ajnabieh: The open doors of a subway/metro car, with a sign above them, reading "lilsayyidat faqat" [Ladies Only] (sayyidat faqat)
I finally finished posting all my Cairo photos to Flickr; have at. I haven't written notes on each of them, but I'll go back and do that now. No promises as to them being particularly excellent photos...

As I was uploading, I found another "language is cool!" moment. Remember my post from back in the day about English written in Arabic letters? I found a great example that complicates that:


This is a bakery on a side street in Mohandessin, called "Le Gourmet" in Latin letters on one side, and لو جورميه on the other. The Arabic here is great, because it's clearly working directly from the French, rather than via another language. Here we have the ج represents /g/ phenominon, the idea that the word ends in an /h/, and, most interesting to me, writing the vowel of the word "le" using the و, which we usually write as a u in English. I'd write the underlying French vowel as a /ʌ/, I think--and given that Arabic only has three long vowels (and long vowels are preferred for transliteration from other languages, to reduce ambiguity), u is probably a better choice than a or i. Still, though, not where I would have gone, with a more orthographic and less sound-based transliteration plan.
ajnabieh: The McDonalds Arch, with text in Arabic reading "ماكدونالدز مصر"/makdunaldz masr/McDonalds Egypt. (ماكدونالدز)
I have something of a linguistic puzzle that I can't follow. I'm hoping that both the folks around these parts better at Arabic, especially Cairene Arabic, than I am, and those who have formal training in linguistics, will be able to help me out with puzzling through this question of orthography.

So, Arabic has this letter, jiim: ج. Nice little letter, fifth of the alphabet, reasonably easy to write. In most dialects, it is pronounced like j in jar (IPA /dʒ/); so mountain is jabal, beautiful is jamil, etc. However, in most variants of Egyptian Arabic, it is pronounced like g in grip (IPA /g/); so mountain is gabal, beautiful is gamil. Generally, Egyptian Arabic doesn't have /dʒ/, and other dialects either lack the /g/ or get to it via some other sound change, frequently /q/=>/g/. In many ways, /dʒ/=>/g/ is the 'defining' sound change for marking the Egyptian accent (maybe like the vowel change in 'about' for marking Canadian English? sociolinguists, help me out). For me, at least, this was an easy sound change to remember in the switch from formal/Levantine Arabic to Egyptian; I had a lot more trouble remembering to tell the cab driver I was going 'urayyib min fundu' Flamenco, not qariib min funduq Flamenco, than that I should tell someone their baby was gamil, mashallah.

With that out of the way, here are two pictures of signs outside the same building in the Mohandessin district of Cairo:

"no parking" 2

"no parking" 1

(Sorry they're dark: my iPhone camera only works so-so at night.)

Both are intended to say "private garage," meaning that you can't park there; parking is at a premium in Mohandessin, most streets are double parked, and young men make livings rearranging parking on the streets to be more efficient. The issue is how they wrote the word 'garage.' The Arabic word is generally pronounced like the English version (though I think it actually comes into Arabic from French). Therefore, in most Arabic dialects, the Arabic alphabet would contain a way of writing the last sound, /dʒ/, but not necessarily the last; in Egyptian Arabic, the alphabet has a way of writing the first sound, /g/, but not the last.

Arabic has a way to handle this: it borrows the letter چ back from Persian and its related languages, where it represents the sound /t͡ʃ/. Those three dots underneath indicate that it represents a sound not found in Arabic. This is a regular pattern in Arabic: Havana Hotel, where I was staying, wrote its Arabic name with a ڤ, which is an /f/ with extra dots, for instance, and I've seen پ (/b/ with extra dots) used to make the sound /p/.

But you'll notice that these two signs don't spell the word the same way. The first spells it as چراچ, which I'd write as [dʒajadʒ], or "jah-raj." The second writes it as جراچ, which I would write as [garadʒ], or "ga-raj." I don't have a photo, but I know that I saw it written as جراج at least once, that is, as [garag].

What is going on here?

