Arabic is a subtle language with a script that flows from right to left one millimeter at a time. Arabic sounds originate from vocal chord to the tip of the tongue, each brings slight variations in tone, in duration — these determine intent, what you seek to share. Meaning relies on accurate spoken and written construction.
It’s also a shape-shifter. Each letter may morph in four ways — a single letter may assume four forms, yet remain as unambiguously and reliably distinguishable as a pattern-matching schema. Examine the Arabic letter nunn (“n”):
Arabic describes those slight but significant sound variations with a dozen diacritical marks, then it permits one to double those diacritics when ambiguity threatens to destroy the intended meaning.
Yes, Arabic has an impressive set of tools. Here are a few:
It sets a meter with musical aspects. Each sound may extend in duration by holding a tone twice or three times as long. It’s really much like reading a piece of sheet music, a musical score.
It has tools for creating calligraphic expressions that allow each writer to break away — to proceed beyond a ceiling-line and below a floor-line. By comparison, Latin-based alphabets seem designed with confinement in mind, something designed with the chisel in mind. Keep within the lines, please. The Romans manipulated numbers borrowed from their alphabet. You can count to 100 in Roman numerals before encountering a curved figure.
Did you know that Arabic vocabulary is context sensitive? Language environments are dynamic places, words adapt to merge with the spirit and the moment and the intent — not the other way around. Translations that do not recognize context contort meaning, they must be challenged. Twisting words to serve agendas is a dark art.
The English language uses a different set of tools, different metrics that root into the soil of a different geography.
Language has brought me opportunities to remove borders. A thorough understanding of the German language (my second language) permits me to learn Arabic from a teacher who has likewise learned German as her second language. There’s something breathtaking about acquiring a third language without the unnecessary baggage of my mother tongue. Something very humbling and very satisfying.
Western Civilization celebrates roots that extend to the Eastern Mediterranean, a body of water once surrounded by the Roman Empire. When that empire imploded, the power vacuum filled the remnant structure with fresh blood. One such pulsing corpus was Christianity — one authored by a former Roman citizen: Saul before his metamorphosis. There is no compelling historical evidence to suggest that Peter coauthored with Paul in Rome. I agree with Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby: The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity for the argument that Peter had traveled to the east as far as Baghdad, but he had never ventured west of Palestine. The Roman Catholic Church relies upon an apostolic rock, but she freely admits that its reality anchors on Tradition and the Magisterium — historical facts notwithstanding.
The Eastern Mediterranean coastline describes the shortest path between Africa and Eurasia. An incomparable piece of real estate, not what I would call a swamp, though some have: Unfortunately, It Was Paradise. Palestine is sacred soil for the three monotheistic faiths that declare solemn roots at that Eastern confluence, that Holy Land, that stomping grounds of patriarch Ibrahim. Although Ishmael was Ibrahim’s eldest son, he was also the “illegitimate” son of a slave girl known by Ishmael’s father. Isaac was the “legitimate” son of non-enslaved Sara. Islam recognizes Ishmael as the elder son of Ibrahim.
You can read about it in a Qur’an near you. In fact, you may find any number of interpretations freely available online. However, I recommend that you consider an interpretation carefully. My personal copy is a translation by Abdel Haleem: The Qur’an.
I attended an interfaith program that included a local well respected and knowledgeable Imam. A seething attendee slammed his personal copy of “The Holy Koran” onto the table. His question: “Do you know what this book says?” The Imam responded: “It depends upon the translation.” Would you accept a Bible translation that recounts the poisoning of the loaves, the tainting of the wine?
Radical Google® Searches
“Radical Christian Terrorism” (About 9,310 results (0.66 seconds) )
Native Americans, African Americans, and Palestinians share something that Northern Europeans do not: a skin too red, too black or too olive (a characteristic of humans from the sun-rich climate.
