Languages (other than Arabic and English)

After covering how to say “I don’t speak Arabic” and “Do you speak English?” it occurred to me that some people might prefer it if they could encounter someone who spoke something other than English. Only took me a day to think of that one, right? So here’s a list of languages and their Arabic translations. All language names in Arabic are constructed grammatically as feminine adjectives, because they are all technically meant to modify the feminine noun لُغة (lughah), or “language,” even though that word is generally omitted (at least in speech). This is no different from how we treat languages in English, apart from the fact that English has no grammatical gender.

  • French = فَرَنسية (faransīyah)
  • German = ألمانية (almānīyah)
  • Spanish = إسبانية (isbānīyah)
  • Portuguese = بُرتُغالية (burtughālīyah)
  • Italian = إيطالية (īṭālīyah)
  • Russian = روسية (rūsīyah)
  • Chinese (Mandarin) = صينية (ṣīnīyah)
  • Japanese = يابانية (yābānīyah)
  • Hindi = هِندية (hindīyah)
  • Urdu = أُردية (urdīyah)
  • Hebrew = عبرية (ʿibrīyah)
  • Persian = فارِسية (fārisīyah)
  • Turkish = تُركية (turkīyah)

See the same list in Persian here and Turkish here. I can throw more languages up in comments if anybody needs them.

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To speak, or not to speak

For people who go traveling and aren’t fluent in the local tongue, it’s obviously helpful to at least be able to use the verb “to speak,” as in “I don’t speak [your language].” or “Does anybody here speak English?” I’m here to help you out, in Arabic, in Turkish here, and in Persian here.

Bear in mind that this blog deals primarily in Modern Standard Arabic, which may get you as many funny looks as English in some parts of the Arab world. I’ll talk about dialects as much as I am able.

There are two verbs in Arabic that can mean “to speak”: تَكَلَّمَ (takallama) and تَحَدَّثَ (taḥaddatha). Both are Form V verbs, which if you remember from way back when we talked about verb conjugation is the reflexive variant on the active (Form II) verb.

You may encounter either and use either verb, but I think تَکَلَّمَ is the one to start with—it’s more common in my limited experience, and it comes from a root (كَلَمَ, kalama) from which is derived the word for “word” (كَلِمة, kalimah) and “speech” (كَلام, kalām). تَحَدَّثَ derives from a root (حَدَثَ, ḥadatha) that means “occurrence” and is really more connected to the idea of talking, or conversing, about something, as opposed to the physical act of speech.

Now, the two relevant phrases, I would think, are “I don’t speak Arabic” and “Do you speak English?” so that’s what we’ll look at. You’ll see in the first case both the first person singular form of the verb and the way to negate a present tense verb (pro-tip: just put the word for “no” in front of it), and in the second case you’ll see the second person singular and plural (plural is also more formal/polite, though I think this is more of a consideration in Persian than in Arabic)

أنا) لا أتَكَلَّمُ (اللُّغة) العَرَبية), (anā) lā atakallamu (al-lughat) al-ʿarabīyah = “I don’t speak (the) Arabic (language).” لُغة means “language,” is entirely optional in this situation and you’re probably better off not using it, but the sentence is more grammatically complete with it (just as it is more complete in English to say “the Arabic language” than simply “Arabic”). أنا is the first-person pronoun, which we have to use in English to convey the subject, but which is optional in Arabic because the verb conjugation conveys the same information (first-person, singular) with or without the pronoun.

Similarly, أنا) لا أتَحَدَّثُ (اللُّغة) العَرَبية), (anā) lā ataḥaddathu (al-lughat) al-ʿarabīyah.

If you prefer to go with “I don’t know Arabic,” which is less commonly used but still helpful, substitute أعرِفُ (aʿrifu) for أتَكَلَّمُ or أتَحَدَّثُ in the above sentence (the verb عَرَفَ, ʿarafa, means “to know”).

هَل) تَتَكَلَّمُ/تَتَكَلَّمون (اللُّغة) الإنْجليزية؟), (hal) tatakallamu/tatakallamūn (al-lughat) al-injlīzīyah? = “Do you speak (the) English (language)?” هَل is untranslated, simply a marker that introduces a yes/no question, and it can be left out, though if you leave it out, tone will be all that distinguishes this question from the statement “You speak English,” so be careful.

Likewise, هَل) تَتَحَدَّثُ/تَتَحَدَّثون (اللُّغة) الإنْجليزية؟), (hal) tataḥaddathu/tataḥaddathūn (al-lughat) al-injlīzīyah?

More on “gawhar” and “jawhar”

…can be found over at my Persian blog.

