Robert F. Worth has a nice essay about learning Arabic in this week’s NY Times Sunday Book Review. It starts:

One dark afternoon last winter, after too many hours spent studying Arabic verbs, I found myself staring uncomprehendingly at a video on my computer screen. An Arab man was holding forth tediously, his words half drowned by the rain outside. At first all I could make out was the usual farrago of angry consonants and strangled vowels. No progress there. Then, at last, the letters lighted up at the back of my brain.
“I understand what he’s saying!” I shrieked to the empty apartment, spinning backward in my desk chair. “I understand every word!”
I felt a warm rush of gratitude to the speaker, a bespectacled doctor. It made no difference that he was Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s No. 2 man, or that he was threatening to slaughter large numbers of Americans. He spoke a slow, clear fusha, the formal version of Arabic I had been struggling to decipher on the page for 10 hours a day. Even better, his words matched my limited vocabulary: arsala, “to send”; jaish, “army”; raees, “president.” I was almost drunk with exhilaration.

Via the wonderful Helen DeWitt, who knows that “Aha!” moment.


  1. Pretty classy op-ed. Of course (just to pick nits) the only reason the colloquials aren’t “separate languages” is that they aren’t written, or not often enough to count.

  2. Right.

  3. Ah, that takes me back… 🙂
    But that’s the beauty of learning Arabic. If you’re lucky, you get to experience two or three “aha!” moments – in my case, once for fusha, once for Syro-Palestinian and once for Maghribi.

  4. Charles Perry says

    After the “aha” moment comes the moment when the sounds no longer seem unlike human speech. My first Arabic professor at Princeton liked to say (probably quoting an ancient Arabist wheeze), “Gentlemen, the Arabs have the very same vocal equipment you do, and there’s no sound in the Arabic language you’ve never pronounced, though it might have been in a dentist’s chair.”

  5. The aḥʼa moment, strictly speaking.

  6. How many Arabic langiages / dialects would someone have to know to communicate with almost all Arabs except the most rustic and isolated?
    How about Fusha + Maghrbi + Egyptian + Syro-Palestinian? Would that do it?
    Iraqi? Yemeni?

  7. “raees” ? Is that a different transliteration of what I know as “raïs (king, president)?

  8. To clarify my question, I was wondering how many versions of Arabic you’d have to know to be able to fake it and get by pretty much everywhere, not how many different versions there are (an unanswerable question in Chinese).
    For Chinese Mandarin is now pretty pervasive except among older, less educated people. I have heard it said that learning the dialects of non-standard Mandarin is not all that easy, though (not just regional Mandarin, but also the Mandarin taught in schools in non-Mandarin areas).
    I’m not familiar with any of the Chinese languages other than Mandarin, but they don’t seem to be close enough to each other or to Mandarin for people to fake it from one to the next. It would seem that you’d really need to learn five or ten quite different languages one at a time.
    All subject to correction. (People have told me that it’s possible to fake it from Spanish to Italian or Portuguese, for example, and maybe French, or that Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are mutually more or less intelligible, but not Icelandic.)

  9. “raees” ? Is that a different transliteration of what I know as “raïs (king, president)?

  10. Darcey Kunigisky says

    I learned Danish as an exchange student, and I can understand and read Norwegian and Swedish, but I just can’t speak them comfortably. Icelandic has taken sufficient shifts away that it’s not as easy to comprehend. Norwegian actually has Bokmål (which is the ‘standard’ and very similar to Danish) but there has been a resurgence in nynorsk (lit. ‘new Norwegian’) which was developed as an alternative to the Danish-based alphabet and writing.

  11. Haha… I’ve had a moment or two like that myself and, oddly enough, at least one was while I was trying to understand an al Qaeda video. Maybe that’s step one in converting the whole world to Islam…
    “Ayman al Zawahiri and Rosetta Stone present ‘Learning Jihadi Arabic in 24 hours’!”

