On learning Arabic

5 minute read

The Pragmatic Programmers suggest one should learn a new language every year: it broadens your thinking. And it does. Few experiences in the past couple of years have been as mind-bending for me as learning Clojure and CLIPS. Of course, the Pragmatic Programmers were talking about programming languages, but I see no reason why this shouldn’t apply to natural languages as well.

So I recently decided to pick up Arabic. You might ask why, and if you did, you would be asking a pretty valid question. For starters, I already know French and Spanish, so Italian wouldn’t really broaden my thinking anymore. I wanted something different. Something really different. Of course I could have chosen Mandarin Chinese, but China is sooo far away. I could have chosen Klingon, which would have allowed me to make a clever pun on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, but what would be the point? Arabic seemed to fit the bill quite nicely, though. It is relevant to today’s world, albeit sensitive politically (and no, me growing a beard is completely unrelated!) and boy, is it different. I’ve had to discard everything I knew about writing, and start over completely.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll highlight some of Arabic’s awesome properties that make it such a different language. And also: so difficult to learn. I’ll do it in a top ten list, because top ten lists are so populair in teh blogoshperez nowadays. Small disclaimer: everything I say may be false. I only just started learning!

  1. Last week, in my fifth lesson, I finally learned how to write my name: يان . Awesome. We still haven’t learned all of the alphabet yet, though.

  2. Every Arabic word starts with a consonant, even the ones that start with a vowel. This is because in Arabic, the glottal stop is a proper consonant. If you don’t know what a glottal stop is: it’s the sound between uh and oh in uh-oh. It’s the sound that the French try so hard to avoid: they say l’année instead of la année and le nouvel an instead of le nouveau an so the vowels won’t clash. Even English is guilty of this, by te way: a apple just plain sounds weird.

  3. Alif is the simplest letter, and also the hardest: ا . See? Simple. But it’s not the a, although sometimes it is. It’s also not the glottal stop, although sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s even an i, and it can be other things as well. I still haven’t figured out when it’s what, despite my teacher’s insistence that it’s totally easy.

  4. Vowels in Arabic aren’t vowels: they’re movements. They modify the consonant that they follow, and they are written as a diacritic on that consonant. Take for example the letter b: ب . ba becomes بَ , bo becomes بُ , and bi is بِ . (I really hope this renders correctly on your screen! You may want to increase the font size.) But here is the mind-bender: “no vowel” is also a movement. ب doesn’t exist; b is بْ , and there is no no spoon.

  5. Movements are extremely important in Arabic. They determine if a noun is the subject or the object in a sentence. They determine the tense of a verb. In fact, they determine whether a word is a noun or a verb in the first place. But they’re not written. Oh no. Forget about بَ , بُ , and بِ . There’s only ب . Context will have to determine the movements, and therefore the meaning of the word. (The key exception is, of course, the Quran, because Allah’s words are immutable and should therefore not be open to interpretation. Also, children’s books are an exception.)

  6. If you want a long vowel sound, you just add a consonant. Normally, و is w, ي is y, and ا is whatever the hell it is. But baa is بَا , boo is بُو , bii is بِي , and the consonants lose their proper sound. Kind of like oa is a longer o in English. (Note also how the ب becomes a lot shorter when it’s at the beginning, i.e. the right side, of a word. Just look for the upwards-pointing squiggle with the dot below it.) But, obviously, the movement isn’t written, so it’s up to you, and your ability to deduce context, to find out whether و in بو is a long o sound, or simply a w. Good luck!

  7. A and e are the same sound. Also, there’s no p. To compensate, there are two h’s, two d’s, two s’s, two r’s and two k’s. Don’t confuse them, because they sound as different to Arabs as the a and e do to us. Turns out that Klingon has a lot of these sounds as well, so I’m already reasonably familiar with these sounds. …Wait, did I just admit to knowing Klingon? Crap. Can I still take this back?

  8. You probably already knew that in Arabic, a letter changes shape depending on its position in a word. A letter can have up to four distinct shapes. But, did you also know that the ت has two distinct end-of-word forms, one of which is used only in feminine words? I’m not making this up.

  9. So, returning to my name: يان. It’s three letters: ya ي, alif ا, and na ن. But isn’t that a terribly naïve transliteration? In fact, isn’t it wrong? Arabic doesn’t write vowels, and even if it did, only a n00b would think that alif is the a. So, shouldn’t it be ين (or, properly vocalized: يَن)? Well, no, because that would look ugly in Arabic. According to my teacher anyway. Apparently, short vowels in European loanwords become long in Arabic. So, as I said before, to make an a long, throw in an ا. Hence: يان. Once more, with movement: يَان.

  10. The letter ta is also a smiley ت.

All this after only five lessons, and we didn’t even do all of the alphabet yet. I can’t wait to learn more about this fascinating language. I may have to write some more about it in a later post.