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08.20.2011

Why Arabic Is Terrific

I just finished a summer studying Arabic at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, an enjoyable adventure that I hope to write about in more detail later. MIIS offers a nine-week program in a bunch of languages and is just down the road from a grim military counterpart called the Defense Language Institute, where young men and women learn how to eavesdrop on the nation's enemies, provided that the enemies speak slowly and limit their conversation to hobbies and the weather.

The DLI is big on hiring native speakers, and ever since the scary men in turbans replaced godless Communism as a mortal threat to America it has not been hard to find good hummus in Monterey. About two thousand soldiers grind their way through a sixty-three week intensive Arabic program each year, while about sixty civilians attend the unrelated and much shorter programs at MIIS.

Of course, now that Arabic is the key language for career advancement in places that have no sign out front and a large eagle emblem in the lobby, the civilian programs have begun started to attract the kinds of calculating douchebags who used to make studying Russian so unpleasant. They are still in the minority, but having even one of these guys (and they're always guys) in your class can lead to needless suffering *.

So I would like to stand up for the language nerds and give some reasons for studying Arabic that have nothing to do with politics. The language of the National Designated Other is bound to switch to Chinese in a couple of years, but until colleges start teaching Martian, Arabic is going to remain the strangest, most interesting language you can study in an undergrad classroom.

And don't fall for the bait and switch with Chinese or Japanese! They might tempt you with an exotic writing system, but after a few months you find out that the underlying language is pretty vanilla, and meanwhile there is a stack of three thousand flash cards standing in between you and the ability to skim a newspaper.

Arabic, on the other hand, twists healthy minds in twelve ways:

  1. The Root/Pattern System
  2. Nearly all Arabic words consist of a three-consonant root slotted into a pattern of vowels and helper consonants. The root gives the word its base meaning, while the pattern modifies this meaning in a systematic and predictable way. This idea is so cool that you'd think it came from a constructed language, and yet Arabic has actual native speakers who live completely normal lives and will not try to talk to you about Runescape.

    For example, the pattern ma--a-, where the hyphens are placeholders for three root consonants, is nearly always a place name in Arabic. The pattern i-a-a-a generates a verb meaning "to cause someone to do X", where the meaning of X is determined by that three-consonant root.

    Here are some common patterns using the root k t b, whose basic meaning is 'writing':

    pattern pattern meaning result
    m--a-a place name مكتبةmaktaba (library)
    -aa-i- active participle كاتب kaatib (writer)
    ma--uu- passive participle مكتوبmaktuub (written)
    -a-a-a basic verb كتبkataba (to write)
    a--a-a causative verb أكتبaktaba (to dictate)
    -i-aa- noun كتابkitaab (book)
    -u-u- plural noun كتب kutub (books)

    The root/pattern approach really goes crazy with verbs. There are ten common verb patterns in Arabic, and each one alters the base meaning in a semi-predictable way.

    For example, putting a verb into pattern IV will often make it causative (baqaa - to stay vs. abqii - to keep in place), while putting a transitive verb into pattern VI tends to make it reflexive (thakara - to remind; tathakara - to remember). These meanings are not completely predictable, but you can use them to make very good guesses about new vocabulary.

    There's even a verb pattern (IX) devoted entirely to changes in color and acquiring a physical disability.

  3. Broken Plurals
  4. In English, you make most words plural by adding a suffix, except for a very small number of words (like 'feet') where there is a vowel change instead. Arabic does this the other way around. There are a few words that take a regular plural suffix, but most of the time to make a plural you have to change the structure of the word quite dramatically:

    kitaab -> kutub(book)
    ustaath -> asaatitha(teacher)
    maqha -> maqaahi(café)
    dukkan -> dakaakiin(store)
    ahdar -> hudur(green)

    This holds even for borrowed words:

    film -> aflaam
    jaakit -> jawaakat

    Other Semitic languages have broken plurals, but as with other unusual language features Arabic runs this one furthest into the end zone.

  5. The Writing System
  6. The Arabic writing system is exotic looking but easy to learn, which is a rare combination. The language uses a straightforward alphabet, but because letters change their shape depending on what their neighbors are it is quite impenetrable to the uninitiated.

    For exmaple, here are some "words" consisting of a single letter repeated three times:

    ككك تتت ععع ممم

    You can easily master Arabic writing without learning the language (here is a great book for it if you're interested); it will take you about two weeks. Go to the museum and impress your date with your ability to appreciate Arabic calligraphy on a deeper level!

  7. Dual
  8. Arabic has a grammatical dual — a special form for talking about two of something. That means there's a distinct set of verb conjugations for 'you two' and 'them two' (but not 'we two'!), along with adjective and noun suffixes for pairs of things. This is pretty cool.