  12. Well, I have a friend who speaks Arabic – she studied in Cairo – and when we went to see The Syrian Bride, she told me that she was struggling so hard to understand the Syrian that it took half the movie to realize that the photographer was actually speaking Hebrew.
    Apropos of that, I (of course) didn’t know it until she told me over dinner after the movie, but it made his character’s actions more understandable. I’ve often wished that in multilingual movies the subtitles would make it clear what language each character spoke.

  13. I’ve often wished that in multilingual movies the subtitles would make it clear what language each character spoke.
    You and me both.

  14. I once knew a German, a linguistics postdoc at MIT actually, who had lived in England for a year, but when she came to the US she couldn’t understand a thing. She bought a TV and sat and watched it for hours, understanding nothing. Then in an instant it all clicked. Then she met the man of her dreams, and they lived happily ever after.

  15. Charles Perry says

    For speaking Arabic with educated people, fusha (or the “middle language,” a compromise between fusha and a colloquial stripped of the most striking dialect features) will do anywhere. With uneducated people, Egyptian will be of the most use because Egyptian movies and pop music are so pervasive. Maghribi and Syro-Palestinian obviously help. In my experience, urban Yemenis will gladly speak any dialect with you — they are quite aware that down-home Yemeni is highly divergent.

  16. I’ve been told that Iraqis and Saudis are difficult for Egyptians to understand, John, if that’s any help. The four you mention would probably be enough for anyone to understand you, but maybe six or seven if you want to understand them? Does anyone know about the relation of Maghrebi to Mauritanian, or Egyptian to Sudanese?
    If you know one or more of the Romance languages, you should more or less be able to read the others, but you still might not understand much when it’s spoken, and you certainly can’t make yourself immediately understood in French if you’ve only learned Spanish, or vice versa.

  17. I was actually thinking of “faking” it, in the sense of laboriously hacking things out. I remember reading a story about Italians who didn’t speak Spanish teaching anarchist ideas to Spaniards who didn’t speak Italian. Don’t tell me it couldn’t be true.

  18. marie-lucie says

    John Emerson: It could very well be true: the abstract vocabulary for discussing ideas will be very similar in Spanish and Italian, and the languages are close enough that with some goodwill, each side speaking their own language could manage to understand and be understood up to a point (I presume that such conversations took place in one of the countries, so that the expats were meanwhile learning some of the language of the country they were in even though they might not have been fluent).
    A French speaker will often try to fake words in Spanish and Italian but many words in these languages are full of extra consonants which cannot be guessed (the ones preserved from Latin, ex Italian rotondo, Spanish redondo vs. French rond, from Latin rotundus). I can speak Spanish (not just fake it) but only read Italian, for which I rely heavily on Latin especially for verbal forms. A person not knowing any Latin would be able to understand and even fake many individual words in Italian through Spanish or vice-versa, but it would be hard to do so for many of the verb forms, so a “fake” conversation would be limited.

  19. michael farris says

    Helpful hint for all of you who wish to piss off your Arab friends and acquaintances: Mention how you would like to learn Egyptian or Iraqi or some other colloquial version (if it were written enough to make it worthwhile) but that you find fusha kind of boring. For extra points, you might be foolish enough to mention that Arabs obviously don’t much like it either since they usually go out of their way to not speak it.
    Two things I like about Maltese:
    1. no diglossia (just the normal spoken/written, everyday/formal distinctions)
    2. vowels!

  20. David Marjanović says

    “raees” ? Is that a different transliteration of what I know as “raïs (king, president)?

    It is a different transcription, and both fail to get one of the three consonants across: AFAIK it’s [raʔiːs] (classically at least). (And apparently it originally meant “head”.)
    From the article:

    As the months passed, the sounds of the language were gradually transformed. Arabic’s hard “h” letter, so difficult to pronounce at first, began to seem like a lovely breath of air, as if countless tiny parachutes were lifting the words above their glottal base. The notorious “ayn” sound, which often takes months for English speakers to produce, lost its guttural edge and acquired, to my ear, the throaty rumble of a well-tuned sports car.

    Well, I don’t know. Doesn’t it sound more like a damaged vacuum cleaner if you drag it out too long?
    (But then, I’m almost certainly doing it wrong.)

