In the (very old) news: the Aswan Dam

When I was a lowly first-year Arabic student many years ago, the textbook we used was this very austere-looking orange-colored tome called, austerely, Elementary Modern Standard Arabic 1.

That’s the one!

EMSA is a perfectly cromulent textbook — it teaches you the right grammar, writing, reading, etc. — as long as you have no particular interest in learning the sort of vocabulary that you might need to engage in a normal conversation with another normal human being. Instead of writing lesson texts and dialogues around everyday things like talking about the weather, or ordering food in a restaurant, the writers of EMSA get into some really targeted topics, like elections in the US and a discourse on the status of women in the Arab world — important topics, but not the kind of thing you’re likely to get into as a first-year Arabic student who might want to exchange pleasantries with an Arabic speaker on vacation.

One of the most infamous of EMSA’s esoteric texts is one on the Nile River, mostly because of its four short paragraphs, one is devoted to the construction of the High Dam at the Upper Nile city of Aswan. The Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s as part of the Egyptian government’s modernization program, to control water flows on the river and generate electricity. Why? Who knows? Even in 1968, when EMSA was first written and while the dam was being built, I’d be willing to bet that you’d be exceedingly unlikely to meet any Arabic speakers who wanted to casually chat about the Aswan Dam with some newbie American Arabic student. And it’s not like “dam” vocabulary has a lot of general usefulness.

By the time you get to the “River Nile” text in the book, the student is already familiar with the fact that these texts are on pretty formal topics that use some fairly specialize vocabulary, so this paragraph is kind of like the whipped cream on top of the absurd sundae and usually the class has a nice laugh at it. Or at least they did; as far as I know most Arabic 1 classes these days use a different text, الكتاب في تعلم العربية (al-Kitāb fī Taʿallum al-ʿArabīyah; “The Book for Learning Arabic”), in part because it teaches more useful vocabulary.

Anyway, I mention all this because today is the 45th anniversary of the completion of the dam in 1970, and when I read that I immediately thought of this text from my Arabic 1 textbook. I looked at the vocabulary and, you know, it’s not as bad as I remembered. Some of it actually could be useful even to an introductory Arabic student. So I thought, in honor of the Aswan Dam’s anniversary and my memories of first-year Arabic, that I would reproduce the vocabulary list (changed slightly to make it more generally useful) from that lesson for you here today:

  • نَهر — أنهار (nahr, anhār): river/rivers
  • النيل (al-nīl): the Nile
  • طَويل — طِوال (ṭawīl, ṭiwāl): long, tall (when applied to a person)
  • أطوَل (aṭwal): longer/longest
  • كَبير — كِبار، كُبراء (kabīr, kibār, kubrāʾ): big, old (when applied to a person)
  • أكبَر (akbar): bigger, biggest
  • الأمازون (al-amāzūn): the Amazon
  • المِسيسِبي (al-misīsibbi): the Mississippi
  • أسوان (aswān): Aswan
  • الأُقصُر (al-uqṣur): Luxor
  • سُد — سُدود (sadd, sudūd): dam
  • بَذَلَ — بَذل (badhala, badhl): to exert, exertion
  • جَهد — جُهود (jahd, juhūd): effort
  • شارِك (shārik): participating, joining
  • ساعَدَ (sāʿada): to help/assist
  • مُساعَدة (musāʿadah): assistance
  • عَظيم — عِظام، عُظَماء، عَظائم (ʿażīm, ʿiżām, ʿużamāʾ, ʿażāʾim): great/huge/grand
  • اِقتِصاد (iqtiṣād): economy
  • اِعتَمَدَ على (iʿtamada ʿalá): to rely upon
  • ماء — مِياه (māʾ, miyāh): water
  • أبعَد (abʿad): furthest, utmost
  • حَد — حُدود (ḥadd, ḥudūd): border/extent/limit
  • قَديماً (qadīman): long ago
  • صَغير — صِغار (ṣaghīr, ṣighār): little, small, young (when applied to a person)
  • كَثير — کِثار (kathīr, kithār): much/many
  • كَثيراً (kathīran): often/a lot
  • الإسكَندَرية (al-iskandarīyah): Alexandria
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رمضان ۱٤۳٦

Sundown tonight will be the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan for some people around the world (moon observations make it hard to pinpoint these things exactly), so if you’re interested please enjoy my past writing on the topic.

Arabic Word a Day

(at least for some folks)

This evening marks the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan or رَمَضان (ramaḍān) in the Americas and parts of Africa (elsewhere the start of the month will come a day later). Tradition holds that it was near the end of the month of Ramadan, on the “Night of Power” (لَيلة القَدر, laylat al-qadr) that Muhammad received his first revelation, the first of the series of revelations that would comprise the Qur’an (قُرآن, Qurʾān). The specific day of the Night of Power is up for debate, but almost everyone agrees that it was one of the last five odd-numbered nights of the month, with most going with the 27th as opposed to the 21st, 23rd, 25th, or 29th.