That’s an unforgivable crime if racism is your touchstone. Why are Biblical personalities depicted with impossibly Northern European features, such as blue eyes, fair skin, an athletic countenance? Who were the original authors of the Torah, the Bible, the Qur’an? Is that a loaded question? They were Semitic peoples who spoke Semitic languages.
Why does Islam honor Ishmael? What did he do to deserve exile? The Judeo-Christian tradition honors Isaac. What’s up with that? I’ll check that out and get back to you, I have to get to the dirty dishes first, they’re over there in the sink.
Nota bene: The wilder the spurious translation of the Qur’an, the wider is it circulated, the ever endless is it immortalized by false witnesses.
Making stuff up to stoke an agenda is dishonest. It weakens your credibility. Just saying.
A firsthand account of a hearing challenge, one told in the first person. That’s what. Hello in there, hello.
Simone: I know you’re right, Pee-wee, but…
Pee-wee: But what? Everyone I know has a big “But…? C’mon, Simone, let’s talk about *your* big “But”.
Before opting for a $400 pair of hearing aids, I asked some friends and relatives if they were happy with a pair of ear inserts, ones that had cost twice as much as the shiny new automobile I purchased in 1973 (an AMC Gremlin if you must know). Each wearer had a big but that for one reason or ‘tother, so I just kept on mishearing words — mis-heards that made me the butt of many an “Are you deaf?” joke. My sister-in-law works with the elderly, she recognized the dynamic, remarking that many who mishear are falsely diagnosed as suffering from “dementia”.
Oliver Sacks, the sorely missed independent thinker, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times that captures his personal experience with hearing loss: “Mishearings.” A timely take on the mind’s capacity for assigning meaning to spoken language.
And yet there is often a sort of style or wit — a “dash ”— in these instantaneous inventions; they reflect, to some extent, one’s own interests and experiences, and I rather enjoy them. Only in the realm of mishearing — at least, my mishearings — can a biography of cancer become a biography of Cantor (one of my favorite mathematicians), tarot cards turn into pteropods, a grocery bag into a poetry bag, all-or-noneness into oral numbness, a porch into a Porsche, and a mere mention of Christmas Eve a command to “Kiss my feet!”
Hearing loss had removed many unfortunate sounds: the song of birds, the snores of Loki the Cat, the sussurance of the familiar, the soothing and the calming. However, at this very moment I am listening to the sharp, measured and deliberate crunches Loki is making — less than a meter away.
I am able to attend Arabic language classes at the local masjid once again, to actually understand the critical meanings lost to mishearings. It’s wonderful to join in with a measure of confidence that was quite impossible before 🙂
Now here is an unexpected but welcome circumstance: turning the devices off stills the din, the conical insert even acts as an earplug of sorts.
Now I jump into a wild cacophony of sound with a grateful soul. According to the instruction manual, it’s a gradual process that takes a bit of patience. I’ve only worn them for a week now, so my mind is still refreshing the inventory of sounds unheard for many years: floorboards squeak, a wall clock clicks with each passing second (I’ve timed it!) and my feet make a sweeping sound on a carpet.
At its largest extent, the Roman Empire surrounded Middle Earth, literally “The Mediterranean.”
In the parlance of social media, the Romans SHOUTED all their written words — minuscules would not arrive to soften the literal commotion until the 7th Century. Latin seems suited for chiseling into stone, mostly with straight lines that run from left to right. It’s not easy to curve while chiseling your way along a flat rock-face. A glance at the English alphabet reveals that individual letters also run from left to right, letters such as B D E F K L P R
The letter “J” is quite the exception. It’s one reason that some school children do this:
That letter never appears in Roman imperial inscriptions, nor did U, nor did W.
K, Y and Z were adopted to accommodate Greek vocabulary. They are not the Etruscan uttering way. Nay, they ain’t.
Let’s look at a language that appeals to my left-handedness. It’s quite a relief to see my writing as I write. Arabic was not designed with a chisel in mind. The language begins with cursive in mind, not a bland sequence of letters imprisoned within imaginary boxes, then proclaimed “words.”
