My Language Obsession


I’ve taught myself several codes, systems of notation, and alphabets over the years.  Be it math or manga, whenever I see what looks to be interesting information being presented in a way I can’t understand, I immediately want to understand it.  If protesters are holding-up posters in Russia, and I see it on the news, I want to know what those posters say; and more than that– I want to be able to read, myself, the next Russian posters that cross my path.  The same goes for messages composed in Latin or Greek or even sign language… as well as computer lingo, youth/urban-slang, or  local graffiti.  It’s a compulsion really, and a sad one– for one simply can’t know all the languages.

By sheer necessity, I have limited my language obsession to the memorization of several alphabets and the learning of a few key words from a few handfuls of special languages.  I wish I could say all these alphabets and “foreign” vocabularies were chosen for their potential relevancy to my life, but that’s not always the case (I mean really, how often will I need to use Braille or Morse code in my humdrum life?).

Wading into a newly indulged rivulet of my obsession, I recently picked up a splendid book for English-readers who want to learn to read and write Arabic.  It’s called Sugar Comes From Arabic, and it’s written by Barbara Whitesides.

I wish I had known how similar the English and Arabic alphabets actually are!  I knew that both languages are descendants of the Indo-European language, and I knew that Arabic and the Western European languages have a long history of word-borrowing, but if I would have known that Arabic would be so easily comprehensible, I wouldn’t have been so intimidated by it and put off studying it so long.

Arabic has twenty-something letters just as English does.  It is also, like English, a phonetic language, in the sense that letters represent sounds, not ideas directly.  Like Hebrew, Arabic often leaves-out vowels from the written language– though the vowels are assumed and they are pronounced when the words are read aloud.  And like most languages, Arabic word pronunciations and spellings are more logical than English ones.  Arabic also doesn’t bother with capital letters — although it does often end its words by putting a special flourish on the last letter.  Oh, by the way… Arabic is written right-to-left, so the “last” letter might look like the first one to a Western reader.

Perhaps the best feature of Sugar Comes From Arabic is its presentation of the Arabic letters themselves.  Because Arabic letters flow together so beautifully, to someone unfamiliar with them, it can be hard to distinguish where one letter stops and another begins.  Whitesides gets around this problem by having the tail-ends of the letters fade-out– a brilliant solution, for you still see the entire letter and how it flows into the next, but you can also easily distinguish between the letters.

The book also includes many examples of common Arabic names, as well as English words which were adopted and/or adapted from Arabic.  Also, important or common Arabic words are highlighted, such as “Ramadan” or “Koran.”  To me, it was extra-rewarding to practice my Arabic letters by writing out names that meant something to me while also learning about Arabic culture and English word derivations.  Personally, I also found it helpful that the Arabic language is presented by Whitesides in English-alphabetical order (as opposed to the order the letters come-in in the Arab alphabet.

All in all, I can’t really imagine a better Total Beginner introduction to the Arabic alphabet.  Thanks, Ms Whitesides!


Related Post:  Some Arabic Trivia


3 thoughts on “My Language Obsession

  1. Dear H.S., I just today happened upon your entry about my book, Sugar Comes from Arabic, and was so pleased that you completely understood how approachable Arabic can be. It took me years to structure the book, a labor of love and rich discovery. I have a website for the book; would you mind if I quote some of your phrases there? If yes, could I name the region where you live, since I do identify commentators by their region? On the other hand, I don’t want to compromise your anonymity. Sending my very best wishes, and warm admiration for your love of learning.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I’d be honored to be quoted by you. I can’t hide the fact that I’m incorrigibly American, but I’ve moved around a lot and, truly, I don’t have a specific region I call home (you can put California if it’s better on your end). By the way… I’m still practicing my Arabic letters! I really appreciate your book and your talent. Your time and energy were well spent. H.S.

  2. Dear H.S., there’s a stunning exhibit coming to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco Oct 24-Jan 18, called “Roads of Arabia.” It would surely give you lots of opportunity to practice reading Arabic calligraphy! My book will be there as well. (Also in the gift shop is a charming round white eraser with the Arabic word “art” (FaN) beautifully written in Arabic script on it.) If you do happen to go and you have a moment, drop me a line; I’d love to hear your review of the exhibit.

    Thank you so much for allowing me to quote you. Your words make me proud every time I read them!

    Sending best wishes to you on your doctoral studies journey!

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