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?
2 thoughts on “To speak, or not to speak”