I would add that, while Arabic’s run as the official language of government and history-writing was relatively short in Iraq and points east, it had a very long run in North Africa, Egypt, and the Levant (and Arabia as well, but after the caliphal capital was moved from Medina to Damascus in 661 by Caliph Muʿāwiyah I, Arabia was largely ruled, “protected” under the usual regal parlance, by outside powers until the end of World War I). It wasn’t until the Ottomans conquered Egypt in 1517 that the official language of Egypt and Syria became something other than Arabic (by then Turkish, as the Ottomans were moving from Persian to their native Turkish for official purposes), and Arabic made a resurgence under the 19th century Ottoman “governor” (who ruled Egypt autonomously in every practical way) Muhammad Ali Pasha, though Muhammad Ali himself, ethnically Albanian, maintained Turkish as the official language.

“Jawhar” or, “Dzhokhar,” and its Persian-Arab roots

Read the background to this post over at my Persian blog. To sum up, “Dzhokhar” is a transliteration of an Arabic word, جَوهَر (jawhar), that was loaned from Arabic to Persian after first being loaned from Persian to Arabic. The original Persian word is gawhar, meaning “jewel” or “essence.” At some point (I think pre-Islam, because unless I’m wrong the word appears in pre-Islamic Arab poetry, although those were only compiled in written form post-Islam so who knows?) Arabs must have picked up this word from the Persians, but changed the first consonant to a “j” sound since there’s no hard “g” sound in Arabic (the Egyptian dialect pronounces the letter jeem, which in standard Arabic and most dialects has a “j” sound, like a hard “g,” and in Gulf dialect the “qaf” can sound like a compromise between “q” and “g,” but there’s no hard “g” in the formal tongue). This is interesting, because Arabic generally changes foreign hard “g” sounds into the “gh” consonant (Pythagoras = فيثاغورَس (fīthāghūras; there’s no “p” sound either, so that becomes an “f” sound!), but for whatever reason in this case it became a “j” sound. Later, presumably after the Arab armies had conquered Iran and destroyed the Persian Empire, جَوهَر was incorporated into Persian as a new loanword, but with the emphasis on the meaning of “essence” since they were still using gawhar to mean “jewel.”

جَوهَر means “essence,” “nature,” “content,” “substance,” “matter,” or “jewel.” It also forms a rare quadriliteral (four-letter) Arabic root; these usually come about through loanwords, and in this case جَوهَرَ (jawhara) means “to become substance.” The abstract form جَوهَري (jawharī) means “substantial,” “essential,” or the more concrete “jeweler,” which can also be translated as جَوهَرجي (jawharjī), or jawhar plus the Turkish ending “-ji,” which is akin to the “-er” ending in English and here signifies occupation. Speaking of Turkish, the passive participle of جَوهَرَ, which is مُجَوهَر (mujawhar), means “bejeweled” in Arabic but was borrowed by Turkish to mean “jewel.”

UPDATE: More here, and here.

The Seasons

All this talk about calendars and months, I figured we should know what the seasons are called. “Season” itself is فَصل (faṣl).

  • winter = شِتاء (shitāʾ)
  • spring = رَبيع (rabīʿ)
  • summer = صَيف (ṣayf)
  • autumn = خَريف (kharīf)

Months of the Year

Naming the months of the year in Arabic is complicated by the fact that you will encounter two different calendars in the Arab-speaking world: the Islamic or Hijri calendar, used officially and in terms of determining feast days, and the Gregorian calendar, used in business dealings with the west and, since it is a solar calendar, to mark the seasons for agricultural purposes. The Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar, and lunar calendars are always approximately 11 days shorter than our Gregorian (solar) calendar. Year 1 in the Hijri system roughly corresponds to the year 622 in Gregorian dating, the year that the Prophet Muhammad undertook the هِجْرَة (hijrah), fleeing a hostile environment in Mecca to take up residence in Yathrib, later Medinah, where he had been invited the year before. This is considered the foundational event in the origins of Islam, analogous to the birth of Christ in the Christian tradition, hence its identification with year one of the new calendar. To make conversion between the two more complicated, the authentic Hijri calendar reckons the beginning and end of each month astronomically, by lunar observance, rather than by a fixed number of days, so months can be either 29 or 30 days depending on when the moon completes its phases. There are algorithms (based on fixing the number of days in each month independent of observation) that approximate the Hijri calendar for purposes of conversion, but these may be off by a day or two in either direction. A more sophisticated method of conversion passes the Hijri date through the Jewish calendar, with which it is more compatible, and then from the Jewish calendar to the Gregorian. Basically, if you need to convert a date either to or from the Hijri calendar, Google “Hijri Gregorian conversion” and use one of the tools you find. It won’t be perfectly accurate but it will be close enough for most uses. I will list first the Hijri months, then get into the Arabic names for our Gregorian months.

