Monday, June 25, 2012

The "ida'afa"

I initially wrote this post as an email circular on 27 April. I'm not sure why I posted it then. But here it is, for your delectation. Health warning: it contains a fair amount of Arabic grammar.


The news in brief, since my last post. Significantly, my Korean housemate has returned, almost entirely recovered (apart from lingering pains in the neck, and a foot that doesn’t always do what it’s told). Furthermore, as a result of the accident, he will likely stay longer than he had previously been intending to, to make up for lost time. On the downside, his parents (who were quite happy for him to come immediately following the revolution) are now entirely opposed to his being in such a dangerous country, and have withdrawn his funding.

I have abandoned my study of a’mir (colloquial Arabic) on the grounds that to study the grammar and vocabulary of fus’ha (formal) and a’mir together was too confusing to be helpful. And for other reasons – more on that below. Against that, however, I have finished my first textbook. This may not mean much to you, so I give the additional information that it is about 400 pages long, and that students at Leeds University (chosen as an example only because I met one of them who told me) take 18 months to do the same. But then, they are studying other things too, as well as having a social life, so are probably more well-rounded and have more friends…

Final piece of quick news is my new teacher. My previous teacher left (most inconsiderately!) to have a baby – but before, she made an arrangement with the manager that I was to be given the ‘best teacher in the school’ (I thought that this was just her trying to make me feeling fine about her leaving, but others have independently verified this fact). My new teacher is, indeed, incredible. My previous teacher was very good, but her skills pale in comparison to my new one. Though she can speak English, I only discovered this after several lessons, when we reached a total impasse in explaining a new grammatical concept, and she had to resort to a couple of words of it. As a result of being forced, for two and a half hours a day, to speak and listen to Arabic only, my capacity has come on in leaps and bounds. There are only two problems: 1) it is fus’ha, which no one on the street speaks (though laughter is a common response – fus’ha often appears in films to mark out a comic character with a geekish nature…); 2) even if they did, my teacher speaks to me very slowly so that I can understand her – most people aren’t so considerate.

Given the length of my ‘news in brief’, the remainder of this post will be brief, and consist (sort of) of a short lesson in Arabic grammar. This will, I suspect, be completely useless to you in your general lives.

There is a strange piece of formal Arabic grammar related to case endings. Basically, nouns and verbs will end with a different sounds (though they’re not spelt differently) depending on whether they’re the subject or object, or come after a preposition, or a host of other factors. This applies to all nouns and verbs (though sometimes it seems only to happen in one’s head – I presume this little trickery will become clearer later), including names. Hence much childish fun was had talking about George-oo Bush-aa, or Tony-oo Blair-aa (or, for that matter, Peter-oo Welby-aa). There seem to be a variety of problems, however, with this whole arrangement. One of these would be that whereas foreign names (of people or places) have this ‘oo-aa’ rhythm, Arabic names have an ‘oo-oo’, or possibly ‘oo-ee’, for a reason that will follow (I’m not entirely clear on when it is what – I tend to guess – and why Arabic names are different. It seems that a lot of the time, Arabic grammar rules come about largely because some authoritative text wrote in the way that the grammar prescribes, and it was the hard job of some unfortunate soul to come up with a reason why…). But a difficulty was hit upon in my teacher trying to explain to me the reason for this structure in names, which is derived from the way that Arabic names follow a set form. Part of the whole problem is that names come into a structure calledidhafa (or, something of the something), as Arabic names follow the structure your-name father’s-name grandfather’s-name family-name (so to take the example of a chap called John, whose father was Michael, and whose grandfather was Charles, he would be John Michael Charles Family-name), which fits into the form name of father of grandfather of family. The family name, to add to the difficulties, is the name of some distinguished ancestor – which led to the plaintive cry from my teacher, when trying to use my name for her example, “but who was Welby?!”. Of course, my middle names didn’t help either – it was quite an effort to convince her that my father was not Douglas. The point of all this is that in an idhafa, the case ending on the second (or final) word is always ‘ee’. Except that it seems from all I’ve just written that this doesn’t seem to quite work for names. And thus I bring this little narrative round in a circle, no further enlightened than I was at the start – and having confused my audience in the process, I fear. Maybe it would be better if we just forgot this whole thing and moved on…

I promised earlier that I would write more about dropping a’mir. There isn’t a great deal more to it than what was stated above – learning botha’mir and fus’ha together is very confusing. It was, however, exacerbated by my teacher having been very apathetic for about three weeks before the decision (as it turned out, she had a good reason – an arranged engagement, with a man she hardly knew, who turned out not to be all that she hoped for. She broke off the engagement, and now seems much happier again). This was not, however, the reason that I gave to the school. It was quite a complicated process: first I went to the administration girls. “I’d like to stop studying a’mir and focus on fus’ha.” Ah, this might be a problem – I’d need to do a placement test to work out where I’d fit in the fus’ha textbook. “No, I’d like to continue studying from the same textbook” (it is essentially a fus’ha textbook in any case, with half a page of a’mir in every ten). This is also difficult, it seems – they call the Director of Students. Oh no, she says, quite impossible – my textbook is for a combination, not for fus’ha by itself. I argue my case a bit further, and am told I need to see the manager. I explain my position to her. “Good idea! Fus’ha and a’mir is too confusing to study together!” I felt slightly aggrieved that she hadn’t told me this in the first place, but I got what I wanted, so I make no complaints…

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