Lost in Tarjama: Arabic for the Pinoy

>> Saturday, August 4, 2007

As with any new language or dialect, the hardest part in learning it is not the new characters or letters, it's keeping a straight face when your teacher says a new word but translates to something bad or funny in your native tongue.

Like our ancient Baybayin, the Arabic alphabet reads like the alibata or the Tagalog abakada. There is no link between Arabic and Baybayin or Tagalog but coming from this language, it was easier for me to understand the concept.

The Arabic language does not have vowels in the standard alphabet which consists of 28 consonants. Words are formed as you would imagine an SMS message devoid of vowels to maximize the alloted space. For example the Arabic word for "girl" is BINT but since they don't spell out vowels it is only written in Arabic as BNT or بنت. It's confusing because the beginner might read the text as BaNaTa so to aid the student in sounding off the word correctly, vowels, in the form of orthographic signs, are placed on top of the consonants.

The Arabic language can sound scary to the uninformed ear but once you get used to it and open your mind and listen to native speakers, you'll find that it is beautiful and quite easy to learn.

One thing I had to remember early on was that the Arabic alphabet does not have a letter "P". I noticed this when I first arrived in Doha because my boss can't seem to decide whether to call me Jaffy or Javvy. He simply cannot pronounce the letter "P". In place of this, the "B" is sounded off thus, pen becomes 'ben' and paper becomes 'baber' and "Jap, please pass the pen and paper" becomes "blah". Check out how my nickname is spelled out in this particular thread at Qatar Living where Arab speakers even type "b" instead of "p" making my handle sound like a kung fu move.

And so I started learning the alif, ba, ta, tha, etc. I can say that I've mastered 80% of the Arabic alphabet (reading, writing and sounding off), with the exception of a few letters that demanded glottal stops a'la Regina Spektor or what the judges in American Idol term as vocal gymnastics. The ع ('ayn ), for example, looks deceivingly easy to pronounce basing on the guide but in reality resonates like somebody choking from between your legs.

To learn several letters quickly and be familiar with some words, my mu'allim taught me some words that were simple enough to write and read and remember. Other words though are unforgettable because of the inevitable crossover of languages. It's good if two words from different languages are almost the same in sound and in meaning, like bantaloon=pantalon (trousers), but what if it's something dirty?

I almost laughed at my mu'allim's face with a generous serving of spit when he gave me the word for the day. "Today, I'm going to give you a word that is very important to Qatar, it means 'pearl'," my guru said, writing the word in Arabic on a piece of paper. "Now repeat after me," he said. "Lu'-lu'". I almost died of stifling one of the best laughs of the year! "Lu'lu'" mu'allim said again because I have stayed quiet for a few seconds. With lips quivering, I repeated a fast "lu'lu'". (For those who don't get why I found Lu'lu' funny: Lu'lu' means masturbate in my Ilonggo dialect).

I thought the worst was over. "Now what if you say "the pearl"?" mu'allim asked. "Al Lu'lu'?" I guessed. "No, it's lu'lu'-ah. Again, lu'lu'-ah." (now he's just commanding me to masturbate him). I wanted to share to him this funny coincidence but I figured he might get offended since a lot of Muslims treat their language as Holy so I decided to keep it to myself...but share it to the world.

I'm now reviewing the Arabic alphabet and will be having my exams soon. Next month we'll probably be doing grammar and more words.

It's back to pre-school for me. Meet my classmate.


10 responses:

intsik 05 August, 2007  

hahahahahahahaha japs, im on a call when i read this and i forgot my spiels. hahahahaha nalibak ko ang customer ko in bisaya... hahahahaha

enjoyed this one. lulu-ah? hahahahaha

interesting jud diay. makaconverse naka in arabic?

Anonymous 05 August, 2007  

since my mother bought me "French Self Taught", i was forced to self-study the language. man, i lasted for about 30 minutes. it was hard for a 16 y/o at that time. but i am planning to resurrect my affair with french probably after graduation, when i have all the time in the world.

you have a nice site too!

Jap 06 August, 2007  

LoL@intsik =) mayra gani in Bisaya mo cya na libak hehehe I can 'understand' normal conversation with an accuracy of 30-45% but I cannot speak a complete sentence. I know some words though and I'm quick to tell them Mafe Arabi =) hehehe


Thanks, Meloi! =) Good if you can get back on the French. Learning a new language is hard especially if you're on your own. I tried learning Arabic by myself the first three months I was here. and later on, I found out that I got the pronounciation of the alphabet wrong, it's always advisable to get a native speaker to help you so you won't end up uttering a word that might have another meaning if pronounced differently.

slim whale 06 August, 2007  

learning a language with a writing system that is not latin-based is like studying calculus for me. it just seems so complicated. but i guess once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to master it easily. immersion is the best teacher. good luck with your studies!

Jap 06 August, 2007  

Thanks slim =) yep, it was overwhelming at first but it turned out that writing in Arabic was easier than speaking it.

You know how to speak French, right? Had a hard time with that 'phlegmic' sound? hehehe there are, I think, four to six variations of that. It all sounds the same to me (sounds gross) but I can't seem to get it off my vocal chords =)

HRHMax 06 August, 2007  

This post instantly took me back to Riyadh circa 1985 when my first grade Arabic teacher (who was of Thai origin) tried to teach us the word for 'airport'. Unfortunately, he couldn't pronounce the letter R. So as you can imagine, my 6-year-old deviant self was cracking up over him saying 'aipot' over and over. (for the non-Ilonggos, he was making the equivalent sound for the word "shit".)
I must admit that I now regret not fully learning the language while I was there. I'm blaming it on my scary teacher, whose old school ruler-spanking tactics always led me to cut class, I mean, hide out in the bathroom.

Fabulous post, Jap!

Jap 06 August, 2007  

Thanks, Max =) I was gonna ask you if you still remembered some Arabic but I guess the answer is 'mafe' lol =)

Sayang kun na-master mo tani ang alif-ba-ta, sa imo na lang ako nagpatudlo. =)

slim whale 07 August, 2007  

wow, really? arabic has four different variations of the guttural 'r' in french? I don't have any problems with the French 'r' but to actually have variations of that "phlegmic sound" is unimaginable for me! what's that like? half phlegm, thick plegm, bring-me-to-the-TB-ward phlegm, gee, it must be really difficult.

HRHMax 07 August, 2007  

Ay sus, I have long forgotten most of it. I can get by with basic greetings like the Peace be with you BS (because with all the wars going on in that part of the world, is peace really in their midst?), Marhaba and I'm Filipino.

But we still use random words and phrases in our family like, moya minfadlak, mafe muskila, la, aiwa, shoof, yalla, etc.

As you can see, my lesson plan would have been very limited. You don't want a teacher who can only count to six! hahaha!

Jap 07 August, 2007  

LoL@slim! I read in a book explaining that it almost sounds like the French guttural 'r' but not quite. It's more like a shy phlegm, a pa-sosyal phlegm, dry cough and an angry phelgm hehehe they are also very particular with their two H sounds.


Maxie, mafe mushkila is one of my favorite phrases because it reminds me of The Godfather LoL "khalas" (finish) is my least favorite. They use it everytime they want to end a conversation and I find it annoying when they say it and I'm still trying to explain something. And when they say khalas they really mean it! =) Unlike sa aton nga kun maghambal 'tapos...' it means 'continue' lol hehehe

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