Hijri (هِجري) months:

  1. المُحَرَّم (Muḥarram)
  2. صَفَر (Ṣafar)
  3. رَبيع الاوَّل (Rabīʿ al-Awwal)
  4. رَبيع الثاني أو رَبيع الآخِر (Rabīʿ al-Thānī or Rabīʿ al-Ākhir)
  5. جُمادى الأولى (Jumādá al-Ūlá)
  6. جُمادى الثانية أو جُمادى الآخِرة (Jumādá al-Thāniyah or Jumādá al-Ākhirah)
  7. رَجَب (Rajab)
  8. شَعبان (Shaʿbān)
  9. رَمَضان (Ramaḍān)
  10. شَوّال (Shawwāl)
  11. ذو القَعدة (Dhū al-Qaʿdah)
  12. ذو الحِجّة (Dhū al-Ḥijjah)

Now for the Arabic names for our Gregorian calendar months. But there’s another complication! There are at least four different versions of the Gregorian calendar in use depending on what part of the Arabic-speaking world you find yourself in. Iraq and the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine) base theirs the old Babylonian calendar, with Aramaic names for the months. The Gulf states (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrayn, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman), along with Egypt,  Yemen, and Sudan, use a fairly straightforward transliteration of the Gregorian months. Algeria and Tunisia also transliterate, but because they were French colonies for so long, their transliterations are slightly different. Finally, Morocco also has its own system of transliterating the months, maybe an artifact of Tamazight (Berber) pronunciations of the Roman/Julian calendar months. A fifth variant, a unique system imposed upon Libya by Gathafi (read this if you’re wondering why I render his name that way), was abolished in 2011 and I haven’t bothered to include it. The table below lists the months with  all four Arabic variants:

English name

Levant/Iraq

Gulf/Egypt/Sudan

Algeria/Tunisia

Morocco

January

كانون الثاني (kānūn al-thānī)

يَنايِر (yanāyir)

جانفي (jānfī)

يَنايِر (yanāyir)

February

شُباط (shubāṭ)

فِبرايِر (fibrāyir)

فيفري (fīfrī)

فِبرايِر (fibrāyir)

March

آذار (ādhār)

مارِس (māris)

مارِس (māris)

مارس (mārs)

April

نيسان (nīsān)

أبريل/إبريل (abrīl/ibrīl)

أفريل (afrīl)

إبريل (ibrīl)

May

أيّار (ayyār)

مايو (māyū)

ماي (māy)

مايو (māyū)

June

حَزيران/حُزَيران (ḥazīrān/ḥuzayrān)

يونيو/يونية (yūniyū/yūniyah)

جُوان (juwān)

يونيو (yūniyū)

July

تَمّوز (tammūz)

يوليو/يولية (yūliyū/yūliyah)

جُويلية (juwīliyah)

يوليو (yūliyū)

August

آب (āb)

أغُسطُس (aghusṭus)

أوت (ūt)

غُشْت (ghusht)

September

أيلول (aylūl)

سِبْتَمْبِر (sibtambir)

سِبْتَمْبِر (sibtambir)

شُتَمْبِر (shutambir)

October

تِشْرين الأوَّل (tishrīn al-awwal)

أکْتببِر (uktūbir)

أکْتببِر (uktūbir)

أکْتببِر (uktūbir)

November

تِشْرين الثاني (tishrīn al-thānī)

نوفَمْبِر (nūfambir)

نوفَمْبِر (nūfambir)

نُوَنْبِر (nuwanbir)

December

كانون الأوَّل (kānūn al-awwal)

ديسَمْبِر (dīsambir)

ديسَمْبِر (dīsambir)

دُجَمْبِر (dujambir)

One might ask, why didn’t the Muslims just adopt a solar calendar from the beginning? Islam was founded in a decidedly pastoral and agrarian environment, and lunar calendars are generally quite unhelpful in terms of gauging planting and harvesting seasons, because the dates don’t consistently match up with particular seasons (they are conversely very good at gauging the passing of the months, since they are directly based on the moon’s movement through its phases). It does appear that there were several calendars in use around Arabia before the rise of Islam, and that many followed a “lunisolar” system in which the months are reckoned according to lunar phases but are spaced apart from one another through intercalation, the Arabic term for which is نَسيء (nasīʾ, “postponement”). Extra days, either in one unit or spread through the year, would be inserted into the calendar to insure that the lunar months also corresponded to the same solar times each year. This made the calendar useful for farming and was particularly helpful in a pilgrimage center like Mecca, where regularizing the calendar in this way ensured that the pilgrimage always took place at the same solar time each year, which (not coincidentally) just happened to be the time of the year when Meccan merchants were likely to have their stocks at their fullest. For whatever reason, maybe simply to keep the new community distinct from its neighbors, God (or Muhammad, or later officials, depending on your perspective on Quranic origins) expressly forbade nasīʾ in سورة التَوبة (“Sūrat al-Tawbah”), the ninth sūrah of the Quran.