On the one hand, I really get the signs that use ج for both sounds. That letter is there, it's understood, people will get it. I don't add diacritics or accent marks to my English most of the time if I'm writing a word of foreign origin: I write role, not rôle, for instance, even though it's a direct loan from French. (OK, I probably add more accent marks than most people, but I think we can assume I'm not a typical Anglophone.) I also get the ones that get the spelling "correct," by my understanding of what the sounds in question are.

What I don't understand, at all, is what's happening when the چ is used in both positions. It includes both the 'foreign' sign AND doesn't accurately represent the phonetics of the thing. How did the sign-writer get there?

I can think of a few possibilities, and I'd love thoughts from more linguistically-trained persons than I:

Possibility 1: I've drastically misunderstood how the word 'garage' is said in Cairene Arabic. Fair enough, except that doesn't necessarily explain the inconsistency in how it's written.

Possibility 2: This is a repetition issue. Whoever wrote the sign had a thought process like, "I have to write that one weird letter. Maybe they should both be that weird letter."

Possibility 3: This is an overcorrection. "Wait, one of these ج has to have three dots. Which one? Can't remember. I'll just do both."

Possibility 4: The چis a mark of foreignness. Garage is a foreign loanword; چis a borrowed letter; they go together, somehow.

What do you think, friendly readers? How can we spell "garage"?


Feb. 14th, 2012 09:57 am
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
I don't know which I find more upsetting: this long list of tweets and Facebook statuses announcing that Kids These Days (tm) don't know who Paul McCartney is, or this long list of tweets wherein people announce how much they'd like to be brutally physically abused by a famous r&b singer. I mean, the latter is much, much wronger, but I actually expect people to have totally awful thought processes about domestic violence. Whereas I assume they know who the goddamn Beatles are.


One of the things I love about teaching is the moment when your students think things totally orthogonal to what you think, and it opens up a new train of thought. We were talking about long distance nationalism, also sometimes called transnational migration, with my seminar students. Now, long distance nationalism is crucial to a lot of my research on diaspora communities and their politics--but my students are now working through this idea, and they had all sorts of interesting objections to the concept, particularly its normative foundations. I still think that diaspora political engagement is both natural and politically useful, but it was still great to work with them through their ideas. tl;dr teaching is fun.


Dean Dad reported that Arizona is considering two bills, one of which would effectively demand affirmative action for conservatives in higher ed hiring, and the other of which would mandate the use of "G-rated" language. Dead Dad spends most of his time taking apart the absurdity of the first, but I found myself more caught up with the idea of the second. Partially this is because I'm someone who uses YouTube videos of Eddie Izzard routines to teach world politics ("Hitler never played RISK as a kid" is an incredibly useful teaching tool). Partially because I see in this an attack on gender studies, among the many things this could be an attack on: I definitely said the word vagina on the first day of my feminist political theory class. Probably a few times. Not to mention that explaining the sex/gender dichotomy without being able to say the word sex would be, you know, hard.


I have discovered a circle of hell Dante could not have anticipated: translating tweets. Seriously, you've got 140 characters, nonstandard syntax and spelling, use of colloquialisms, huge variation in transliteration techniques when they've been transliterated, and, of course, frequent typos. (It took me literally fifteen minutes to figure out that تسعمية was تسع مية, which is a difference of precisely one space. And I only got it because of context.) The amount of time I have spent sorting through these lately has both given me a headache, and reminded me how much I like translating. In small doses, at least.


I should have something to say about Syria. I don't. Because sometimes thing are just so horrible that there's nothing to say.
ajnabieh: The McDonalds Arch, with text in Arabic reading "ماكدونالدز مصر"/makdunaldz masr/McDonalds Egypt. (ماكدونالدز)
I wrote about my trouble getting Arabic learning software for my iTouch 2.0 in a previous post. However, I am very happy to say that the recent releases of the iOS do support Arabic. This has lead to a large number of apps that can help with Arabic learning...and I figured it behooved me to review them. You know. For the sake of the internet. Stop laughing.