My last post looked at a procrustean camel, an animal led to the eye of a needle by dint of faulty translation. Why are mistranslations carved into stone? Do not allow your metaphors to become stilted, clunky, confusing and hackneyed. That’s what I say.
Well, Arabic comes equipped with a J-sound. In fact, it’s standard equipment. However, the language does not permit a “P” letter, so please apply a “B” for words like Paris: call it Baris and learn to live with it. Palestine never needed a “P” because that name is an imposition anyway: they are the Philistines. Arabic comes equipped with an “F” sound.
Instead of imaginary boxes, Arabic allows for up to four ways to write each letter of the alphabet. Learners of this language and readers of the Qur’an receive the gift of ten diacritical marks to aid the learning process in a clean and coherent manner. Should you ever decide to tackle Arabic, this is handy indeed. Those marks reveal the sound one millimeter at a time; however, once you become comfortable and confident with the words you can dispense with diacriticals altogether — you’ll recognize the pattern and you won’t need the training wheels.
Returning to the Romans for a moment: would you ever wish to return to Roman numerals once you’ve learned the efficacy of Arabic numerals? The word “cipher” in English is from the Arabic word for “zero”:صفر
Here is a tip for my readers who consider learning German or Arabic: if you can pronounce Cincinnati you can pronounce صفر (sifr). Just pedanting.
Learning languages removes artificial separations between cultures and lifestyles. Those separations take the form of borders, walls and prejudice. In their stead you acquire perspectives that remove each border, wall and prejudice. They serve the minions of geopolitical advantage and the clarion to endless war, endless confusion and endless imprisonment. Producing propaganda is criminal activity. Always. Whatever your intention.
And go vegan while you’re at it. No sentient being benefits by closing the book on the Anthropocene 🙂
“Those who know Arabic are jinn among humans, they can see what nobody else can. Imam Shafii
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
— Matthew 19:24 (NIV)
You know this Bible quote. I am certain you’ve seen it countless times. It might be your favorite chapter and verse. But why a camel? Well, ‘camel’ is a misnomer — a mistranslation immortal. The intended object was ‘rope’, specifically a thick twisted rope: a hawser.
Which is the more eloquent simile:
it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…
it is easier to thread a hawser through the eye of a needle…
Why is this obviousity never mentioned?
The Bible Hub, an online resource for Bible scholars, provides English language variants for every chapter and verse, among them Matthew 19:24. Click that link to compare 28 translations regarding a rich guy’s odds of entering the Kingdom of God.
Mistranslations are the coin of many a realm, perhaps this one most appropriately so. I am hardly the first to learn, two millennia after the coin was struck, that the writer intended something comparable to a thread.
What is the camel doing in the sewing kit with the needles and threads anyway? The original metaphor roots in Aramaic language, one of the Semitic languages that use consonantal roots to convey meaning:
Each of us originates in the bubble that is the womb, and proceeds into a larger bubble — a system of approved myths inherited upon birth. Mythical systems accrete over the centuries, they become the stuff of culture, of family, of traditions — of a certain mythos. Xenophobia is a fear of the foreign mythos, the strange, the other-wordly.
You’re talking about the dregs of society who have a way at doling off the rest of us. Not in our neighborhood, Bill.
Three monotheistic religions spring from myths. The triad started with the patriarch Ibrahim’s sexual relations with that woman (Sara) and with that woman (Hagar). Ibrahim stands atop an isosceles triangle, isosceles because Judaism and Christianity are more familiar with each other, they are the points at respective ends of the shorter line of the triangle. Together, they celebrate something called a Judeo-Christian tradition.
Bill, have you ever heard of a Judeo-Islamic tradition, a Christo-Islamic tradition? Hang out with scimitar lovers and you’ll die by the sword. Live safe or die, that’s our motto.
The progeny of Isaac and Ishmael revere their father Ibrahim, but they do not visit the mother of the other. A brother discarded at birth becomes a grotesque creature during centuries of banishment.