  21. I do feel confident that Maltese is not the place to start for students of Arabic. Even granted that island’s complex and amazing history.

  22. Very interesting article. I’m tinkering a bit with Arabic, and I feel the same as the article’s author. Arabic is so ‘huge,’ and at times I find myself discouraged and completely lost.
    Thanks again.

  23. Al-Zawahri and Bin Laden are excellent speakers of classical Arabic (fusha), with their videos (with subtitles) useful for learning the language. Though, when it comes to how people speak, using the colloquial dialects, they are indeed very different from fusha, and vary greatly from place to place. There are numerous ways to say “hello”, “how are you?”, yet alone other things.

  24. My great-grandfather and great-uncle where Rais; nowhere near kings or presidents, just the leader of the tuna-catch (called Mattanza, & not for nought it seems) on the west-coast of Sicily. And my great-grandmother was the Raisa, & we are all very proud of these facts.

  25. Yes, as David said it’s etymologically ‘head,’ and you can be the rais of anything from a tuna catch or a village up to an entire country.

  26. A onetime friend of mine was Faris (Godfrey) Glubb, son of Glubb Pasha, who formed the Arab Legion in what was then Transjordan.
    Faris spoke very perfect classical Arabic (that must have been fusha) and very very clipped, correct, Sussex English.
    The last time I saw him (that is, before his father’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey in 1986) was in the ‘I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’ pub in Beirut, about 4 years earlier.
    He was suffering a bit at the time, with a broken leg, broken arm, and a couple of broken ribs.
    He’d been dropped over a cliff by some of those unmentionable ‘anti-terrorist’ invaders from the south of Lebanon, in order to make him talk about something.
    He didn’t tell them anything, of course, and when I met him again after 6 years of civil war in Lebanon, genuinely surprised that he’d survived all that, and very much too effusively pleased about it, all he replied to my enthusiastic stuff was:
    ‘You still owe me that pint of beer, Richard’

  27. After which sentimental tale I would like to add:
    – That was one of the most sympathetic pro-Arabic stories I’ve ever read in the American ‘mainstream media’, and the writer should be congratulated, ten times over (just to show that his feelings are very much in a small minority – for which most Americans should feel deeply ashamed, but don’t).
    I don’t remember much Arabic, but I always wondered about the Maghrebi ‘cous-cous’ which was a pleasant dish of boiled wheat grain, and the Mashraqi ‘cous imak ibn sharmuta’ which meant something very different.
    And the story I was told about Egyptians, in the context of how much they liked jokes, that they pronounced G soft, so that Abdul Gamel Nasser came out as Abdul (Jamal – the Camel) Nasser.
    Is this true, or just a folk myth?

  28. And – sorry for going on a bit –
    1) Jordanians regularly watch Israeli popular TV channels (except for the news; they don’t believe any of that) and follow about 90% of the dialogue. So why aren’t Israelis and Arabs better friends ?
    Don’t PLEASE answer me on that – at least not here.
    2) Where does the Maltese dog come from? Not that piddling little ‘Maltese’ terrier, but (I think I remember right) the kelb ta fniek, that runs more like a horse than a dog. I’ve never seen anything else like it in the Middle East, or anywhere else.
    3) Sara’s story about her Sicilian family’s connection with the matanza tuna-killing and their inheritance of ‘Arabic’ titles is just absolutely wonderful. But is this an inheritance from ‘Arabs’ or from ‘Phoenicians’? If from the latter it’s even more wonderful.
    Puts the rest of us (Americans 200 yrs history, Brits 1000 + a bit yrs history) to shame.

