Monday, April 11, 2011

Pidgin Arabia

pidgin |ˈpijən|
noun [often as adj. ]
a grammatically simplified form of a language, used for communication between people not sharing a common language. Pidgins have a limited vocabulary, some elements of which are taken from local languages, and are not native languages, but arise out of language contact between speakers of other languages. Compare with creole,sense 2.
• ( Pidgin) another term for Tok Pisin .
ORIGIN late 19th cent.: Chinese alteration of English business.

This is a good summary of my relationship with اللغة العربية (that's the arabic language). I've learned the alphabet, gone to 120 hours of class (with the godawful schedule of 8:30 am to 12:00) and gone up to Chapter 6 in Al Kitab, the authoritative textbook for American Arabic students. After all of this, I'm prepared to enter into a second year Arabic class and I'm almost completely incapable of communicating my basic needs.

There are a few explanations. Firstly, Arabic is obviously a difficult language. The 28 letters include three different types of H, a letter that you have to slightly choke yourself to pronounce correctly and hardly any vowels. In fact, in most Arabic words the vowels are absent so that you have to know the word in order to pronounce it correctly. To make matters more confusing, it is a root language so the words for "he studies", "professor", and "I teach" are all startling similar looking: أدرس المدرس يدرس
(it's also written from left to right, by the way). And, the grammar is nothing short of outrageous: there are thirteen different ways to conjugate a verb in each tense since "you" is not enough, it has to be gendered, and singular and plural is not sufficient, dual must be included.

Also, Arabic is an incredibly diverse language. It is the single factor that unites the Arab world, reaching from Morocco on the Atlantic coast to the Gulf States and down to Somalia. As the language of the Koran, Arabic roots can be found in languages across the Muslim world; Swahili, the lingua franca of states along the Indian Ocean, derives it's name from Arabic while it is estimated that 3,000 some words of Indonesian have Arabic origin (fun fact: Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country). The Moors also left a substantial the Spanish language, making my Arabic vocabulary skewed towards those with Spanish origins--I know how to say olive oil, but the word for apple still escapes me. The vastness of Arabic, however, leads to incredible variation within the language itself.

When I told my friend who lived in Egypt I was studying Fusha, she laughed and then waxed poetic on the uselessness of that language. Fusha is an invented language that is dervived from Classical Arabic, the language of the Koran, and operates as the standard tongue for business, literature and media in the Arab world, however it is almost never spoken on the street.

Each country has their own dialect which is an amalgamation of words from indigenous cultures, previous colonizers and regional slang. Nothing is static--conjugations differ, some letters exist in areas that don't in others and entire vocabularies are mutually unintelligible. Darijia, the Moroccan dialect, is a famously strange mix of French, Berber (there are 3 dialects of that) and Spanish. The story is that Moroccans can understand almost any Arabic speaker while no one can understand the Moroccans. For example, in Fusha what is your name is "Ma ismookee/kah?" while in Darijia it is "Shnoo smitek?" Fusha is the equivalent of speaking Ye Olde English today.

This puts Arabic learners in the awkward position of speaking a language no one else does. When I came home to my host mom after class, excited to begin to communicate with her I was sorely disappointed to discover that she couldn't understand my butchered Fusha any better than my English.

This is where Pidgin comes in. My mom and I talk in a combination of a little English, a little Darijia and occasionally Fusha. On the streets I ask for directions in Arabic, am answered in French, and when things get confusing they sometimes resort to English or Spanish. Luckily, Moroccan are an incredibly multilingual people, most speaking Darijia, French, some Fusha and some English, and in the North, Spanish. I collect words that are easy to remember in Arabic and English words that seem to be intelligible in French (toilet?). It's very frustrating not being able to communicate but there is a certain satisfaction when somehow three languages and many hand motions later, you begin to understand each other.