Saturday, March 12, 2011

i am a wizard!

So I know you're all eager to hear about my fantastic spring break, but I'm going to be real with you: spring break is in the past. It was fun, but I can't spend my life looking back at what's happened when there's so much yet to do. The future? It's now. And the future--more specifically, tomorrow at 4 p.m.--has a test in it. An Arabic test. Like a really big Arabic test.

So now is not the time to look back on the fun times that were spring break. Right now, I'm going to study fusha and amia for big test on both of them tomorrow at 4 p.m. And I thought you might like to join me as I review the basics.

First, the alphabet. 28 letters. Remember to read from right to left when you're looking at the Arabic! Underneath the handwritten letters is an attempt to transliterate the sound each letter makes when spoken.

The ABC's, as it were: alif, baa, taa, thaa, jiim, haah (this is pronounced like a short exhale) khaa, daa, tha (this letter is pronounced just like the word "the" in English) raa, zayy, seen, sheen, saad, daad.

Taah, Thaa, ain, ghrain, faa, qaaf, kaaf, laam, meem, nuun, Ha (this one is like the H sound in "Hop") waaw, yaa.

Confused by the 3 different sounds that are all basically "th"? Remember, the difference between, thaa, tha, and Thaa is critical...

...and so is the difference between taa and Taa, seen and Saad, da and Daad, and haah and Ha.

The good news, though, is that the "th" sounds aren't really pronounced at all in spoken Arabic...they take on the sound of their "d" sounding counterparts. For example, the word "thura" (corn) is spelled with a "tha" but pronounced "dura". I complained about this to Ziad when I was first learning the alphabet.
"Why write 'thura' if you're going to say 'dura'?" I whined.
"Say the English word for mayy," he ordered me.
"Wadder," I said.
"Why write 'water' if you're just going to say 'wadder'?" he demanded.
Touche, Ziad.
But I digress. As in English, vowels are very important in Arabic. There are separate letters to denote long vowels (alif, waaw (which can sound like 'oo') and yaa (which can sound like 'ee' or 'ai')). To denote short vowels, there is this very simple system of accents:

Convenient, right? There's one complication though: they actually don't use the short vowel symbols in writing. Yup. They developed this whole system and Reema taught it to us and then it turns out that only kindergarteners and foreign exchange students use the short vowels. But Anna, you say, how will I know what vowel sounds to make when I'm reading?

I asked Reema this same question. Luckily, she had a great piece of advice: "You just have to know."

Just know. Okay, well, I'll get to work on that.

Part of my test is on cultural greetings, so now we will use these letters (read right to left!):

to spell "good morning".

But Anna, you say. None of those letters look anything like the letters you said you were going to use to write "good morning". Perhaps, as we were learning the alphabet, I forgot to mention this fun fact about Arabic: because the letters connect, none of the letters actually look anything like themselves when written in the context of a word. You actually have to learn three different ways to write each letter. So when I said there were 28 letters? What I meant was, there are actually 84 letters. Why didn't I tell you this outright? IT'S A SECRET, BECAUSE BETWEEN THIS AND THE SHORT VOWELS THING NO ONE WOULD EVER CHOOSE TO LEARN ARABIC AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE.

Anyway, "good morning" is pronounced "sabah al-kheir!" which translates literally to "morning of goodness." The correct response is:

or, "sabah in-nour" which means "morning of light." There are other responses that mean "morning of flowers" or and stuff like that. Apparently the game (according to Reema) is to say something nicer than what the other person said to you originally. For this reason, people respond to "marhaba" (hello) with "marhabtein!" (TWO hellos!) or "meet marhaba!" (a HUNDRED hellos!)

This is a formal hello, "is-salamu alaikom" which means "peace be upon you" and the correct response, "u alaikom is-salam" (and upon you). This is what you say when you get into a taxi, or anytime you return to your house.

Let's change tracks for a minute. I have to be able to introduce myself in Arabic. As you know from my previous post ( this sometimes creates drama because my name is pronounced so similarly to the word for "I". Let me illustrate this dilemma. On the right is the word for "I" and on the left is my name:

So, "my name is Anna. What's your name?" looks like this:

Here's one of my favorite sayings: what's up? or "shu fi ma fi?" The response, "safeeeh waafeeeh" gets a laugh from my host family every time I say it, and ever since the first time I told Ziad to ask me "shu fi ma fi" so I could have an excuse to say "safeeeh waafeeeh", they spontaneously prompt me at least once a day.

Another favorite saying, which I asked Reema for after I finally got tired of taxi drivers assuming that I didn't know where I was going and taking the opportunity to take me the looong way around Amman.
"Is there an Arabic phrase that means, 'hey, I know what you're trying to do and it would be cool if you could just, like, take me directly where I want to go instead of cheating me?' " I asked her one day in class. Everyone laughed but it turns out that there is such a phrase:

"Ana bint balad, baraf al-tareeq!" Which means, literally, "I am a girl from this country and I know my way." Reema said that the best part about this saying is that if you know to say it in a taxi, then the drivers will know that the meaning is true...because if it wasn't, where would you have learned to say this? (Answer: from Reema.)

Some Arabic words just look really pretty, like my friend Leila's name and the way to spell Libya:

I particularly like writing "mustashfa" (hospital):

And, of course, to finish this off, my favorite sentence to write, because writing in Arabic makes this terrible language learner feel like it's true:

or "I am a wizard!"

Gotta study. Spring break adventures coming soon.


  1. That's stressful. Good luck!!!

  2. Thank you for this. Hahahahaha

  3. 日本語とアラビア語の難しさは同じと思う。

    Believe me, I feel your pain.

  4. Hi, Anna, loving this as usual! thanks for giving us something to laugh about during this difficult week! hope you did well on your test!
    all the best,