My birth certificate states that its described birth was “legitimate” — that I am not a bastard. Legitimate and illegitimate bring baggage to the children thus belittled. Do they not? Are there any possible connotations that suggest “bastard” might be a loaded word?
Takes one to know one, bastard. Your father was probably born in Kenya, too. We’d like to see if your birth certificate has an “il” erasure. Just the facts, man. Just the facts.
Yesterday was “Columbus” Day, it was also “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” Columbus myths are more important to its proponents than Columbus facts. Fortunately for them, those who favor myth have techniques such as confirmation bias to keep the 25th suggestion for an Indigenous Peoples Day safely at bay.
I listened to a disquieting interview yesterday with author Carol Delaney on her book Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem. Delaney offered much more than a standard defense of Columbus Day, she accurately and disturbingly connected the dots that most Columbus proponents ignore. In other words, Ishmael be damned.
She proudly connected those dots to illuminate an ambition far larger than a couple continents — the apparent need for never ending condemnation of Islam in polite company. Forever and ever, amen.
A few salient points on population movement:
The expulsion of Jews from Spain was completed in 1492, the expulsion of Muslims was completed in 1609.
The ethnic cleansing in the Americas began in 1492
The Inquisition in Spain was already underway in 1492
There still exists a longing nostalgia for the Crusades today
The Crusades are yet described as purely a matter of self-defense.
The sacred myth informs the non-indigenous that Columbus was a faithful Italian Catholic tasked with restoring Jerusalem to Christendom — or at least Judeo-Christendom — through a two-speared operation, from the east as well: completing the aims of the Crusades and the object of the Inquisition.
Columbus stumbled onto a foothold role that established ports for the grim slavers to reap the benefit of clockwise flowing ocean currents. These currents were perfect for purposes of logistic maximization. Cargo circuits brought plentiful human resources from Africa to “get the job done” in a properly fulsome manner. After emptying human cargo at the ports of Columbine discovery, they could deadhead those empty craft and load up bipeds in Western Africa. A logistical marvel of the first order.
Portugal supplied missionaries to convert indigenous peoples surrounding the Amazon, pacification brought us Brazil, Spain pretty much tamed the rest of what is now known as Latin America. Access to pagans made possible by craven Conquistadors who rammed through the soft underbelly of the western portions of North America to the wealth of California and the expanse of Texas.
Does it matter a whit that the colonizers spring from European stock, possess Caucasian physiognomy, have a skin color not tanned by either the sun or made golden under a set of purple ultraviolet ray emitters?
You were probably offended by that Dove advertisement that got all you political correctors lathered. What’s wrong with being white? To the victors go the spoils. Says it all. That’s all you need to know, all there is to know. Get with the program or take the next flight out.
Some decades ago I read the confessions of a language fanatic — she was unapologetic about toting foreign language books to the beach. I have not been able to find that article on the internet, actually any article about readers who find escape that way, now my interest really piques.
Speaking of piquing, here is a peek at two vacationers who look upon language references as beach books, but they’ve chosen different dictionaries to read. That’s what I do — just ask Lisa. Last minute check before leaving the house: have I packed enough language tomes?
I’ve affixed Arabic-alphabet stickers to my keyboard to make life easier — electronic text editors know how to connect the letters correctly and smoothly. However it is important to write by hand while learning Arabic, it’s akin to hiding the calculator while memorizing multiplication tables.
Left-handers are accustomed to covering up what they write as they write, so it’s revealing to actually see my writing without contorting my writing hand. Calligraphic design is already demanding work. The Roman alphabet is as clumsy as Roman numerals, isn’t it? They did not even have minuscules available to lighten things up, perhaps they just liked to SHOVT a lot. Well, it is true, to paraphrase John Cleese, that they had an empire to run. There is that.
Methinks their alphabet was fashioned with stone-chiseling in mind.
