Thursday, 25 April 2013

Al-La7ja: The Dialect

For those of you who don’t have quite as strong of a background in Arabic, there is one basic thing that you need to know. Arabic is a crazy, crazy language. The trick does not come merely from learning it. It doesn't come from the alphabet. You can pick that up rather quickly. It's not just difficult because it comes from a different language family from English. It comes from those moments where you feel like you might actually finally be getting the hang of it and realize you still can’t use it.

Arabic has a million different dialects. So many that are so incredibly varied that I’m so surprised that they still consider them all one language. It’s ridiculous. The people from the Sham (Jordan/Syria/Lebanon/Palestine) can’t understand Omanis. Saudis can’t understand Meghribis (Moroccans). No one can understand Moroccans. Within a country there can be a dozens of significantly different dialects. Despite the smaller size of many of these countries, it's possible that many can't understand their fellow compatriots. Most people studying Arabic learn FusHa, or the standard Arabic which no native speaker speaks. It’s comparable to using Latin a few decades ago. Some people can understand you if you try to speak it, but even then it’s mostly with the more educated people.

These differences include a complete change in vocabulary. A change in grammar. And at its simplest, a change in pronunciation. The most well-known in the Arabic speaking world is changing the letter jiim (a soft j as in the word "genre") to giim (a gutteral g as in the word "goodbye"). This is very characteristic of the Egyptian dialect, but Omani dialects similarly vary. So I’m frequently called Magi, Magen, Meji, Mejan. In addition, my family, being from Sur, a town further south along the coast, change another letter, qaaf (a letter without an accurate English equivalent), to a giim pronunciation. Already struggling to keep up at times, I find myself translating letters as people speak around me. The word “wajid,” used here as katheereh/katheeren or “a lot/too much,” can be pronounced “wajid,” “wagid,” or “wayyid.”

Then there’s grammar. The first thing I learned about the Omani dialect was that “b” added before verbs indicate the future tense. For example, saying you will study ("adros" is the present tense conjugation) is “badros.” In the north in countries like Jordan and Palestine where I've studied before use “b” in their dialect, too, but it’s used as a PRESENT tense marker. Then in FusHa, they don’t use it at all. I find myself constantly switching between all of these conjugation rules in my speech. 

In questions, Omani dialect uses "mu" as "what." "What are you doing would be translated as "mu batsawee."

In Arabic, possessive articles are added to the end of words. In standard Arabic, the feminine possessive for affix "you" is "-ki." In Shaami dialect (the northern dialect), it's "-ek." Here in Oman, though, the feminine possessive for “you” is “-sh” As an example, asking “How are you?" goes from “Keif Haluki” in FusHa, to “Keifek” in the Sham to “Keif Halish/keifish” in Oman.

Vocabulary differences have led to some interesting learning experiences. One night, I was out sitting with family, and my host mom turned to me and told me to “dreesheh bindi.” I had no idea what she was saying. Part of me wondered if she was speaking Hindi (She’s Indian and we always have communication problems. She speaks Arabic, Urduu, and Hindi). My host brother’s wife just kind of laughed and translated. She meant “sakri shubak” which means “close the window” with “dreesheh” meaning “window” and “bindi” meaning “close.”

I still have no idea how it came up so much, but the first couple of weeks, I used the word for “cat” quite a bit. Surprising to me, the word varies a lot across dialects.  In FusHa, it’s “qateh,” but I like the word in Shami a lot, “biseh” or “bissus” as the plural. Here it’s “sanureh.” It's proved to be a very good word to know with all of the stray cats roaming around. For a beginning Arabic learner, talking about cats becomes a very wonderful conversation starter.

And so many other words I’m just beginning to pick up. For so long I thought that my Arabic was terrible. I could understand next to nothing. It’s still not the best, but these crazy dialects are definitely partially to blame. Realizing this, my self-confidence bas been slightly restored J

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