Sunday, April 3, 2011

Writin' Me Up Some Arabic

So Amman’s got quite a few things about it that are just really different from America. Being clumsy and ditzy does not help this situation a lot.

But you usually get one or two things that you can do well. Even if it just one tiny easy thing in a whole city’s worth of flustering things.

For me, that one thing I do well is writing. Well, not writing like saying terrific things. I ain’t no better at that in Arabic then I am in English.

Naw, I mean my literal writing, my penmanship, is pretty. So I’ma tell you a lil about the Arabic writing system. And I’ma show you how it works And because I am lazy and don’t like scanning things I will mostly write on gimp instead of showcasing my real-world writing.

Arabic writing is a cursive system. It just means that the letters of each word are connected. And that lends a fair amount to its pretty-ness

Well, it’s not entirely fair to say all the letters of each word connect. There’s a few letters that plain don’t. For instance, take the Arabic word for Jordan, “el-urdun.” None of el-urdun’s letters connect except for the “l” and the “u” on either side of the “-” and those letters don’t really even look like their original letters. Seriously, what is this bull?

I spent last summer painting things and digging things and cleaning and the like. While I did that I listened to lectures on tape about linguistics and history because I am a nerd. According to one of the linguistics lectures, Arabic writing is one of the hardest writing systems to read in volume and to read with speed. Apparently cursive writing is harder to read than not-cursive writing. And the lack of many vowels is harder still. What’s more every letter can take one of four different shapes. Plus, several letters are exactly the same, plus or minus a few dots in different places.

So really, cursiveness just adds another aggravating level of confusion to the script. I’ve grown to dislike the cursiveness.

Arabic writing is descended from a kind of Aramaic script that wasn’t cursive. The Nabateans stole the Aramaic script. It was their scribes who got lazy. That’s how cursive scripts happen. They literally just stopped picking up the quill as often. Nabatean writing turned into a long string of squiggles and reading the language got a little harder.

Well there were a few letters that were already pretty similar in Nabatean. When you write them in cursive, they became almost indistinguishable. So that was awkward for the scribes.

They thought about how to deal with it. They decided to just man the hell up. So for several hundred years they dealt with an even more confusing writing system then today’s. Mohammad came and went and the empire rose. The script spread across the Middle East.

After a while a new convention appeared. The most similar letters were differentiated by the presence and position of a number of dots. Add to that a few little dashes that sometimes show up or don’t and you’ve got today’s system.


Here we go then. There are certain similarities between the four different configurations each letter can have depending on its location within a word. They don’t always carry through and they’re not always very prominent and the dots can float around a little. But these right here are the basic forms.

You got twenty-seven different distinct letters then. Some of them are familiar, you have a kaaf, which is just a “k”, you have a baa, which is just a “b.” Or you have a khaa, which is like the German “ch” and the Russian “x” and the Hebrew/Yiddish “ch.” Or you have a ghain, which is the same thing, but “voiced.” Or a Daad, which is like a daal, but somehow more forceful or hard or emphasized or something. And you got an aign which just sounds like you’re trying to say “aa” while being choked.

Yeah. Arabic has got some weird sounds.

Well then you got to add in these.

They’re… they are not letters. They ain’t not letters either though. What I mean is this: they each have their own sound and all. And they are all letters but don’t tell the Arabs. They weren’t letters in the time of Mohammad, and therefore they ain’t letters. Then the sounds showed up in the language, and the letters showed up but the prophet did not have them so naw--let’s just say they ain’t letters.

Whatever, Arabs.

Okay, so now you got to string them together, even if I do not think you should. Hopefully you will be able to see the shapes of some of the individual letters in here.

And as I talk about these here things keep in mind that you read Arabic from right to left. Arright. Here we go.

That there’s a familiar name. Reading from right to left, that’s a kaaf, a waaw, a haa, and a nuun. Pronounced it is “k uu h n.” I miss y’all, and hope all’s well back in America. Also, there’s that non-connecting waaw, messing up the cursive-ness of the writing.

Here’s another one. There’s a raa, a waaw, a baa, and a nuun there. Only the baa and the nuun having the common decency to connect. After the baa, there’s a dash under the line. That dash is called a kasra. It makes a “i” sound. A kasra is a short vowel, which is usually left out in writing, but which can sometimes be put in to help you pronounce things. So pronounced, it is “r uu b i n.” Don’t get arrested.

On the right is a sheen, a raa, a daa, and another raa. Look under the daa, and there’s another kasra.

After the first raa, there’s one more dash. Because this’un is above the line it’s a hamza, which makes an “a” sound. So pronounced, this one is “sh r a d i r.” That’s as close as I could come to getting Shrader in Arabic, but I hope all y’all’s good.

Here’s one more. It ain’t a name. It is the most important thing in this city. There will be a sheen with a hamza, a waaw with a hamza, a raa, a meem, and a taa-marbuta.

That spells shawarma. Barely-greasy shaved lamb, onions, peppers, tomato, and special sauce all wrapped up in a hot pita. It is the delicious-est. If ever you are in Amman, go to Reem and buy yourself a shawaarma or three. It will be worth it.

Personally, I think that the few non-connecting letters mess you up way too much. The spaces in between words aren’t always that big, and the spaces between letters can grow. Here is a reasonable example of a sentence to show you how spacing works. This here says “anaa amreekee.” That means “I am American.” Sweet.

I wanted to show you some long Arabic text I have written so you what this looks like en masse. Too bad, I ain’t written that much Arabic, and don’t want to take to time to write it all out. Instead, here is a picture of a page with the first eleven or so lines of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s Faust, transliterated into Arabic script. With only a few places where I spaced and plain wrote the wrong letter. Also I must have crammed two of the lines together, because I am only seeing ten. Whatejj.

So maybe I transliterate German into Arabic when I am bored in class. Maybe it is weird. It beats paying attention to el-edaafa again.

Learning this stuff takes a while. I started trying to learn it last summer, and spent all last semester in an Arabic course. We practiced and practiced and I still definitely have to sound most words out.

But eventually when you see a word enough you just know what it is without having to scrutinize every letter. It takes a while but it works. Because all the Arabs have done this, they can leave out the short vowels. They recognize the letters by the consonants and long vowels. It’s hard to get used to and frustrating if you don’t already know a word, but it seems to work arright. So most Arabic text is unvowelled. Un short-vowelled, more accurately.

Okay, that is most of the Arabic writing system right there. Next time a little about the linguistics of colloquial and fusha, and what’s it is like learnin’ ‘em both.

Have a good’un y’all!

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