As with the beginning of all months in the Islamic calendar, the first day of the month is identified astronomically, by observance…

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Arabic numbers III: 11-1000

If you’re looking for the numbers 1-10, and you should before you read this, go here.

When it comes to the higher numbers, everything after ۱۰ (10) follows some kind of pattern, so after we get through the teens I’ll only be showing a few examples to illustrate the pattern.

11-19; as in English, where we say “thirteen” or “three-ten,” Arabic will say ثلاثة عشر (thalāthah ʿashr, literally “three-ten”). Unlike English, Arabic doesn’t break the patter for “eleven” and “twelve,” and good for Arabic in my opinion.

English name

Western Arabic numeral

Eastern Arabic numeral

Arabic name

Arabic name transliterated

eleven

11

۱۱

أحَد عَشر

aḥad ʿashr

twelve

12

۱۲

اِثنا عشر

ithnā ʿashr

thirteen

13

۱۳

ثَلاثة عشر

thalāthah ʿashr

fourteen

14

۱٤

أربَعة عشر

arbaʿah ʿashr

fifteen

15

 ۱۵

خَمْسة عشر

khamsah ʿashr

sixteen

16

۱٦

سِتّة عشر

sittah ʿashr

seventeen

17

۱۷

سَبعة عشر

sabʿah ʿashr

eighteen

18

۱۸

ثَمانية عشر

thamāniyah ʿashr

nineteen

19

۱۹

تِسعة عشر

tisʿah ʿashr

Now we can count up by tens:

  • 20 (twenty): عَشرون (ʿashrūn) or ۲۰
  • 30 (thirty): ثَلاثون (thalāthūn) or ۳۰
  • 40 (forty): أربَعون (arbaʿūn) or ٤۰
  • 50 (fifty): خَمسون (khamsūn) or ۵۰
  • 60 (sixty): سِتّون (sittūn) or ٦۰
  • 70 (seventy): سَبعون (sabʿūn) or ۷۰
  • 80 (eighty): ثَمانون (thamānūn) or ۸۰
  • 90 (ninety): تِسعون (tisʿūn) or ۹۰

And now by hundreds:

  • 100 (one hundred): مِئة (miʾah or, more archaically, مائة) or ۱۰۰
  • 200: مئتان (miʾatān — dual form of مئة) or ۲۰۰
  • 300: ثلاث مئة (thalāth miʾah) or ۳۰۰
  • 400: أربع مئة (arbaʿ miʾah) or ٤۰۰
  • 500: خمس مئة (khams miʾah) or ۵۰۰
  • 600: ستّ مئة (sitt miʾah) or ٦۰۰
  • 700: سبع مئة (sabʿ miʾah) or ۷۰۰
  • 800: ثمان مئة (thamān miʾah) or ۸۰۰
  • 900: تسع مئة (tisʿ miʾah) or ۹۰۰
  • 1000 (one thousand): ألف (alf) or ۱۰۰۰

When you’re stringing numbers together you just use a lot of “ands,” and you read largest to smallest until you get to the tens and singles places, which are inverted, like so:

  • 28 (twenty-eight): ۲۸ (ثمانية و عشرون, thamāniyah wa ʿishrūn)
  • 51 (fifty-one): ۵۱ (واحد و خَمسون, wāḥid wa khamsūn)
  • 739 (seven hundred thirty-nine): ۷۳۹ (سبع مئة و تسعة و ثلاثون, sabʿ miʾah wa tisʿah wa thalāthūn)

To somebody accustomed to a left-to-right writing system, it seems like Arabic strangely writes its large numerals left-to-right (above, “739” is ۷۳۹), even though the rest of the language is written from right-to-left. Like many things in Arabic, it’s best if you just roll with it.

When counting things with these higher numbers, you counter-intuitively follow the number with the singular noun, in indefinite accusative (direct object) case, and the singles digit part of the whole number takes the opposite gender as the noun. I know; again, just try not to think about it. For example, “73 books” (book is a masculine noun, كتاب) would be ثلاثة و سبعون كتاباً (thalāthah wa sabʿūn kitāban), and “57 magazines” (magazine is a feminine noun, مجلّة) would be ًسبع و خمسون مجلّة (sabʿ wa khamsūn majallatan).

مولد النبي

The birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, called مَولِد النَبي (mawlid al-nabī) or just مولد, is being observed today, the 12th of the month ربيع الأول (if you want to be technical about it, the commemoration started at sundown last night, and I guess it’s ended by now in most of the world, but it’s still worth noting). Though not one of the major Islamic holidays, many Muslims do commemorate Muhammad’s birth with decorations and by exchanging small gifts or sweets.

