Recreational Arabic


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?

Oxford to the left of us, Wehr to the right.

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.

Does  “ex” take the ablative or the dative?

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.

The Art of Arabic Calligraphy (YouTube)

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 🙂

Thanks for reading.