Adventures in Arabic, Part I

The Arabic alphabet or "abjad*" of 28 letters, read from right to left. (See glossary for asterisked items.)

The Arabic alphabet or abjad* of 28 letters, read from right to left. (See glossary for asterisked items.)

After more than a decade of study, it’s safe to say that I’m a pretty experienced language learner. To me, languages are a medium for learning more about neighbors, those near and those far. If you say “direct and indirect object pronouns,” I know what you mean. “Accents and diacritical marks”? Got that, too. “Formal and informal registers?” Yes, I understand. But here’s a series of terms that are altogether new to me:

  • hamza and glottal stops
  • teeth and tails
  • vowelled and unvowelled texts*.

(See the glossary at the end of the article for asterisked items.)

These are all characteristic of the Arabic language, and, before August 24, 2015, the first day of the Fall 2015 term, I had never heard of them.

Thanks to the Center for African Studies and the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS), I am on a journey that is not only introducing me to new vocabulary but is taking me on a metaphorical tour of lands I’ve never known. In this two-part blog series, I will review the first month of class meetings my Arabic 201 course has had and introduce you to some potentially new revelations.

The overarching goal of these pieces is to introduce you to print, digital, human and interdepartmental resources available to you in our library and all over campus should you be interested in Arabic, the Middle East, its diaspora, and/or Islam. In the first installment of “Arabic Adventures,” we will cover two topics, each with five themes: “Modern Day Use of the Language” and “Characteristics of the Language.” Be sure to check the Glocal Notes blog next week for “Ways to Cope with Difficulty” and “Miscellany,” in which we will explore more curiosities.

MODERN DAY USE OF THE LANGUAGE

coffee shop

The Farsi (Persian) language written in Arabic script. It reads kaafee shaap, or “coffee shop.” Photo Credit: Rui Abreu

The Arabic script is used to write many different languages.

Just as the Latin script—the one you are currently reading—is used to write many languages like English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and German, the Arabic script is used to write multiple languages as well. That is, the symbols used to write Arabic are the same symbols used to write Persian, Urdu, Pashtu and Kurdish. Combined, there are more than 560 million speakers of these four languages all over the world. Before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish was also written with the Arabic script (Csató 135).

Demand for the language is growing (Conlin)!

Every seat in my classroom is full and has been for four weeks. This surprises me because the class meets five days a week and has handwritten homework due almost every day. Among the undergraduates and graduate students, we even have someone auditing the class. Students want to be there and are very motivated with the language. Moreover, the United States’ government has recognized the importance of developing a multilingual citizenry and has therefore established multiple lines of funding to support committed language learners in their efforts to master other tongues. Among the scholarships and fellowships available are the following:

There will be an information session regarding the Critical Language Scholarship Program on campus, October 8, 2015 from 3:30- 4:30 at 807 S. Wright St. Floor 5 (Illini Union Bookstore), Room 514. Students of Arabic and 13 other languages are eligible to apply.

An early edition of the textbook Alif Baa by Kristen Brustad used in beginning Arabic classes at the University of Illinois. Photo Credit: Meedan Photos

An early edition of the textbook Alif Baa by Kristen Brustad used in beginning Arabic classes at the University of Illinois. Photo Credit: Meedan Photos

Variants of the Arabic language are not 100% mutually intelligible.

In our classroom, we use a pair of textbooks titled Alif Baa and Al-Kitaab. (Alif is the first letter of the Arabic abjad* and baa is the second. Kitaab is the word for “book.”) With this text, we learn Modern Standard Arabic, which is also known as fusHa and is understood by most native speakers of Arabic. However, given the wide breadth of people and countries where Arabic is spoken—conservatively, from Morocco to Iran— the variations between and among regional dialects can make communication challenging. For example, as people in the West are infrequently exposed to the Englishes of India and Nigeria, one must accustom him or herself to varying accents and vocabulary in order understand and be understood. Therefore, learning Arabic in a classroom is a beginning on the road to competency and fluency, not an end.

It is a standard practice for Muslims to learn to read Arabic for the purpose of reciting verses from the Koran (Qur’an), the sacred Islamic text.

