Can I buy a vowel, habibi?

Can you read the following sentence?

Ds ths mk sns?

Hint: Add some vowels

Does this make sense?

Where did the vowels go? For speakers of other languages a lack of vowels may be normal. I am talking about you, Arabic and Hebrew. Neither of these distant Semitic cousins spell out their vowels in a way English speakers are used to. Diatrical marks are used in both Hebrew and Arabic to denote vowels, but those generally only appear in the Torah or Qur’an.   So without the requisite vocabulary those road signs you see might be leading you to Tal Avov, Israel or in another case perhaps into the country of Jirdon. It’s a bit of a bummer for the casual language student like me.  Thankfully CLP has tons of material to help me satisfy my curiosity about foreign languages or dive in for some serious self-instruction. Thnks  lbrry! By the way, I hear the beaches at Tal Avov are really nice.

I have always wanted to learn Arabic. For starters, the script is simply gorgeous, even when unadorned. The Islamic tendency to avoid pictorial representations created a drive to perform some incredible feats of design and artistry in calligraphy. Unfortunately Arabic is not the easiest language to learn. And by not the easiest language, I mean one of the hardest languages.  The rather intuitive root system lulls you into a false sense of confidence before the myriad cases and combinations knock the wind out of your sails. Anyway, it’s fun to study, once I abandon my fantasies of wowing the native speakers with my fluency.

The library has a great selection of titles on Arabic instruction, books to help you learn the script, the spoken languagegrammar (ugh), etc…

Written Hebrew always has that certain aura of the ancient even if you are just using it to print an ad for a used exercise bike. And Rashi script is quite easy on the eyes as well. The library has this amazing book from artist Adam Rhine, a selection of contemporary illuminations and a treat for anyone interested in design or calligrahpy.

The history of the Hebrew language itself makes for an interesting story, resurrected from the liturgy and turned into a living language. It uses the same sort of root system as Arabic but the grammar is much easier. I had a lot of fun looking through the Teach Yourself edition for Hebrew and this kid’s book helped me with the alphabet. As everybody knows, both Arabic and Hebrew use that CH sound, the “ch” from Bach, which is simply fun to make.  I don’t know why, but it is.

I still have a hard time with my ו and נ and I switch up my ب and ت a lot, but it’s all for fun anyway.  If you are not cramming for school or a business trip, then it is very enjoyable and rewarding to just learn an alphabet or pick up a word or two in whatever language strikes your fancy. Even a long way from fluency you can feel more connected to people.



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4 responses to “Can I buy a vowel, habibi?

  1. ZZMike

    It’s odd about those vowelless alphabets – because it’s the vowels that make speech possible. Consonants are just modifiers or openers and closers for vowels. (Try singing a song without sounding the vowels. (Maybe that’s what Vogon poetry sounds like.))

    A story from Biblical history: Scribes in the Middle East (way back when) used an organic ink (not “organic” in today’s parlance, just made of vegetables &c.) . Also, Hebrew has these “vowel points” (little dots around the letter) to help with the pronunciation. Every now and again, the scribe would leave the finished page out in the sun to dry; a fly would come along and eat one of the vowel points, and change a word.

    It’s an interesting exercize to learn different alphabets. I started with Arabic a long time ago (it was Persian then (I’d been reading Mircea Eliade)), but haven’t kept it up. And they write the wrong way across…..

    Russian (Cyrillic) is a good one – and they don’t have capital letters, either.

    A current long-term project is to learn the two “simple” Japanese alphabets, so I can at least pronounce a few words. (The Chinese and Japanese have taken calligraphy to extreme heights.)

  2. Nice work Sky. Reading Hebrew without vowels is now second nature, and sets me up for suitable gotcha moments when I’ve been at/on the pulpit reading Torah, and get shut down by the 13 year old.
    The job I really want in Israel is to be the “Official” Transliterator. It’s annoying to get in the car and travel to a destination that along the way has 3 English variations while the Hebrew and Arabic ones remain constant. Are you going to Kiryat Anavim, Qiryat Anavim, or Quirat Anavim? The other frequently abused word is the simple one for town or village. Will it be Kfar Saba, Kefar Saba, or Cfar Saba? For blanks and giggles you’ll also see Saba spelled as Sava.

  3. Sky

    Thanks for the tidbits ZZMike. I am sure hiragana and katakana won’t be much trouble for you. Different alphabets and writing systems are fascinating. That stuff about the ink and the flies is mind-boggling.

    And Rich, oh man, the road sign situation is much worse than I imagined apparently. Thankfully if just go west I will hit a beach eventually.

  4. Very interesting blog. I am not sure, though, that a lack of vowels isn’t just an inconvenience for those of us in the West. In music, it is the spaces between the notes which make the music flow.

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