Kaddee’s Cairo Chronicles

May 4, 2008

What’s the difference?

Filed under: Learning Curve — Kaddee @ 8:51 pm

Jack and I began taking Arabic lessons as soon as we arrived. I have had a number of different tutors, gone to a language school for “intensive” Arabic, and have amused my co-workers with my attempts to speak their language.

From the beginning, Arabic has been a challenge. First, it reads from right to left (except the numbers, which read left to right – no kidding). Second, there are NO letters that are shared between English (or Spanish, or French, or German, or even Czech – the extent of languages in which I know even a few words), and the forms of the letters are, initially, unrecognizable to Western eyes.


Then there is the issue of the vowels, which aren’t written, you just need to “know” what they are supposed to be. And finally, Egyptian is VERY different from classical – to the extent that other Arabic speakers can understand Egyptians and their dialect (Egypt produces most of the movies and music in the Arabic speaking world) but Egyptians don’t understand ANYONE else!

So, here I am, learning Egyptian arabic. My first tutor, who taught me the letters, “explained” to me that there are 2 “H”-sounding letters (ha, haa), 2 “T”-sounding letters (taa, teh), and 2 “S”-sounding letters (siin, saad). She carefully pronounced each variation and waited for my indication of clear comprehension – which never came.

“Can’t you hear the difference between Hassan and Hoda?”
“It is sooooo clear. Listen again.”

This went on for months. I memorized where I could, and guessed the rest of the time.

Finally the tables have turned, and I have my moment. My current tutor was explaining that she had an American friend coming to visit. She carefully wrote out the woman’s name and asked me to pronounce it.

After I’d done so, she asked, “Isn’t that a MAN’S name????”
I explained, “No, this is a woman’s name. The similar, but CLEARLY different man’s name is pronounced differently.”
She could not differentiate between the names.

What are they?

Joan and John

No kidding

1 Comment

  1. Hi I got to your site by looking for lilac bushes – but I thought I would mention – Arabic does NOT actually write the numbers left to right.

    It writes the numbers right to left in ASCENDING order of digits (ones, tens, hundreds etc…) whereas english speaking people think of the numbers as being arranged left to right, it’s only because you are used to thinking of the digits as being arranged in DESCENDING order (Hundreds, tens, ones).

    If you think about it, english speakers are actually using the system developed by the semitic speaking peoples. English speaker call their numerals “Arabic” numerals, Arithmetic and Algebra are both arabic words.

    Still don’t believe me? Think about how you learned to do addition multiplication etc, it’s all right to left.


    You start by adding the “ones”, then the “tens”, then the “hundreds” – right to left.

    That’s because the whole system of numbers, and mathematics were developed by people who wrote from right to left.

    So – just like with so many things – it’s always hard to adjust your perspective and there are always things that you don’t know that you are assuming.


    God bless.

    Comment by ahoussney — January 3, 2010 @ 10:42 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.