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ISMLA Bulletin — June 2021

Arabic – your words are honey on my heart

Author: Shahnaz Alia Ford

“All the words sound the same!”, lament my Year 11 Arabic class. This is a common grievance amongst my pupils as they grapple with the latest avalanche of unfamiliar vocabulary. The official language of 23 sovereign states, Arabic is a language cluster of various dialects spanning the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Modern Standard Arabic. With its origins dating back to the 6th century CE, it is no wonder that the total number of words in Arabic is considered upward of 10 million – more than several European languages put together! So how (and why?!) does one go about learning such a language?

Firstly, my pupils’ unsubstantiated claim that all the words sound the same points to a key challenge when learning Arabic – pronunciation. Arabic is unofficially known as the language of the letter ḍād, created by touching the tip of your tongue to the top of your gums and producing a ‘d’ sound. Ensuring you move your tongue further back than you would for an English ‘d’, the sound produced is much thicker and belongs uniquely to the Arabic language. Practising the new and unfamiliar sounds required to speak Arabic is good fun for beginner learners, but the nuance of it can get lost on pupils in later years, as they prioritise vocabulary acquisition. In distinguishing between words, however, pronunciation is paramount. Take, for example, the word ʿibāda (‘worship’), which begins with the famous letter ʿayn (imagine yanking your trapped leg out of a door?!). If you relax ʿayn into the letter alif and pronounce the word simply as ibāda, then the talk moves from worship to ‘extermination’ – not a mistake you want to make.

Arabic words fit into patterns and groups, which is why different words structurally tend to resemble one another. Learning the verb istaḵdama (‘to use’), my pupils explode, “But that sounds exactly like the verb from yesterday!”, recalling istakshafa (‘to explore’). We pause to discuss that Arabic verbs fit into particular forms or patterns, and here we are dealing with Form 10 verbs, which always begin with the prefix ist- followed by the root letters. Indeed, Arabic constructs most of its words on a basic root of generally three letters. For example, the letters ḵ-d-m are found in words pertaining to ‘service’, such as ḵidma (‘service’), ḵādim (‘servant’), yaḵdum (‘to serve’). The ist- prefix found in Form 10 verbs can imply ‘to seek or request’. Therefore, the verb in question, istaḵdama, means ‘to seek a service from’, that is ‘to use’. Yes, it is outwardly complex, but my slightly mollified class gives an encouraging nod of appreciation for the underlying brilliance of this structure.

Embracing the root system is crucial in expanding one’s Arabic vocabulary as it provides the semantic field for the basic concept understood in those three letters. These letters can be manipulated to transcend the abstract noun and form the associated verb, the subject of the verb, the place where the verb might occur, active and passive particles, and more. Illustrating this to my pupils, I particularly enjoy the example of yaḵbiz al-ḵabāz al-ḵubz fii al-maḵbaz (‘the baker bakes bread in the bakery’), with the root letters ḵ-b-z denoting all things bread-related. “Wait!”, exclaims a pupil, “That’s just like yaktub al-kaatib al-kitaab fii al-maktab (‘the writer writes the book in the office)!” The pupils are momentarily dumbstruck but soon there is a palpable excitement that this seemingly endless expanse of unfamiliar vocabulary is far more intuitive than previous assumed, and ultimately a touch more manageable.

A wide breadth of vocabulary facilitates a real precision of expression, and the beauty of Arabic is its ability to capture the everyday essence of human living. This is a language that not only needs at least ten different words for love, but countless words for camel, which transcend the standard jamal (‘male camel) in order to best depict their different strengths, appearance, and even drinking habits (al-ḡab – ‘camel that drinks water every two days’). Arabic is raw and unfiltered in expressing human emotion. Responding to a kind word, you may say kalaamak ʿasal ʿala qalbii (‘your words are honey on my heart)’. Sweet enough, but you may equally reply tu’bir albii (‘you bury my heart’). Ostensibly a tad sinister to the English speaker, invoking body parts or organs is how the Arabic language conveys the depth of human experience, which become almost corporeal in nature. It brings real fervour and joy to everyday human interaction, if not just amusement when pupils yell “You bury my heart!” when borrowing a pen.

It is one of the hardest languages to learn for English speaker – with good reason. Yet for the pupils, learning Arabic is an unparalleled opportunity that transcends even its linguistic genius and gives them a taste of a wider culture born from the warmth of shared human experience.