Some caveats:

  • I've been studying Arabic, off and on, for about a decade now. My major deficit is in vocabulary; I can go through, say, a newspaper article, and tell you what part of speech half the words are, and how to vowel them (Arabic, like Hebrew, doesn't write most of its vowels; most vowels are predictable by grammar), but I could only tell you what 5-10% of them are without a dictionary. That makes practicing with real texts a real pain in the butt, let me tell you. So I'm concentrating on vocabulary-building apps, rather than ones teaching grammar.
  • This also means that I already know and am reasonably fluid at reading the Arabic alphabet. I looked at a few alphabet apps, but my judgement on them is that of someone very far out from the actual learning of the alphabet.
  • I have an iTouch, and my wife has an iPad. I've tested most of these on the iPad, even the iPhone-only apps. Most apps that are made to run on the iPhone/iTouch can also run on the iPad, but they run smaller (you know, the size of an iPhone). But they can definitely still be used.
  • I was doing this in the US; all prices in USD, all apps available in the US App Store. No idea what's available elsewhere.
  • I've only tested the free versions of apps. Most of them have a pay-upgrade available, with access to more words. I indicate whether or not I would pay for the app.

Apps for all! )
ajnabieh: The McDonalds Arch, with text in Arabic reading "ماكدونالدز مصر"/makdunaldz masr/McDonalds Egypt. (ماكدونالدز)
I love the Arabic language. A lot. I've loved it since I first started learning it, and have kept loving it even as I've struggled to retain some semblance of comprehension of it despite often having to take years away from the serious study of it. Among the many things I love about it is the alphabet. Arabic letters are very lovely to look at; there's a long history of calligraphic art that is simply stunning. The Arabic alphabet is also very orderly; letters are arranged by shape, which strikes me as a very brilliant innovation. And I'm sure some of it is that I am proud of myself for having mastered writing and reading it. Here are a set of symbols I didn't encounter until I was nearly twenty, and I learned to decode them in a variety of ever-changing situations. That's an accomplishment, to be sure.

When I see Arabic, on a sign, or package, or building, I usually stop, if possible, and try to read it. Because I have a relatively small vocabulary, I find myself sounding out words and trying multiple vowelings of them, trying to figure out the meaning. But sometimes, I start reading a word looking for the root or the clues to its parts of speech...and I find that it's an English word.

This usually makes me crack up. It's the sudden surprise of it--congrats! You were going to throw your whole brain behind decoding something...and you know it already! I also find it very familiar, because I used to take notes in class in English, but with Arabic letters. These were the notes I didn't want people to be able to read--"I can't believe we're spending the whole class talking about this," "Who died and made her queen?", "Is he honestly that stupid?", that sort of thing.

There's also an interesting question about when and why English words are written in Arabic transliteration. When the audience for a public sign is Arabic-speaking, when do English words get used? Clearly it's meant to communicate something to a (perceived) monolingual audience (as when I write Arabic in English transliteration for English-speakers). But what value does the English have, here? Is it filling in for words or concepts that don't exist in Arabic? Is there a prestige or mockery factor? What's going on?

Without further ado, three photos I've taken that feature English transliterated into Arabic, and some thoughts on what they might mean. Readers of Arabic (or other languages written with the Arabic-Persian alphabet), you may also find some amusement herein.

pictures below, mostly of food-related products )
ajnabieh: Sign for a store reading "Hot Chick." (hot chick)
I think I've had these links gestating on my hard drive long enough...time to get them out there before they rust.

Pretty & Yummy Things )
Politics Things: Iran, Yemen, Lebanon, Youth Identity )

Academia stuff; okay, only one link here )
ajnabieh: Sign for a store reading "Hot Chick." (hot chick)
My wife is always so pleased when it gets to be the end of the semester: "Now you're on vacation!" she says.

"No," I say. "Now I have three months to do all the work I should have been doing since January." Am I right?

