew exactly one word in Tshivenda before I met my host family: Makuuna, which translates to “white thing!”  It was what people shouted whenever they saw me.

Before I entered my host family’s plot of land, five or six small children of various states of undress and age came running towards me and my fellow (white) Americans.  They seemed excited to meet us; we were big news, the newest thing in their world.   I crouched down in the dusty lane to meet them.

“Hi!!!!” I said enthusiastically to the first child, only steps away.  I waved my hand in their faces to demonstrate the force of my happiness at meeting them.  “Hi! Hi!” I smiled as wide as I could.  “HIIIII!”  The children stopped and stared at me, suddenly wide eyed.  I stopped waving.  “Hi?” I said again, and they scattered, scrambling back the way they came.

Our guide and translator, a local, laughed.  Ruben rested a hand on my shoulder.  “Don’t take them personally,” he said, when he saw my bemused expression.  “In my language, ‘Hi’ means ‘No!’   You were shouting ‘No!’ at the children.  Over and over again.  Loudly.  They thought you were angry at them!”   The children stopped a fair distance away and cocked their heads at me.  Oh.  Well done, you insensitive American, you.

Language is a slippery thing, and we Americans have a distinct disadvantage compared to people of other nations when it comes to being able to communicate in multiple languages.  I think this is a pity.  Not only because it limits the American’s ability to express herself, but also because you think differently in different languages.  I was told by a friend who was fluent in both Chinese and English that he actually thought more collectively in Chinese- the language was more orientated towards expressing for the good of the group, when compared to English’s emphasis on individualism.  I don’t know how true this is: maybe it was simply his understanding of cultural values subtly and unconsciously imposing itself upon the languages. But I do know that different languages have different vocabulary focuses: the hackneyed example of Inuits having 30 different words for snow, for instance.  Or, my favorite linguistical phrase in French: poser un lapin.  Isn’t the idea of placing a bunny in front of a prospective date to stand them up adorable?  Why can’t English have idioms like that?

Language shapes the way you think, and shapes what you can think.  The most chilling part of Big Brother, for me at least, was Syme’s work on reducing the English language down into New Speak in order to limit the possibility for free thought or rebellion.

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten…  Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now.

Therefore, learning a new language actually gives you new ways in which to organize, codify and think about the world.  I also subscribe to this notion of language defining thought; this is why I praise the rapid expansion of English, whether through portmanteaus or neologisms or assimilating words from other languages.  I applaud the playful nature of Lewis Carroll with his Jabberwocky (a word recognized by this Microsoft dictionary, by the way).  I celebrate the Shakespearean penchant for making up words for the hell of it.  And I worship literature like Lolita, which I maintain is hardly about a man’s love for a little girl at all, but rather about a man’s (Nabokov’s) love for the written word.

He loved the English language,

And thus he wrote of sweet Lo

I loved the English language

And into his madness I go.

But I digress.

Much to my everlasting chagrin, I am no great shakes at any language besides English.  For me, language classes were always an exquisite blend of tedium punctuated with terror.  In front of the class I would clear my throat and try to bully my brain into slipping into the syntax and it would resolutely refuse to do so.  Stick to being articulate in one language, princess, my wayward brain would advise.  All of which is to say, that when I decided to learn Arabic, I knew that I was in for a challenge, living in Amman or no.

Let’s talk about Arabic, for a moment, from the perspective of one only versed in Germanic and Romance languages.  Arabic differs in these from the onset: its very mouth sounds require a different relationship between tongue, mouth and throat.  In Arabic, there are deep phonemes and shallow ones; whether one says “dad” or “dawd” completely changes which letter it is, د and ض respectively.  The hardest aspect of learning Arabic, at least in the beginning, is hearing the difference between a throat and mouth letter.  That and distinguishing- and pronouncing!- the haw of ح (like a cough) vs. the haa of ه (the English ‘H’ sound) vs. the Hebrew-sounding khaa خ.  And charmingly, there is no ‘p’ sound at all.  Anyone want a cool, refreshing Bepsi?  Not as good as Coke, of course, but it’s hot here at Betra.

Once you get beyond the foreign nature of the phonemes, there is then the ritualistic aspect of Arabic to untangle.  Unlike in English, where customary, polite exchanges can have variations, many Arabic phrases have one, specific correct phrase in response.  For instance, when I get out of the shower, my roommate says to “Nye-e-man.”  This celebrates and notes the fact that I am clean.  I am not supposed to thank her for saying this.  I am not supposed to say, “I’m all clean so you don’t hold your nose around me!” The only proper response is “Ynaam maliki.”  Likewise Ahlan wa sahlan is met with Ahlan fiik, Salamtik is met with alla –y-selmik.  The back and forth is lovely when you are in the know, but learning so many calls and responses is daunting.

Then there are the differences between FusHa and the local dialect, both with vocabulary used and how to pronounce words held in common.  Then as well, there is the fact that many young, educated Arabs today speak in a quick-paced blend of Arabic and English, with coinages such as “Yalla bye!”  Arabic can also be written in the Latin alphabet with numbers replacing some uniquely Arab sounds like the glottal stop of the “aiyn” ع which is written as a 3 in text messages and Facebook wall posts.  Thus not only does the patient foreigner have to learn which Arabic script letter refers to which sound, but also which Western letter or number corresponds in the modern reality of increasing interconnected globalization.

In short, Arabic deserves its reputation as a difficult language to learn.  But it is also an extremely rewarding one to know as well, and I feel that all of its quirks and permutations lend it a sort of charm.  And it’s nice to know enough, that when I talk to children, I can be sure that I am not accidently yelling “No!” when they are just trying to be friendly.

Little kids enjoying a stream on a hot day in the north of Jordan, near Ajloun castle.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Pauline permalink
    June 20, 2012 7:32 AM

    I think you\’re describing perfectly why I love to learn new languages. And why, once I know one well enough, I stop reading translated text and try to stick to the original – so much can be lost through translation (even when the translator is good). How are you learning arabic? Do you go to classes in Jordan?

    • June 21, 2012 3:28 AM


      Nice to hear from you. I am learning Arabic through classes here in Amman- first I took classes with the Modern Language Center, then switched to the Institut Francais (much better!). I am taking slang courses, known as ‘amiiya’ here, so I can communicate better, but took FusHA (formal) classes back in the States.

  2. Philip permalink
    June 21, 2012 11:02 AM

    “Why can’t English have idioms like that?” Oh, it does. We just don’t register their cuteness because they’re instinctive parts of the language.

    I’m glad you’re not shouting “no” at children in Arabic. I hope you let us know more about how your learning of the language is going as time goes on.

  3. Marvin, G's brother permalink
    June 24, 2012 12:24 PM

    “I am no great shakes at any language,” but with a little speare one can ask existential questions, in iambic verse or otherwise.

    English is a fox, not a hedgehog,

    There once was a girl named “Lo”
    Who intended to tell Humbert, “No,”
    But with judgment so formless
    She was practically gormless
    She decided to give him a go.

    Try translating that into Arabic.

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