However, many Muslims do not speak Arabic or use the language outside of religious contexts. For example, one graduate student I know at the U of I is from Bangladesh. She is a practicing Muslim and is able to read the Koran, but beyond the holy book and polite greetings, her knowledge of Arabic as a modern language is limited. Speaking of which, the Koran’s surahs (chapters) can be read and/or heard for free at quran.com and, as with the Bible, multiple sites allow you to order a free copy. The Google search “free qur’an” yields more than 33 million results.

A young girl learns to read the Koran. Photo Credit: Plan Asia

A young girl learns to read the Koran. Photo Credit: Plan Asia

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE LANGUAGE

Remnants, vestiges and “fossils” in the language reveal its history of contact with other cultures.

Did you know that Arabs ruled what came to be known as Spain and the Iberian Peninsula for nearly eight centuries? The most commonly cited dates are 711- 1492 A.D. (Watt). Arabs also traded heavily with peoples in East Africa, particularly in places like the Swahili Coast and Dar es Salaam (Horton), which forms part of modern-day Tanzania. Wherever the Arabs went, they left a lasting vocabulary that provides evidence of their travels, influences, cultures and wares. While the words below are not all direct translations, they do reflect origins, roots and terms that have had centuries of comparable use in their respective tongues:

Arabic Portuguese Spanish French Swahili English
Insha’aallah! Oxalá!/Espero Ojalá!/Espero J’espère Insha’aallah!/Natumaini I hope/God-willing
mi’a cem cien cent mia one hundred
qmees camisa camisa chemise shumizi/kamisi chemise/shirt
rafeeq amigo amigo ami rafiki friend
sukkar açúcar azúcar sucre sukari sugar
zeit azeite aceite huile mafuta ya kupika cooking oil

 

A group of Muslim men bowed in prayer and a young boy playing. Photo Credit: Daniel Bayona

A group of Muslim men bowing in prayer as a young boy poses playfully. Photo Credit: Daniel Bayona

Religion is embedded in the language.

If you ask someone of the Arab world in Arabic how he or she is, an appropriate response is “al-Hamdu li-llah,” meaning, “Thank God.” This could mean “I’m great,” “I’m fine,” “I could be better,” “God is merciful” or simply be a verbal enunciation to accompany a shrug. Here is a list of five common, everyday expressions in Arabic that all contain a variant of “Allah,” the Arabic word for and name of God:

  • Allah!: Wow! What a surprise!
  • al-Hamdu li-llah: Thank God
  • Bismi-llaah: In the name of God (said before or upon beginning something)
  • Insha’aallah: God willing, hopefully
  • Maa shaa a-llah!: Wow, that’s wonderful/beautiful/adorable! (Brustad 166)

When you think about it, this is not so different from:

  • God bless you (after a sneeze)
  • Jesus Christ! You scared me!
  • Lord, have mercy!
  • OMG/Oh my God!
  • TGIF/Thank God it’s Friday!

Right-to-left.

You have probably already heard that Arabic is written from right to left.

.tfel ot thgir morf daer era secnetnes taht snaem osla sihT

Did you catch that?

This also means that sentences are read from right to left.

And organizational paradigms are constructed from right to left. For example, math equations were once carried out as follows:

4 = 2 + 2

7 = 3 – 10

8 = 2\16

Also, when you open a book, its front cover rests in your right hand. If you examine the comic below, note that the text begins in the upper right-hand corner of the right page and ends on the lower left-hand corner of the left page.

A comic written in Arabic. Given the right-to-left reading pattern in Arabic, the panel in the lower left-hand corner of the entire image should be read last. Photo Credit: Maya

A comic written in Arabic. Given the right-to-left reading pattern in Arabic, the panel in the lower left-hand corner of the entire image should be read last. Photo Credit: Maya

 

Some sounds are entirely foreign, like the letters ع (ayn) and غ (ghayn).

There are no English equivalents for either of them and, therefore, they can represent real challenges in aural perception for native English speakers. In transliteration (Language Library), the ع character appears as a small, elevated “c,” as in the following word for “university”: jaami ͨ a.

A screen shot of the word "university" in English, its Arabic script translation and the ع character circled in red, courtesy of Google Translate.

A screen shot of the word “university” in English, its Arabic script translation and the ع character circled in red, courtesy of Google Translate.

