Thursday, July 25, 2013

How my Arabic broke my Spanish

So normally I try to give some sort of coherency to my blog, but my thoughts are just as fractured as my language right now, so I suppose you'll have to put up with a rather fragmented post.


In Arabic "the perfect marriage" or "the ideal marriage" (الزواج المثالي ) is one letter away from "gay marriage" (الزواج المثلي).

واحد الجملة

After working my way through a particularly twisty paragraph in one of the novels I bought in Tetouan I looked back and realized the whole thing, approximately a page long, was composed of a single sentence.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Arabic William Faulkner: Ihsan Abd al-Quddus. 
4 root words

I'm surprised to realize I've not spoken of this before, given how central it is, but the Arabic language is built on a root system.  This means that all words, except those of foreign origin, are based on a root made up of consonants and long vowels.  The root can be changed in various ways by the insertion of short vowels, long vowels, certain consonants (notably t, m, n, and st) and shuddas, which double the length of consonants, following certain patterns.  These changes produce related words, similar to the way in which in English, by adding a simple -ly, we can change an adjective (happy) into an adverb (happily).  Only this happens on a much bigger and more thorough scale.  From the root T - l - b comes the verbs Talaba (to ask for, request), Taalaba (to demand, claim), and taTallaba (to require); the nouns Talab (search, quest), Talabaat (claims, demands), and Taalib (student); and the adjectives Tallaab (exacting), maTluub (wanted, required), among others.

The point of that long-winded paragraph is that normally the root consists of three letters.  It is not these everyday roots I want to talk about, though - I want to talk about four-letter roots.  These lovely little things often have one of two characteristics: either they are derived from foreign words (falsafa - to philosophize) or they resemble an onomatopoeia.  Dandana - to hum or buzz.  Rafrafa - to flap or flutter.  Jaljala - to resound, rattle, shake.  TadaHraja (the first t is additive) - to roll or tumble.  I'm not sure I'd count it an onomatopoeia, but I'm including it anyway because it's such a lovely word: daghdagha - to tickle.     

The cursed nature of the Arabic language

I attempted to use a word in class today that I had found in a novel, only to be told by my professor that that particular word is never used in that context, despite the fact that the author does just that at least six or seven times.  Between two people, neither of whom speak FuSHa natively, who do I believe?

Third language acquisition

People like to talk about second language acquisition as though it encompasses all language learning after the first, but the truth of the matter is that for most of is in this program, who are on their third, if not fourth or fifth language, they are very different phenomena.  I have largely found my second language has a positive impact on my third.  I cannot, however, say the reverse is true as well.  Yesterday my friend asked me to speak a few sentences in Spanish because she finds it frankly hilarious that I've adopted the "Spanish lisp" (the letters c and z come out as "th").  I took a minute or two to prepare.  And a few deep breaths.  And then I made it a whole two words into the sentence before I slipped back into Arabic.  And then back into Spanish and then back into Arabic.  The worst part?  I didn't even notice until I'd finished and she was rolling on the floor laughing at me.


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