The geography of language – desert

After more than three months of the Project, I think it is a good time to start looking at the individual languages in some more depth.

Obviously it won’t be too much depth. Three months of erratic progress doesn’t qualify me as an expert on any of my five target languages, but I can at least provide some first impressions.

I may be influenced by the landscape of the home regions of these languages, but each seems to typify a different geography.

Let’s start with the most obvious link – the desert and Arabic. The simplest analogy is of the gutturals which litter the Arabic alphabet; if that sounds like clearing a dry, dusty throat, then we can well imagine the link.

But in the same way that the desert demands a resilient and resourceful population, who can make the most out of the most basic resources, Arabic contains a number of simplifications which make it more straightforward than you might realise.

How many vowel sounds are there in most languages? Even French (with no compound vowels or diphthongs) has at least nine. Please feel free to comment below if you want to post an exact number.

Arabic has either three or six, depending on whether you are willing to count short and long vowels as one or two. All that you need are “ah” (short and long), “i” (short and long) and “oo” (you know).

The words also work around basic building blocks of consonants, usually in sets of three, although this can be two, four or even five (so I am informed by my Jordanian teacher).

Imagine if the English word “write” or at least the core consonants of “r” and “t” allowed for every permutation of the word. Not just verbs like write, writes, wrote and written (OK we do that), but also “writer” (we do that too) and “book” (Aargh!).

English has a lot of variations that are not strictly logical; teacher, to teach, but school; player, to play, but game.

Admittedly, Arabic has lots of consonants, many of which are quite foreign to the English ear and tongue (and throat). I won’t comment on the verb structures just yet. I have a felling that our teacher is softening us up for a big hit of grammar in the coming weeks, so I may have to qualify this report later on.

But the other rule of the desert is hospitality, and after about 13 weeks of lessons, I can say that we have learned a large number of greetings. Whether it is “Good morning”, “Pleased to meet you” or “Goodbye”, the teacher is drumming into our Anglo skulls the correct phrases.

So if you are thinking about learning Arabic, I would suggest the following. Get a good bottle of water, a big smile and be prepared to nod. And if my single experience of practice with an Arabic-speaker has broader relevance, get ready to impress a lot of people. I suspect that Arab speakers are not used to foreigners using their beautiful language (to say nothing of the script).

P.S. – if you would like to read more about Arabic from someone with a lot more experience than me – click here to learn more about Arabic and other Semitic languages.

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This entry was posted in Arabic, Lessons learned, Rules of the Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The geography of language – desert

  1. mezzoguild says:

    Thanks for the mention, Ian.
    Looks like you’re enjoying your journey with Arabic so far. Good stuff! 🙂

  2. rubinoz says:

    Thanks Donovan for doing the hard slog of documenting some of the Semitic advantages.
    Definitely enjoying the Arabic ride so far. Can’t wait to find more real-life opportunities to put into practice.

  3. Pingback: The geography of language – forest | The Babel Project

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