  29. And the story I was told about Egyptians, in the context of how much they liked jokes, that they pronounced G soft, so that Abdul Gamel Nasser came out as Abdul (Jamal – the Camel) Nasser.
    You’ve gotten something mixed up: Egyptian Arabic preserves the Semitic g that other Arabic dialects have changed to j, so that jabal ‘mountain’ in standard Arabic corresponds to gabal in Egyptian. As for Nasser, his full name is Jamāl ‘Abd-al-Nāsir, where ‘Abd-al-Nāsir means ‘servant of the Victorious One’ (there are many Arabic names of this pattern, ‘Abd plus one of the attributes of God) and Jamāl is short for Jamāl al-Din ‘beauty of the faith’ (as in Jamāl al-Din al-Afghāni, the famous 19th-century pan-Islamist). In Egypt, of course, Jamāl is pronounced Gamāl. There is no possibility of mistaking his name for the word for ‘camel,’ because the latter is jamal with short a. There may be jokes playing on the similarity in sound; perhaps you got a garbled version of one of them.

  30. Does anyone know (or can anyone produce informed speculation) as to whether this preservation of [g] in Egyptian Arabic owes anything to a Coptic substrate? I realize that Coptic is not Semitic, but it’s close enough to trigger the Arabic adoption rule (viz. that Arabic spreads as the language of Islam everywhere that Islam does, but only becomes the language of the people where the people formerly spoke another Semitic — or Afro-Asiatic — language.)

  31. Great question; I hope someone has an informed response.

  32. Well, it now seems that Egyptian Arabic [g] is a Duke of York phenomenon. However, Southern Yemeni Arabic [g] may be a substrate effect, as the Modern South Arabian languages preserve [g].

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    the Arabic adoption rule

    Well, Arabic hasn’t replaced Somali or Hausa.* Admittedly Egyptian seems to have been closer to Semitic than Cushitic or Chadic are, though – maybe; there seems to be little consensus on such matters, and the the antiquity of attestation of Egyptian and various Semitic languages is likely to give a spurious impression of particular closeness.

    Again, Coptic had deviated so far from any putative Proto-Afroasiatic typology (and even from Middle Egyptian) that I’m not sure it really resembled Arabic that much more closely than Persian does.

    I suppose Arabic has replaced much of Berber, but that seems to be largely due to fairly specific historical developments rather than the degree of resemblance of the languages. And Tamashek doesn’t seem to be in grave danger of being replaced by Arabic AFAIK (African lingua francas look to be more of a threat.)

    But Lameen is the one who really knows about this stuff.

    * The solidly Muslim character of the ethnic Hausa, particularly outside the cities, is a fairly recent phenomenon, too – much later than the Muslim takeover of Egypt (in Nigeria, it seems to have really taken off in rural areas only after the British conquest, and was largely the result of peaceful osmosis, not military jihads.) So that’s another reason why the analogy with the fate of Coptic is not brilliant. I don’t know enough about the history of Somalia to know if it’s a better example.

  34. ” the Arabic adoption rule”

    the former Roman empire

  35. Worth’s quote in LH’s post made me smile.

    I never listened to al-Qaida guys, but I can imagine.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    “Don’t worry,” one of my teachers told me half-jokingly. “Arabic is only hard for the first 10 years. After that it gets easier.”

    That is reassuring.

  37. A little correction: for the first few years it is fun then for ten years it is hard and then it is fun again.

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    Yeah, I thought it seemed a bit too good to be true …

  39. There may be jokes playing on the similarity in sound

    You don’t say

    Живёт в песках и жрёт от пуза
    Полуфашист, полуэсер,
    Герой Советского Союза,
    Гамаль Абдель на-всех-Насер.

  40. Why not true? As a foreign learner you don’t have to deal with compulsory education.

    And are 3 cases enough for a Russian?

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah, but Arabic cannily makes an unnervingly complex overall system out of its mere three cases and handful of nearly-but-not-quite-identical declensions. It’s thrifty that way. Presumably the idea is to make you go “What, only three cases?” Then, Zap! The sucker punch.

  42. >the Arabic adoption rule

    I thought it was the Phormerly Phoenician rule.

  43. (maybe Previously Punic?)

  44. I have a random Arabic question: I suppose everyone knows la ilaha illallahu, the Islamic creed. Another place where massive confluence of l’s happens is lines about night (layl, or just li:l in dialects) in songs and poetry.

    Any more instances of great confluences of l’s?

  45. полуэсер

    What does half-SR mean?

  46. PlasticPaddy says

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