#BlackDotsMatter

ب ت ث

See those three symbols above? Each of them shares the same skeleton. However, the dots, their placement and their numbers distinguish them from one another. On the right, the letter is baa; in the middle, the letter is taa; and on the left, the letter is thaa. Arabic can be resourceful in that it uses a limited amount of skeletons for different letters and makes minimal but perceptible changes to convey new meanings.

#NotAllTs

Where the English language uses one symbol for the letter “t,” Arabic uses multiple symbols to distinguish its varying sounds. Being mindful of your tongue, say the words “tab,” “thank,” “that” and “taught” aloud. If you pay close attention, you realize that the “t” sounds are different, particularly with the blends or combinations of two consonants. In Arabic, “tab” would be written with a ت,“thank” with a ث,“that” with a ذ and “taught” with a ط. The same is true with the letter “s”: “said” would begin with a س, “should” with a ش and “sought” with a ص.

Cursive is mandatory.

Lastly, for this week’s post, know that in Arabic, letters are generally connected in the written script. Just a handful of the 28 letters make up the exceptions, like ا (alif), (daal), ذ (thaal), ر (raa), ز (zaay) and و (waaw). What makes the writing truly engaging is that the letters generally have an “independent/isolated” shape, an “initial” shape, a “medial” shape and a “final” shape. That is, depending upon where the letter appears in a word, it may take on a different appearance. Take nuun (ن), for example, the equivalent of “n” in the English alphabet. See the image below for its four different manifestations, all dependent upon position.

A screenshot from ArabicPod101.com as seen on youtube.com.

A screenshot from ArabicPod101.com as seen on youtube.com depicting the four representations of the letter nuun.

For more on this topic, visit Glocal Notes next week and remember to like our Facebook page!

*A mini glossary

abjad: A system much like an alphabet that relies strictly on the writing of consonants to relay messages. In other words, short vowels are largely excluded from the script in writing.

hamza and glottal stops: The word hamza describes a written symbol and a sound made with one’s throat. For example, upon saying “uh oh”, the “uh,” the sound produced is hamza. In linguistics, this vocal phenomenon is called a glottal stop. While most native speakers of English only make this sound to signify something haphazard, it is in fact an integral part of the Arabic language.

teeth and tails: Just like tittles – the dots topping the letters i and j – in learning to write Arabic, it is important to pay attention to the letters’ dots, serifs, curvatures, strokes and lengths. The “teeth” refer to the beginning and connecting segments of letters and the “tails” refer to their ending segments.

vowelled and unvowelled texts: In Arabic, words are typically written without short vowels. So, for example, the word “continent” would be written solely with its consonants, such as “cntnnt.” The language relies on the reader’s prior knowledge to supply the necessary vowels. For young and new learners and/or ambiguous messages, texts are generally “vowelled,” or, that is, they include the letters necessary to sound out the words’ pronunciations. These texts, however, are the exception, and not the rule. “Unvowelled texts” are far more common.

References

Brustad, Kristen. Alif Baa: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1995. Print.

Conlin, Jennifer. “For American Students, Life Lessons in the Middle East.” The New York Times. 6 August 2010. Web. 26 September 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/fashion/08Abroad.html.>

Csató, Éva Ágnes. The Turkic Languages. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Horton, Mark. The Swahili: The Social Landscape of a Mercantile Society. Oxford: Blackwell publishers, 2000. Print.

“Transliteration.” Language Library: A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Hoboken: Wiley, 2008. Credo Reference. Web. 27 Sep 2015.

Watt, W. Montogomery. A History of Islamic Spain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965. Print.

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“The Organic Globalizer: Hip Hop, Political Development, and Movement Culture”

Screenshot (191)

The Organic Globalizer: Hip Hop, Political Development, and Movement Culture,” edited by Christopher Malone and George Martinez, Jr., is a compilation of essays that explore the ways in which hip hop culture serves as an “organic globalizer.” In the opening chapter, Malone and Martinez define organic globalizer as a movement which “builds a network of grassroots institutions geared toward social justice and political participation both locally and globally” (Malone and Martinez, Jr., 5). Hip hop developed during the early 1970s “among African Americans and immigrant populations in the urban United States” (Flaherty, 131) and has ever since traveled throughout the world, giving other marginalized communities a voice to raise social awareness and promote change.