Mawlid is not a universally celebrated holiday, for a couple of reasons. There’s no historical record of the earliest Muslims celebrating Muhammad’s birthday as a special event; the first widespread Mawlid celebration doesn’t appear in the record until the 12th century, though there are records of earlier, smaller observances. So for modern self-proclaimed “fundamentalists” the holiday is an innovation and therefore illegitimate. Honoring a historical figure’s birthday also comes too close to revering or worshiping that person for those arch-conservative groups, which would make it an example of the most serious sin in any monotheistic faith. So you’re not likely to find any sanctioned Mawlid celebrations in Saudi Arabia, or being organized by ISIS. But in most of the Islamic World Mawlid is treated as an important cultural marker if not an especially religious one, more Presidents Day than Christmas. This blog is certainly not in the business of litigating inter-Islamic religious debates, so I’m not here to comment on Mawlid’s legitimacy, but this does offer us a chance to explore a little vocabulary.

  • prophet: نبي (nabī)
  • prophethood: نبوة (nubuwwah)
  • birthday: ميلاد (mīlād) or مولد (mawlid)
  • to be born: ولد (walada)

سنة جديدة سعيدة

Happy New Year 2015, everybody! Please enjoy this post from a couple of New Years ago!

Arabic Word a Day

Sorry for the break in posting! Visiting family and a nasty cold will do that to you.

Most Arabs mark at least two “New Years” on their calendars, the Islamic and the Gregorian (many, especially in Iraq, may celebrate a third, Nowruz). As the Islamic calendar is lunar, and therefore shorter than the Gregorian calendar, the Gregorian date of the Islamic New Year floats; for example, we are currently in the year 1434 on the Islamic (Hijri) calendar, and the year 1435 will begin roughly around November 4, 2013. I say “roughly” because lunar calendar dates depend on the phases of the moon, so any attempt to map them to Gregorian dates in the future may be off by a day or so in either direction. The Islamic New Year is marked quietly, with prayer and reflection on the Hijra, or the Flight of Muhammad from…

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Vegetables: خضراوات

Back to food, let’s get healthy and talk vegetables.

Have I missed your favorite? Leave it in comments and I’ll add it!

“Vegetables” is خضراوات (khaḍrāwāt), which comes from the root خضر, “to be green.” A particular vegetable (especially if you’re growing it and are referring to it in the botanical sense) could also be called نَباتي (nabātī), from the root نبت, “to grow, sprout.”

  • artichoke: خُرشوف (khurshūf)
  • asparagus: هِليَون (hilyawn)
  • avocado: أفوكادو (afūkādū)
  • beets: بَنجَر (banjar, From Greek, I think? Where beetroot is “panjar,” apparently?)
  • broccoli: بروكلي (brūkulī)
  • cabbage (includes things like kale): كُرُنب (kurunb)
  • carrot: جزر (jazar)
  • cauliflower: قَرنَبيط (qarnabīṭ)
  • celery: كَرَفس (karafs)
  • chicory (includes things like endive and radicchio for you fancy salad types): هِندِباء (hindibāʾ)
  • cucumber: خيار (khiyār)
  • eggplant: باذَنجان (bādhanjān)
  • garlic: ثوم (thūm)
  • leeks: كَراث (karāth)
  • lettuce: خَس (khass)
  • mushroom: فُطر (fuṭr)
  • okra: بامية (bāmīyah)
  • onion: بَصَل (baṣal)
  • parsnip: جزر أبيض (jazar abyaḍ, “white carrot”)
  • peas: بازِلاء (bāzilāʾ)
  • pepper (red, green): فِلفِل (filfil)
    • green pepper: فلفل أخضر (filfil akhḍar)
    • red pepper: فلفل أحمر (filfil aḥmar)
    • yellow pepper: فلفل أصفر (filfil aṣfar)
  • potato: بَطاطا (baṭāṭā) or بَطاطَس (baṭāṭas)
  • pumpkin: قَرعة (qarʿah)
  • radish: فُجُل (fujl)
  • spinach: سَبانِخ (sabānikh)
  • squash: قَرعة (qarʿah) or possibly إسكواش (iskwāsh)
  • string beans: فاصوليا (fāṣūliyā)
  • sweet potato/yam (I know they’re different but as far as I know Arabic doesn’t distinguish): بَطاطا حَلوة (baṭāṭā ḥalwah)
  • tomato: طَماطِم (ṭamāṭim)
  • turnip: لِفت (lift; careful not to say “laft” because that could mean “admonition” or “warning”)
  • zucchini: كوسة (kūsah)