رمضان ۱٤۳۷

For those observing the fast, which began at sundown today, رمضان مبارك, and for anyone interested in reading more about it please enjoy my past writing on the topic.

The Day of Atonement

Today (at sundown, to be precise) is also Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year for Jews. I bring this up first to wish any Jewish readers an easy fast, but also because linguistically it’s a quick and easy way to highlight the common Semitic roots of both Arabic and Hebrew. “Yom Kippur” (which is, I hope, יום כיפור in Hebrew, because if it’s not then I’m afraid I just offended somebody) literally translates into Arabic as يوم غفور (yawm ghafūr). “Yawm,” or “yom” means “day,” obviously, and there’s some common Semitic root for the idea of “forgiveness” that developed into GH-F-R in Arabic and K-P-R in Hebrew. The relationship between “f” and “p” is so close that there’s an actual linguistic law about it, albeit one developed in the Indo-European context, and “gh” and “k” are similar enough sounds as well.

I should note that يوم غفور is not how you’d actually say “Yom Kippur” in Arabic. You might want to use عيد الغفران (ʿīd al-ghufrān), the “festival of forgiveness,” though calling it a “festival” when you’re supposed to be fasting strikes me as a little odd. يوم الغفران (yawm al-ghufrān) is also acceptable, and may actually be a little preferable, though I honestly am not sure on this one.

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

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).

عاشوراء (Ashura)

The holiday of عاشوراء began at sundown last night. Please enjoy the post I wrote about عاشوراء last year.

Arabic Word a Day

Sundown today marked the beginning of the Islamic holiday known as Ashura or عاشوراء (ʿāshūrāʾ), notable primarily for its significance in Shiʿi religious identity. This post by Dr. Michael Collins Dunn at the Middle East Institute describes the meaning behind holiday. This is the tenth day of the month of Muharram (محرم), or in other words the tenth day of the new Islamic year, and it takes its name from the name of the Arabic numeral ۱۰ (our 10), عشر (ʿashr).

Both Sunni and Shiʿi Muslims recognize Ashura as a holiday, the provenance of which goes back to Muhammad who advised his followers to fast on this day (he identified it as the day when the Israelites escaped from Egypt). He may have intended that it would correspond to the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which is also the tenth day of the new year on…

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Eid Mubarak (عيد الأضحى)

Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, begins tomorrow, so here is my post on the festival from last year.
عيد مبارك to those observing the festival, and Tzom Kal (צום קל, I think) to those who are observing Yom Kippur, which began tonight.

Arabic Word a Day

Today marks the second religious festival of the Islamic calendar, after the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast, عيد الفِطر (ʿīd al-fiṭr, Eid al-Fitr), that follows Ramadan. It is called the Festival of the Sacrifice, عيد الأضحى (ʿīd al-aḍḥá, Eid al-Adha), and is the more important of the two, informally known as the “Greater Eid” (عيد الكَبير, ʿīd al-kabīr).

The festival commemorates an event that should be familiar to anybody who has some knowledge of the Bible, the episode in Genesis known as the “Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22). God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son and Abraham, understandably conflicted, ultimately chooses to obey God even at the cost of his son, only to have an angel stop him just as he’s about to kill the boy, Abraham having proved his devotion to God by his willingness to obey even such a…

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The Hajj

With the Hajj beginning today, I thought I would rerun my post on the annual pilgrimage from last year.
حج مبارك

Arabic Word a Day

Pending the observed phase of the moon (as with every other annual Islamic event, which if you recall are dated according to the lunar Hijri calendar), it appears that the Hajj for the year 1434 AH will begin either Sunday or Monday. I thought I would take the opportunity to write a post about Islamic pilgrimage in general, which you can find at my regular blog. Here we’ll talk about the Hajj and look at some relevant vocabulary. I will add some Persian and Turkish pilgrimage vocabulary as well.

The Hajj (الحَجّ) is a group pilgrimage to the city of Mecca, in the western region of Saudi Arabia known as the Hejaz (الحِجاز, al-ḥijāz). It is, with the exception of Ramadan, the central event of the Islamic calendar. Its completion is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey is…

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How many Arabics are we talking about here?

If you know anything about Arabic in the modern world you know that it’s not really “Arabic” so much as a collection of “Arabics,” the various regional dialects that share a common root but diverge from each other (at least in the spoken language) in many, sometimes significant, ways. This blog deals almost exclusively with Modern Standard Arabic, or الفُصحى (al-fuṣḥá), except for the odd colloquial phrase thrown in here and there. MSA will help you learn to read the language pretty well, and can get you through an Al Jazeera broadcast, but I’m afraid that if you’re wandering about any old Arab city or village it’s a 50/50 proposition whether you’ll be understood (a lot of the vocabulary is widely applicable though, which is part of the reason why this is more of a “word of the day”-type blog and not a “let’s learn Arabic” one). This phenomenon, where members of one language community use one dialect in some contexts (formal speech, writing) and another in other contexts actually has a technical name, “diglossia,” and its one of the more interesting things about studying Arabic as a language. In a sense I guess you could compare Arabic today to Latin a millennium or so ago, when its regional dialects predominantly used in speaking, but formal Latin was still used in certain contexts. Except that where those dialects eventually became formal, literary languages in their own rights, widespread literacy and modern telecommunications might keep Arabic in a state of diglossia indefinitely.