The authors explore hip hop as a “means of expression for groups that are historically marginalized and outside of traditional political, institutional access to power” (Flaherty, 131-32) from America’s inner-cities and industrial prison complex to the colonized lands of Palestine, Australia, Africa, and Latin America. From the socio-economic disparities and injustices endured by these transnational communities, the authors propose that “hip hop, rooted in a movement culture, has been an artistic medium used to foster awareness, build and transform social institutions, and/or encourage political activism in local communities that have largely found themselves marginalized” (Malone and Martinez, Jr., 15). Therefore, hip hop unites the struggles of international peoples and serves as a force for political engagement, cultural awareness, and social justice on a global scale.

In May 16, 2001, the United Nations sponsored and recognized hip hop as an international culture through the Hip Hop Declaration of Peace. This declaration lists 18 principles which “seek to maintain the dignity and respect of individuals, cultures, tribes, and peoples of the globe . . . [and to promote hip hop] as a veritable source of conflict resolution” (Malone and Martinez, Jr., 11). To honor the message of “The Organic Globalizer” and the forthcoming Hip Hop Awareness Week, I encourage you to visit the International and Area Studies Library to check out “The Organic Globalizer” and the rest of our collection and resources. And, make sure you watch the following videos by artists I consider organic globalizers: Aisha Fukushima, DAM, and Nomadic Massive.

Aisha Fukushima

Vocalist, speaker, RAPtivist, instructor and international artist Aisha Fukushima hails from Seattle, Washington/ Yokohama, Japan. She navigates and explores the intersections between hip hop and social justice through her project RAPtivism, public performances, and speeches. The following video further elaborates on her accomplishments and the work that she has done.

“Hip Hop Lives–Raptivism Around the World: Aisha Fukushima at TEDxSitka”

DAM

Da Arabian MC’s (Suhell Nafar, Tamer Nafar, Mahmoud Jreri) are known as the first Palestinian hip hop group from a neighborhood called Lyd/Lod. Their work speaks to the struggles of the Palestinian people living under occupation, challenging ethnic and cultural stereotypes, and raising social awareness. Recently, DAM added a new member to the group, Maysa Daw, and they have worked on a new project through a joint effort with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) which addresses the oppression of patriarchal structures. Here is the group’s new video for their single “Who R You?”:

“#Who_You_R (Official Video)”

Nomadic Massive

Nomadic Massive a Montreal-based hip hop group composed of 8 members: Vox Sambou, Nantali Indongo, Lou Piensa, Waahli, Ali Sepu, Meryem Saci, Rawgged MC, and Butta Beats. This super, multicultural and multilingual group of artists conveys their messages in French, English, Creole, Arabic, and Spanish. They have given workshops and worked with international communities, like Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, etc. The following video speaks about the origins of the group and their work to empower and build sustainable communities through hip hop culture.

“TEDxConcordia – Nomadic Massive”

If you are interested in learning more, the following links will direct you to University of Illinois professors, and their curriculum vitas (CVs), for a list of interdisciplinary presentations and publications on hip hop culture.

Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown

Dr. Karen Flynn

Dr. Adam J. Kruse

Dr. Samir Meghelli

Love. Peace. & Hip Hop.

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A little bit of Italy…in Puebla, Mexico

Southern Mexico is filled with beaches, pyramid ruins, great food, and great people. One would not expect a flair of Italian to go with it. There are very few towns in Mexico that are Italian-Mexican communities. But the town of Chipilo, which is located in the state of Puebla, is one of those unique towns.

Chipilo, Puebla. Photo Courtesy of Mauricio Espinoza, 2003

Chipilo, Puebla. Photo Courtesy of Mauricio Espinoza, 2003

I first heard of this town when I visited my grandparents in Puebla City, Puebla. Early in the morning, my grandmother would buy milk from a man – a man who stood out due to his appearance. He was tall, with white skin and blonde hair. Indeed, he stood out in a crowd where the skin color is “normally” brown. I asked my grandmother who the man was and why he looked differently from the other townspeople (keep in mind that I was about 8 or 9 years old at the time). She answered, “He’s a chipileño.” This is what the people from Chipilo are called. It’s been about 10 years since I have been to Mexico, but that memory of the milkman, or chipileño, is still with me.

