Language Lessons

September 30th, 2010

I just finished taking my third formal Arabic course. Hooray! It’s peculiar to speak a language almost fluently, but be incapable of reading and writing it. There are tons of people like me around the world who have grown up with Arabic singing in our ears, while leaving us illiterate and gawking. I never dreamed that one day I would understand what that scratch actually said! Since I’ve come to Lebanon, I chose literacy. Ha. Well, I took on the often grueling and exhausting task of learning how those curves and swerves and dots work together to mean. For those of you who don’t know, there are two languages, for all intents and purposes, in Arabic – the one you speak and the one you read and write. In other words, there isn’t just the complexity that the alphabet is not Roman, but also what you speak to your grandma is different that what you read in the morning paper. It’s not the same difference as in English when we distinguish “slang” from “formal.” More accurately, perhaps if you compared Medieval English with contemporary Facebook English, then we may be closer to an analogy.

Yet, the language and its environment is opening up in front of me as my tongue rolls the oscillating accents, the rhythm of the language. As the wazan and the jezr reveal the complex and very logical patterns of words. As the increased difficulty resides in its elaborate nature. And as the raving mad curious rules, especially the rules, the grammar lessons, twist me up, have me asking Why? and making amateur connections to the psychology of the Arab mind.

All non-human plurals take the singular feminine adjective.

This one is what really got me from the beginning. When the teacher announced this, I snorted under my breath and looked around the class for some mutual contempt for this obviously sexist grammatical truth. Nothing. And the teacher didn’t even say it with a hint of irony! I looked closely at her and waited. Nothing, no remark about how rude this rule was. I began considering: cars, phone booths, tables, books, doors, music stands, computers, buildings, floor tiles, street signs, well, actually all things in the world. Objects. Now you’re thinking, relax feminist. And though I will not backspace and delete, I will spare you the speculation on the “singular” aspect…

However, I will not spare you of this cleric’s recent and most disgusting and objectifying pontification on men’s “rights” with women. Disclaimer: This is probably the worst of it.

\”Allah Honors Wives with Beatings\”

The masculine form is what is conventionally used in dictionaries, as the “standard” form.

Somehow, I never cease to be surprised by the sexist things that come out of men’s mouths. I am one of those obstinately naïve people who thinks that everyone is more morally and ethically sound than they really are. Even when they say the sexist thing, I think, they don’t really mean it. I’m sure this is partly because I don’t want to believe that people are so unfair and partly because I don’t want to hate them. But, despite myself, their honesty eventually registers, and I lose respect and slowly the hate seeps in…

The dumbest sexist comment I heard recently was the clichéd “Women can’t drive” theory. It’s funny, I never heard this spoken by a woman. I mean, if it were TRUE, then we would all be able to somehow objectively observe it, right? Women talk about other women all the time. But I never heard them talk about each other as “bad drivers.”

He was adamant: “I swear, they really don’t know how to drive. They are too hesitant in making decisions on the road… they really are dangerous.”

“All of them?”

“ALL of them.”

“Oh, so, women’s ‘hesitance’ is worse than certain men’s speeding and showing off their tires’ musical genius in the streets?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah, I know men speed, but at least they have control and they can make decisions.”

He seemed to think that men’s driving and decisions were standard, and women’s nuisance on the road was a given.

I asked him, “So who taught women how to drive in this country?”

For future tense, you may use one of two prefixes. You decide.

This rule’s practical application is simplistic and differs by just one letter. But I thought the rule revealed liberalness. Not only do you have a few choices to construct the future tense, according to your whim, but making it is quite simple in itself where you simply add a prefix to the root word.

I found it funny that Arabs once thought the future so simple.

‘Sun,’ ‘moon,’ ‘sky,’ and ‘war’ are all feminine words.

Whaddya think Alanis would say?

The superlative is the “easiest lesson.”

Does this surprise you? That to claim the biggest, the best, the smartest, the most beautiful, all have one standard conjugation in Arabic. My teacher claimed that this is the “easiest lesson.”


6 Responses to “Language Lessons”

  1. trebots says:

    I rather liked the annual report of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations for 1891: “This wife-beating is customary among Gentiles; but God beware that it occur among us. If one does beat his wife he must be punished so often and so severely as necessary till he be cured of that sin.” Not that conversion is necessary, of course.

    Re women drivers: sounds like you could do with some fresh actuaries.

  2. […] Update: Do you think of the “All non-human plurals take the singular feminine adjective” rule as sexist? […]

  3. Maroun says:

    Did you consider comparing this to the Lebanese language by the way Rima?

  4. Rima says:

    that sounds too complicated. you do it! :P

  5. Maroun says:

    It’s actually simple:

    One plural for all

    Rrjel ḣilwiin
    L banet ḣilwiin
    Li bsaynet ḣilwiin
    Ssiyyaraat ḣilwiin
    ttelefonet ḣilwiin


    Equality across the board.


  6. Simon says:

    i like the subjects of your posts, always interesting; and your writing style too: simple, warm, funny, but serious. this one in particular is funny, naive, non pretentious, and very interesting, full of ideas.

    allow me to comment and discuss it a bit:

    “there are two languages…” : that is very true. and it’s true that the spoken and written languages diverged so much that some people would cross the line of saying that we are in the presence of two separate languages. that is a matter of heated debate.

    but let me discuss those ‘amateur connections to the psychology of the Arab mind’ :) well, a quick search on the net about sexism in the English language seems to indicate that sexism exists in the English language. and i dare to extrapolate and think that linguistic sexism is common to all languages; after all languages are the product of the humans and the human history was ans dominated by men since ever.

    “All non-human plurals take the singular feminine adjective.”: i never thought of that, but it seems to be true. why? i have no idea. sorry – i’m glad – as Maroun pointed out – that this rule doesn’t apply to spoken Lebanese.
    you seem to make a connection between that rule of the Arabic language and the psychology of the Arabic mind; i tend to agree: language is the product of the collective minds of people who speak it, so, it makes sense to think it reflects their general thinking and psychology.

    “Even when they say the sexist thing, I think, they don’t really mean it. …” i liked that part, sincere, naive and open.

    “I found it funny that Arabs once thought the future so simple.” : brilliant comment!

    “‘Sun,’ ‘moon,’ ‘sky,’ and ‘war’ are all feminine words. ” : in Arabic language and in ‘spoken’ Lebanese, ‘moon’ is not feminine but masculine.

    “Whaddya think Alanis would say?”: Beuh… no idea what you are referring to ;) Morissette?


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