  9. Plural Lite
  10. Some words have separate broken plurals depending on whether you're talking about a small or large number (the cutoff is somewhere around seven).

  11. The Feminine Plural
  12. Formal Arabic distinguishes between groups composed entirely of women and groups that contain one or more men, and has distinct pronouns, plural forms, and verb conjugations for feminine dual and feminine plural.

    This gives Arabic a total of twelve personal pronouns. No other language will make you work as hard to avoid speaking formally to pairs of women.

  13. Crazy Agreement Rules
  14. Arabic has a number of very unusual agreement rules. My absolute favorite is that all non-human plurals are grammatically feminine singular:

    al-kutub hadra' (الكتب خضراء)

    "The books, she is green"

  15. Phonetics
  16. Several enjoyable consonants wait to greet the foreign learner. Most of these are emphatic consonants, which are just like the familiar consonants /k/, /t/, /th/, /s/ and /d/ except that as you pronounce them you must simultaneously try to swallow your tongue.

    And then there is this beast: ع a consonant pronounced so far back in the throat that you must wait two hours after eating to safely attempt it. Naturally it's one of the most common sounds in the language.

    Arabic also treats the glottal stop (a soundless catch in the throat) as a regular consonant. Glottal stops are everywhere in English but we are not trained to hear them, so a long portion of one of your first Arabic classes will be devoted to blowing your mind with the fact that English words like 'apple' and 'elegant' do not start with a vowel.

  17. Funky Numbers
  18. What we call Arabic numerals aren't used in Arabic except in extraordinarily formal contexts. Instead, Arabic uses "Indian numerals", which look like this:

    ٩ ٨ ٧ ٦ ٥ ٤ ٣ ٢ ١

    These are just similar enough to English to ensure that you will always, always do exercise 10 when assigned exercise 15.

    The names of the numbers come with truly terrifying agreement rules, like "if the number is greater than three but less than eleven, it must take the opposite gender of the noun that it modifies". Since it so much easier to talk about unspecified plurals (which you'll remember are always feminine singular!), this gives foreign students of Arabic a positively Oriental tendency towards vagueness.

    Arabs themselves just ignore the agreement rules altogether and talk about whatever number of things they want.

    Unlike the rest of the language, numerals are written left-to-right, and pronunced left-to-right until you get to the tens place. So ٣٤٦٢ is read "three thousand four hundred two and sixty". This is particularly fun when talking about date ranges, since the earlier date will be written on the right side of the hyphen, but read from left to right:

    ١٩٨٢-٢٠١٣

  19. Diglossia
  20. Muslims believe that Arabic as written in the 7th century A.D. is the language of divine revalation. This has served as a tremendously conservative force on written Arabic, with two important consequences.

    The first is that texts from over a thousand years ago remain accessible to modern readers. If you're an English speaker, where even texts from 200 years ago can be rough going, this is quite a treat.

    The second is that spoken Arabic has diverged substantially from the written language, so you can study it formally for years and not be able to understand a television commercial.

    This is where it really helps to love language study. Arabic has a large number of dialects, some of which are not mutually intelligible, but all educated Arabs will know the formal written language, which they consider to be a higher form of their day-to-day speech. This 'higher' language is used in speeches, news programs, lectures and other formal contexts, but never in casual conversation unless differences in dialect make it absolutely necessary. The combination of numerous dialects and a formal/informal continuum is pretty much unique to Arabic and gives rise to fascinating situations watching Arabs calibrate their lanugage based on the situation and the linguistic background of their interlocutor.

  21. Learning Materials
  22. Nearly every Arabic program in the country uses a four-part textbook and DVD series called Al-Kitaab . Even after studying from it for three years you won't be able to find enough words to express how terrific it is, particularly if you've been exposed to Arabic teaching materials. The books are stuffed full of authentic texts, and there isn't any of the usual filler or pointless mechanical practice that plagues other textbooks of "hard" languages.

    At the more advanced level, I strongly recommend the Anthology of Arabic Literature and the very idiosyncratic All the Arabic You Should Have Learned The First Time Around.

Finally, for a more detailed and informed geek-out about the Arabic language, please see this excellent short essay from Indiana University.


1. There's something about intelligence agencies - maybe the familiar comfort of a three-letter acronym on the wall, maybe the late-night spanking parties - that draws fraternity boys like ants to a picnic, and right now the road to bro advancement leads through an Arabic classroom. Their complete lack of a sense of irony allows these students to combine sincere appreciation for The Fountainhead with a desire for a lifelong career in government service, and the hardest part of studying Arabic is having to listen to their asinine opinions after they have gained enough proficiency to try to express them.

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