I wanted to know more about this community, so I decided to use the UIUC library resources to begin my search. According to Gale Virtual Reference, about 3,000 Italian immigrated to Mexico in the 1880’s. About half have since returned to Italy or made their way north, to the United States.

The town of Chipilo, Puebla has a population of around 4,000 people. As stated before, this town is known for their participation in the dairy industry – “Chipilo Brand”, as they call it. It’s been a while since I have been to Mexico, but when I go back, visiting this place will be at the top of my list.

For more information about Chipilo or Puebla City, check out some of the resources we have available. “Conservacion del idioma en una comunidad Italo-Mexicana”, “Biografia de Puebla”, or “The History of Mexico.” For websites regarding this topic, I encourage you to check out “Mi Chipilo”, or “Puebla Historic Center.”

 

Sources:

McDonald, James H. “Italian Mexicans.” Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Vol. 8: Middle America and the Caribbean. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996. 129-132. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

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Resource Spotlight: Türkiye Bibliyografyası

Do you research Turkish language or culture? Are you curious to know what materials are being published in Turkey? This Glocal Notes post is for you! This post is an introduction to Türkiye Bibliyografyası (Bibliography of Turkey in English). This fantastic online resource is maintained by the National Library of Turkey, the body responsible for compiling the national bibliography in that country. The recently revamped Türkiye Bibliyografyası online portal provides access to the national bibliography, as well as several other bibliographic resources, through an intuitive and well-designed interface. As of March 2015, there is no English-language interface for the portal, so prepare to put your Turkish language skills to good use. Below are some details about the various components of the online portal, as well as the options they offer.

Türkiye Bibliyografyası

Screen capture of the Turkish National Bibliography online portal.

Screen capture of the Bibliography of Turkey online portal.

One of the key components of the portal is access to the digital editions of the comprehensive Turkish National Bibliography. This monthly publication covers the period from 2003, when the national bibliography transitioned to an online-only publication, to the present. However, as of March 2015, the latest available issue covers July 2012. To access this material, click on the blue and orange Bibliografyalar panel at the top of the screen and select the appropriate month. The bibliography is available as a PDF or as a compressed file containing a searchable instance of the database. (The .zip file contains an executable FileMaker, Pro file and all of the necessary support files.)

Each issue of the bibliography is divided into three sections for books, periodicals, and audiovisual materials with the entries in each section listed by subject. The following information is available in each entry: title of the work, author, publisher, series, and subject. Each issue also includes the following indexes: authors, corporate bodies, book titles, periodical titles, audio-visual materials, ISBN and ISSN.

Türkiye Makaleler Bibliyografyası

Türkiye Makaleler Bibliyografyası, a bibliography of articles published in Turkish journals, is a new addition to the portal. It contains records of 874,187 articles culled from 5,073 journals published in the Republic of Turkey, and covering the period 1923 to the present. A number of advanced search options are available, including searching by article title, journal title, subject (you can choose from a list of possible subjects), ISSN, and year of publications (you may also specify a range of years). A limited number of filters and sorting options can further specify your results set, and there is an option to email selected records to yourself or someone else. Please note, facsimiles of the article bibliographies for 2003-2012 are also available through the Bibliografyalar interface described above.

Kişi Bibliyografyaları

The portal also contains a number of Kişi Bibliyografyaları, literally short bibliographies, highlighting materials by and about specific individuals that feature prominently in Turkish cultural history. These bibliographies include: M.Akif Ersoy, Mevlana, Hacı Bektaş Veli, Nazım Hikmet, Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, Kaşgarlı Mahmud, and Yusuf Nabi. Also available is the Eski Harfli Basma Türkçe Eserler Bibliyografya, a bibliography of 37,359 different Turkish works published in Arabic, Greek and Armenian characters between 1584-1986.

Türkiye Bibliyografyası is a great resource for researching Turkish history and culture. If you’re interested in learning more, there are a number of resources available through the International and Area Studies Library. Just stop by 321 Main Library or send your question to internationalref [at] library.illinois.edu!

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