As a left-handed calligraphic hobbyist I have to lift my hand frequently to know what is happening. Arabic calligraphy flows from designs inherent in the alphabet. Rather than arranging letters chosen from A to Z, you recognize the minute detail that permits extravagantly wild art with unambiguous pen strokes. This allows the pen wielder to proceed without limit, a dot or two or three makes everything explicable.
However you’ll experience heightened subtlety when you include the ten diacritical marks available in Arabic script. Reading a text that contains the full range of marks gives the writer and the reader a means of communication faithful and considerate of each.
These ten marks are omitted in normal written communication. The small fonts selected for most published works also make text too busy. How do you critically distinguish letters and words if diacriticals are in the way. Once you have seen an Arabic word a hundred times it is hardly necessary to bludgeon a reader with something she already understands quite well.
Of course this is why those marks only appear in scriptural texts or instructional language books. Clarity is critical, each and every millimeter of the way. The author cannot assume that a reader has seen each word hundreds of times already. I personally recommend acquiring the incomparable Sugar comes from Arabic.
Back to Wehr. Arabic is based upon a system of roots: constant consonantal characters in a specific sequence: A SaFaRi into the SaHaRa. The most useful Arabic-English dictionaries are organized by root. Looking up those roots is not easy for a beginner. Now there are ingenious online sources and mobile apps available to grease the learning process.
Learn from your mistakes. I often encouraged my German students that way —the learner who makes the most mistakes gets the most gold stars 🙂
When you announce your vegan beliefs expect incredulity, perhaps not visceral, perhaps visceral. Make public your support of Palestinians to self-determination and expect raw nerves to flare — it comes with the territory. Or am I tilting at windmills? Why must Palestine be a verboten topic?
Misunderstanding happens to “the least of these, my brethren” (Matthew 25:34). I mentioned recently that I am the green sheep in the family. Do I hold a lightning rod aloft, inviting impending doom? I guess.
I live in an area of the country noted for its borders — political, racial, climatic, geomorphic, social: there are others. Our planet does not need more division and more rancor. Welcome the green, the black and the rainbow. Welcome the stranger.
Languages fascinate me intensely. Learning them lightens my spirit and dispels an illusory separation. We are all one. I lived and studied in Germany, a country that knows something of borders — their erection and their dissolution. Loving languages is a joy that requires patience, but it rewards that patience by several orders of magnitude. Or is it a waste of time, a conceit if you already speak THE international language — one dipped in the blood of imperious arrogance. Just saying. Colonialism is not dead. Were that it were.
My intense interest in the Middle East began in 1967 when I began to seriously study its physical, cultural and religious geography. Study makes friends of pain and joy. I was living in West Germany in 1972, at the time of an ill-fated Olympics in Munich. Stasi was still going strong in East Germany. That same year I learned about Savak and the Shah of Iran from my fellow exchange students of the University of Tehran — a full seven years before the revolution in their ancient land, one with the longest continuous civilization in history, one that started with Cyrus the Great. Many cool people are Persian. Yes they are 🙂
Perhaps this is an overlong preface to my topic. I hope not, but please accept my apology if it is.
Let me meld two curiously similar joys and pains — veganism and Palestine. Mix them together and you have The Palestinian Animal League. That kind group of animal activists knows that “acting like an animal” is an expression to deflect misbehavior of a specie with an overdeveloped ego that imposes their self-righteous “superiority” to the innocent fellow sentient beings possessing inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, though it be inexpedient to the self-described exceptional.
We’re not the top dog, we are the arrogant yapping selfish being that always takes advantage. Are we not a part of the cycle of life? Who made us the boss? What is the difference between cannibalism and meatism? I suggest that the difference between eating the flesh of your own and eating the flesh of an other is as trivial as the difference between apples and oranges — both are fruit. Human flesh and the flesh of any other sentient being — both are meat.
Let me now lighten the burden of writing. I yield the pen to The PAL. They know more about themselves than I. Expect joy.
My last detour took us to a Picnic (pique-nique in French) in 1934 Grange, Pennsylvania. Here is a footnote to that previous post has ended up in the opening paragraph for this post. You may not have wondered about the Yiddish word shtick . It’s from the German noun Stück (a piece).
