Monday, April 14, 2003


I was intrigued by the mention of a pack of cards used for identifying the "55 Most Wanted Iraqi Officials."

There must have been some interesting debate about who got what card -- on one of the NPR weekend quiz shows, someone quipped that the Information Minister, Saeed Sahhaf, was the Joker, but this was not actually true - the two jokers in the pack simply have information on Arabic terms for different ranks in the Iraqi military, and information on Tribal names.

Arabic is the most difficult language I have tried to learn -- not because of the alphabet, because that is more straight forward than English (and I have to agree, Arabic script really does look more elegant than the Latin alphabet), but because the structure of the language is so very foreign to an Indo-European ear. I realize now that Indo-European listeners parse words with great emphasis on the endings. The endings are what give us the clues for plurals, tense, gender, and subject/object.

In Arabic, however, there are a great many medial changes. The text-book example of this change is the word for "mosque," masjed, which becomes in the plural "mosques," masajed. It is surprising how hard that medial change is to hear, simply because we have wired our ears to listen at the end of the word.

There are languages that are Indo-European that have a great many loan-words from Arabic, and some of these mix this system of changes. Spanish, with its large linguistic inheritance from the Moors, does not use this system, and follows the terminal change model. Farsi (or Persian), however, has an interesting mix. The word for "mosque" in Farsi is directly borrowed from the Arabic: masjed. The plural, "mosques," is masjedha in colloquial speech, but if you are eager to demonstrate your education, you would use the Arabic - masajed. Depending on the context, Farsi will use the terminal or the medial changes in words.

In English, a great many of the recent loan-words came from French. I had to chuckle when I heard a lot of soldiers use the word "cachet" (pronounced ka-shay) to refer to another French loan-word, "cache" (pronounced cash). The devil in French is all those silent endings, which obviously dogs us to this day.

"I love the cache of napalm in the morning! Bring that cachet of weapons over here so I can smell it, soldier!"