Friday, March 1, 2013

Not a Broblem

On the one hand, this morning's offering on Mc Sweeney's Internet Tendency, an open letter to the labial phonemes in Arabic, is taking some flak for capitalizing on the foreign-accents-as-humor trope.

On the other hand, you sort of have to be such a geek (or at least have something of geekiness buried deep in your nature, coupled with at least a passing familiarity with basic linguistics) to try to pull something like this off that it was the fellowship with others who find the IPA to be a bottomless mine of comedy gold that grabbed me and won me over.

Not to make this about the thirteenth century or anything, but there's sort of a kinship among people who have worked tirelessly to learn Arabic, especially the grammar and the phonology. Learning Arabic is the sort of of challenge that, once you've taken it on, it's very heartening to read about other people in the same boat and to hear other people expressing the same things you are thinking or have thought. One of my favorite sentences in Samuel ibn Tibbon's prologue to the Moreh comes as he is talking about his advocacy for word-for-word rather than sense-for-sense translation but makes some small concessions for grammatical correctness in the target language of Hebrew. If you've made it through first year Arabic you can identify exactly the proportions of wonder, puzzlement, bemusement and frustration in his mental tone of voice when he wrote, of the grammatical rule that dictates that non-human plurals take singular feminine agreement: "Sometimes, when we would use a a masculine plural, they use a feminine singular!"

And I know it's not exactly the same thing because this is written from the perspective of someone teaching English to Arabic-speaking students, but this odd fellowship of students of Arabic a big enough tent to include a pretty broad swath of intersection between Arabic and language learning. I didn't read the piece as him making fun of his students or of foreigners with accents as much as engaging in that same head-shaking that we all do at the complexity of the Arabic language.

I think it's okay.



    If you haven't seen it already, enjoy :-)

  2. No, I didn't know about that. Thanks for sharing it!