What’s your shtick, Bill?
Yakking on about different ways to yak away.
There is just something exhilarating about learning languages. Here are three (3) remarkable benefits:
erase borders and, if fortune favors,
become less baffled
We’re glad that you are taking a safari into the Sahara. Please tell us less.
Root letters in Arabic do something quite curious. They occur in an ordained order. Here is a root you may have noticed in the title — SFR. Arabic dictionaries segment meaning through a root system. Grab that Arabic dictionary over there and flip away until you’ve encounter SFR, see below.
Don’t forget to read from right to left.
Bill, are you going to tell us about a book that teaches Arabic with aplomb?
I want to share how much Sugar Comes from Arabic by Barbara Whitesides helped me master Arabic, and have a rollicking time at the same time. It’s an amazingly beautiful ring-bound volume that is simply delightful. As with all my reviews, I just want to pass on good words for great works. It’s what teachers do.
Calligraphy is one of those hobbies I’ve hobbled through with my left-hand. Now I can’t overestimate the unexpected thrill of gently pulling the pen along my paper — no plowing into the paper, or covering up writing while writing. You may have noticed that English is written from left-to-right.
Let us consider prefixes, suffixes and diacritical marks. Hey you say, there are bunches of words having such and much to do with “travel” in Arabic — words like safari.Hey I say, the Arabic root for desert is SHR. Technically, the Sahara Desert suggests Desert Desert. Here is a fun web page for those wanting yet another resource on Arabic verb forms.
Well that was breathtakingly tedious, but we needed to yawn in order to dispel stale air. But you were heading into a desert, please proceed.
This pal o’ mine is a refugee of Nakba 1948. By various twists of synchronicity he found his way to one of my German classes, intent on reading a bit of the curious language.
A capital stroke of good fortune — a safari if you will. And so did it begin. I said “look my friend, if you are willing to learn some German I could at least learn some Arabic.”
Arabic script is daunting at first. I compare its foundation in the arts and sciences to the Roman alphabet: Arabic script is to the Latin alphabet what Arabic numerals are to Roman numerals.
A qualitative difference?
Take a Roman number. Calculate its root. Let’s take the most important number of all time 42 (XLII). Let me know when you have an answer. Show all work.
Nevertheless, Roman civil engineers achieved the splendor of the arch and its keystone cap.
I bet you didn’t know Farsi from Arabic at first.
That is actually correct. I looked at Persian and thought the pairing would be simple — like switching to Dutch from German. Well, a well of Arabic words exist in Farsi, but Farsi is not based on the root system, a method residing at the very foundation of Arabic. It’s closer to English that way. Rootless.
Well well well. WTF is a root system?
Consonants that appear in a certain order to suggest meaning. The word ‘safari‘ has roots od SFR. Place some prefixes, suffixes and a few vowel sounds here and there. You’ll discover vocabulary treasures relating to ‘travel’ one way or another.
Why did your pal bleed from the ears?
Not just my friend — most of my students. Encounters with German involve a crazy grammar that most German students to long for escape (The Great Escape). Though toddlers who drop every dread adjective ending perfectly every day — imagine tossing a deck of cards into the air and thinking them into well sequenced suits.
What’s the deal with Arabic grammatical gender?
Look for a taa marbuta at the end of a noun — it’s that smiley face you see to the right, it’s easy to recognize too.
Arabic nouns are never neuter. There is no “it.” Just masculine and feminine. Wowser, that’s a 50% increase, from 2 to 3. There is no verb “to be” in the present, though there is a “was” in Arabic. The verb “to have” does not exist in the way of “haben” or “have” or “habeo.” Habemus Papam.
Did you know that it’s almost impossible to say anything in German without knowinf a noun’s gender?
Only a small exaggeration.
Herr Ziegler, can you craft a short sentence containing all four cases for us?
Let me grapple that in another post. Gellerese anyone?