In any case, the semester is over, grades are handed in, papers are returned, and I'm faced with three months of gloriously unscheduled time. Hooray! I've been putting together my personal to-do list for the summer, and it looks like this:

1. Arabic! I haven't had a serious Arabic class, um, since undergrad (no offense to the professor in my grad school classes, but two hours once a week is not sufficient to really teach a language), and my vocabulary has gradually shrunk down to a really absurd level, and my grammar is all instinct at this point. Time to get back in shape. The plan runs something like this:
  • Work my way through all of Cowen. If I do the whole book--which is only 25 lessons--I'll have run through the entirety of the basic grammar of the Arabic language. I'm three lessons in now, and do not yet have a headache.
  • Podcasts. The goal is 1-2 a week, just to keep me listening to Arabic. I'd like to catch up on ArabicPod, since I do really like those guys; I've also added a daily BBC Arabic podcast and a twice-daily World Radio Japan news podcast. (I looked at Al-Jazeera's podcats, but all of them are, like, an hour long. My brain maxes out around 15 minutes.)
  • Provided I finish Cowen, working through Advanced Media Arabic, which I bought years ago and have never had the time/energy to be dedicated to.

2. Articles! Er, my original goal was to finish revisions on the article I had accepted, get another chapter article-ized and off to a journal, and maybe work on turning a non-dissertation-related conference paper into an article. Except I finished the first two of those this week. Well, I'm doing very well on my goals, aren't I?

3. Chapters! My goal is to have a complete dissertation draft by September 1; that will require, er, a frightening lot of writing. As in, a chapter and a half, and the whole chapter still has a lot of missing fieldwork to do. But I have a plan. And a lot of vodka in the freezer. I'm sure that will help.

4. Reading! I swear, during the semester, I only read what I've assigned my students and things that are immediately relevant to what I'm working on (and very little of that). This summer, I'm aiming for big-picture reading. I've got Manuel Castells's The Politics of Identity to finish, which is related to the chapter I'm trying desperately to get done. I'm intrigued by the work of Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, and have his Democracy, Human Rights and Law in Islamic Thought out from the library. (Half-wondering if there's an article in comparing his work to Habermas's, and I haven't even read him yet.) I also have Foucault's Archeology of Knowledge that I started last summer, fell in love with, and then ran out of time to read through. But the prospect of reading Foucault on the beach makes me happy. And there will be other things that dribble through.

I've also read a lot of fiction in the past week, much of it just for fun, but some of it relevant to the topic of this blog, so look for a book post sometime in the next bit!

5. Course Design! I'm teaching a course called Gender and Politics in the Middle East in the fall. I've projected that I'll be teaching this course once a year (or maybe every other year) for the remainder of my academic career, and therefore am excited about getting to develop it for the first time. In theory. In practice, I usually find course development to be a headache, especially from scratch. So many variables! So little time! So many lacunae in my own knowledge, and yet not enough time or energy to read everything ever written on anything related to the topic!

So, what are your summer plans? Any big, interesting projects?
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
This morning, I got a call from my mother, which is not so unusual. But what was unusual was that she wanted my help for one of her students (she works for a student support program at a community college). Her student was taking Arabic, and had to ask someone a list of questions. Could I do the interview?

I managed it, though my spoken Arabic is beyond rusty. (My favorite moment was her surprise that mish aindi siyara, I don't have a car. Askunu fi nuyurk, I said, nobody's got cars.). But it reminded me of how important Arabic language education is, and how many people want to learn Arabic, especially these days. (Sometimes, when I'm feeling tetchy, I like to point out that I started taking Arabic in September 2000. Suck on that, posers.)

If you're among them, that's great! I think everyone should learn Arabic, despite my tetchyness above. I would generally recommend you take a structured course to learn it well, whether at a university or community center or mosque. Arabic is a difficult language, with a lot of sounds not present in English (and one or two missing from most European languages). It's also got a writing system that'll be new to most non-Muslim learners, and the root system is complicated. AND AWESOME. Have I mentioned Arabic is the most awesome language ever? Because it totally is.

But, if you don't have access to a class, you can teach yourself some Arabic. Even if all you pick up are greetings and a notion of how it sounds, it's an awesome language to know.

Here are some resources I've used to improve my Arabic and keep in shape. (All of these are targeted to native speakers of English; I don't know about resources for native speakers of other languages, sadly.)

podcasts, Orientalist grammars, and other excitement )

ETA: I totally forgot about BBC Arabic's streaming audio option. Ooh, and they've added TV since I was a regular user! The internet is so shiny.


ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

March 2016

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