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

Today in bad translations

This is actually a week or so old, but:

That’s a catering card that one assumes is supposed to be placed in front of a tray full of meatballs, but then somebody had the bright idea to translate the transliteration ميت بول, and lo and behold, if you translate it, you get “Paul is dead.” Unless Paul died making the meatballs, or Paul was killed for the meat (you gotta tell ’em! ميت بول is people!), this seems pretty unfortunate to me.

Please and thank you (and sorry), part IV: forgive me

Sometimes a simple apology isn’t enough, let alone a simple “pardon me.” At those times you’ll need to talk the language of forgiveness.

The Arabic root that means “forgive” is غفر (GH-F-R, ghafara). There are a couple of other roots that could be used here but we’re sticking with this one because it’s by far the most common and because it gives us a chance to talk about a couple of grammatical items. The first is the imperative form of the verb, for when you say “forgive me” you’re making a grammatical command. Arabic forms the imperative by taking the second person imperfect, which in this case would be تَغفَرُ (taghfaru), dropping the initial consonant, and dropping that last short vowel. If what remains begins with a consonant followed by a short vowel, then that’s the imperative form. If, however, you’re left with a consonant followed directly by another consonant (as we have here), then a short vowel is added at the beginning of the word. Which short vowel depends on the vowels the verb uses in its normal imperfect form, but let’s not go down that road and just say that, for غفر, the imperative form is اِغفَر (ighfar). غفر takes an indirect object with the preposition ل, so “forgive me” translates to اِغفَر لي (ighfar lī). “I forgive you” would be أغفَرُ لَكُم (aghfaru lakum, or laka or laki if you want to use the singular/informal, gender-specific).

“Forgiveness” has a couple of forms, perhaps غَفر (ghafr), مَغفِرة (maghfirah), or غُفران (ghufrān). The one who does the forgiving is the active participle, غافِر (ghāfir), while the one being forgiven is the passive participle, or مَغفور (maghfūr; “to be forgiven” is the passive voice, غُفِرَ ghufira). Forgiveness being frequently tied to religion, there are several religious uses for غفر. For example, one of the 99 Names of God venerated in Islam is الغُفّار (Al-Ghuffār), The All-Forgiving. You might frequently hear the phrase غَفَرَ الله لَنا وَ لَكُم (ghafara Allāh lanā wa lakum), which means “God forgive us and you!” This sentence uses the optative mood, a grammatical mood used in situations where you wish or hope that something might happen (another example would be حَفَظَ الله المَلِك, ḥafaẓa Allāh al-malik, “God save the King!”). Arabic’s optative is simply the perfect (past) tense. The final item of note here is the Istighfār or Astaghfirullāh, the Islamic prayer of forgiveness, which consists of the Form X of غفر, which is استَغفَرَ, in the first-person imperfect, أستَغفِر (astaghfir). The full phrase أستَغفِر الله (astaghfir Allāh), means “I beg forgiveness of God,” and is uttered over and over in this prayer.