Anyway, Slate published a piece a few days back from a legitimate Arabic student (not just Some Guy with 3 years of Arabic under his belt pounding on a computer keyboard) at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London (also a good sign), Michael Erdman, on just this subject (“Arabic” and its variants), that I’m sure would be of interest to the people who stop by this place. Arabic really is unique among most modern languages in the variety and complexity of its dialects:

All language-learners face the difficulties of regional variations or dialects. Usually, it takes the form of an odd word or turn of phrase or a peculiar pronunciation. For most languages, incomprehension is only momentary, and the similarity—what linguists often refer to as the mutual intelligibility—between the standard language taught to foreigners and the regional speech pattern is maintained. For a language such as French, only the most extreme cases of dialectical differences, such as between Parisian and Québécois or Cajun, pose considerable difficulties for both learners and native speakers of dialects close to the standard. For other languages, however, differences between dialects are so great as to make most dialects other than the standard totally incomprehensible to learners. Arabic is one such language.

The problem that faces most learners of Arabic is that the written language is radically different from the various dialects spoken throughout the Arab world. Such differences appear in a variety of forms: pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax, and tenses of verbs. The result is that even the most advanced learner of standard Arabic (or ‘the standard’) might find herself completely at sea on the streets of Beirut, while it is also conceivable for a student to complete a year of immersion in Cairo and not be able to understand a text written in the standard language.

When you consider that the “Arabic World” stretches all the way from the Atlantic coast of North Africa in the west to the Persian Gulf and Iraq in the east, that this vast region once contained a vast array of regional languages that assimilated themselves into the regional Arabic, and that various parts of the region have been ruled over the centuries by a string of non-Arab empires, colonizers, etc. whose languages also affected the development of Arabic in their zone of control, it’s kind of amazing that the whole language has held together as well as it has.

ISIS v. ISIL: the definitive* answer

* DISCLAIMER: there is nothing in this piece that is definitive in any way, apart from the inclusion of some literal definitions of words.

I have resisted writing this for some reason. No, wait, now I remember why; because debating the semantics of the translation of a controversial Arab extremist groups name produces writing that is either trite or downright stupid. But there’s a learning opportunity in everything, and now that I’ve hopefully sucked everybody in with a clickbait-y headline, let’s look at the words that make up our new mortal* enemy’s Arabic name (الدولة الإسلامية or الدولة الإسلامية في العراق و الشام) for vocabulary purposes:

  • دَولة (dawlah): this is often translated as “state,” but that’s not the original meaning. The root, دول (D-W-L or D-U-L — و can sound like either u or w depending on the situation) actually means something like “taking turns” or “rotating,” and the older meaning of دولة is going to be “rotation” or “change.” Its use to represent the idea of a “state” goes back to its use to describe royal dynasties and reflects a sense that any dynasty, or state, is probably temporary, and that the rise of a new dynasty reflects a “change in fortune,” which just so happens to be another possible translation of دولة. The deeper implication of دولة, though it’s not meant in this sense now, is that it’s this particular crew’s turn to run things for a while.
  • إسلامية (Islāmīyah): I don’t have to translate this one, right?

Note that the full construction الدولة الإسلامية is better pronounced “ad-dawlat al-islaameeyah,” because the letter ة (“taa marbuta” is the name of the letter, which is the grammatical feminine marker and only appears at the end of a word) is usually unpronounced (and can be represented by a silent ‘h’ or left out altogether in English transliteration — I opt for the ‘h’) when it comes at the end of a grammatical construct, but when it occurs in the middle of a construct (like here, in a noun-adjective pairing, or like in a possessive), it usually takes a ‘t’ sound and is transliterated accordingly. So الدولة is al-dawlat here because it’s followed immediately by its adjective, but الإسلامية remains al-Islāmīyah because it ends the phrase.

Anyway, if we’re going by what the group calls itself, we can stop here, with “The Islamic State.” I tend to use this in another place because it’s easier and avoids the ambiguity we’re going to encounter in a couple more words, but I can understand why the government and most media haven’t adopted it, because calling it “The Islamic State” does bestow some added legitimacy on the group that they probably don’t deserve. So we continue: Continue reading