a few words on Arabic

pt 1: The Classical

Arabic is a beautiful language, and also a difficult one. It’s grammar is quite complex, which is what makes the language so exact. For example, to refer to the 2nd person tense in English, a person would use ‘you’ in a number of different situations, whether talking to an individual or a group — e.g., ‘You are reading this blog’. While in Arabic, there are different forms for ‘you’ to refer to a singular male, singular female, dual male, dual female, a group of men or a mixed group, or an all-female group. Each one of these would be a different sentence, said using a different pronoun and a different conjugation of the verb. (In English you could add words to make the language more precise ‘You two, You all,’ etc, but in Arabic the exactness is intrinsic.)

Also, Arabic has many, many, many words, which makes it a very rich language and a beautiful one once you’ve mastered it, but which can also make it really difficult for a foreigner seeking to understand it. It seems like you’re never done with the dictionary, and there’s always a new word to learn. For example, in Arabic, there are something like ten different words for sleeping – to sleep heavily, to sleep lightly, to sleep during the day time, to nod off, to doze, etc – all have particular words that express each particular meaning. While in English, if you wish to specify ‘sleep’ in this manner, there is no one word that can convey it and you simply have to explain it. It is for this reason that Arabic is very powerful, and that translation is difficult. You may find that four or five adjectives are used in a sentence in Arabic, each having a slightly different connotation, but if you try to translate the sentence into English, you can only use one.

Also, there are different standards for eloquence in Arabic and in English. We find that in English, conciseness and directness are what make beautiful language (at least in the modern day); while in Arabic, descriptive, sort of flowery writing is what makes beautiful language.

However, another interesting thing about Arabic is that there is a lot of taqdeer, meaning that sometimes syntactical parts are not expressly written in a sentence if it’s understood between the speaker and the listener. It’s considered more eloquent to take out unnecessary, repetitive things from the language if they are understood. To give a simple example, you would say ‘the book is on the table’ instead of saying ‘the book is present on the table’, even though technically in terms of the grammar, the word ‘present’ is there, but implied and hidden away. I read a book a while back on Sibawayhi, the founding father of Arabic grammar (though interestingly enough he was not Arab), and it made an interesting point about how, in developing this method of grammar, he put a lot of emphasis on that live understanding between speaker and listener, on communication of ideas more than on technicality of syntax and that’s why he formalized taqdeer.

(The Arabic Gems blog has short anecdotes that describe some of these beautiful and interesting qualities of the language. (link is on the right of the pg)

When you begin to study these things and you start to see the combination of the powerful words used in the Quran and the subtle complexities of its grammar, and the real meaning that that conveys, it’s really mind blowing and you start to get a very deep appreciation for what this Book contains. Subhan’Allah, and if we feel this way as people who are just beginning to understand the nuances of the language, what about those who were its very masters, the ancient Arabs whose words and poetry are used as evidences today for the basic principles of grammar? For them, for whom language was really their talent and their joy, the Quran must have been such a humbling and awe-inspiring thing.

pt 2: The Colloquial

Arabic is an ancient language, and the foundational texts of Islam, the Quran, the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) and the classical books of Islamic scholarship (as well as most things in written form even until today), are all in classical Arabic. But what’s developed over time (a natural consequence of the language being spread to so many different peoples and over such a long period of time) are dialects that differ widely from one another. For example, in Syria, they tend to prefix present tense verbs with an ‘m’ – so ‘aktub’ (I’m writing) becomes ‘amaktub’ (I’m mwriting :). They also tend to slant their a’s, so instead of saying ‘mawjoodah’, they say ‘mawjoodayyy’. They drop the Qaf (Q sound) from the language and replace it was a hamza (short ‘a’ sound) so ‘qalb’ becomes ‘alb’. All of these things tend to make it difficult for the average foreign student studying classical Arabic to understand the average Syrian, and almost impossible to understand the taxi drivers who really seem to have a language of their own 🙂

It’s also so difficult to try to express yourself in a new language. It’s frustrating to have to articulate what may be a deep or meaningful idea in a sentence construction that a child would use… As someone who really likes language and writing, and appreciates beautiful words, I find it really confining… and I pray that Allah (swt) blesses me with eloquence and ease in Arabic.

You’ll also make a lot of mistakes… especially when you’re upset. I remember trying to get a new pair of glasses made here, and the shopkeeper messed up big time on the prescription. (We wrote out the numbers in Arabic and in English for him, and he still got it wrong.). In the end he kept trying to lay the blame on us, when actually he was the one that was mistaken. I kept telling the man, “La la la, anta khata… anta khata…” At the time, I thought that I was saying “No no, you are mistaken” but actually what I kept repeating was “You are a mistake”… lol 🙂

So it’s when emotions are high that you really began to appreciate having a native language, in which you can really express yourself and articulate your feelings and thoughts clearly. It’s an everyday blessing that we often overlook. Allah (swt) says in the Quran, “‘ allamahu al-bayaan“, that Allah has taught us clear, articulate, intelligent speech, that’s understood between us. Definitely something to be grateful for…

Published in: on April 27, 2007 at 10:47 am  Comments (8)