There is no Arabic Posted by Malachi Rempen on Nov 18, 2015 in Archived Posts
Just the word sounds nasty. Too close to “incision” for my taste, like something sharp and precise but brutal. Not being able to decide between options is crippling. It’s like being frozen by some kind of cruel ice witch, unable to move forward or side to side or even backward. It prevents you from making any progress of any kind. It’s far better to make a bad decision and deal with the consequences than to remain in that ghastly no-mans-land of indecision, straddling the fence, unable to put your foot down on either side.
Simple, everyday choices can be sabotaged by indecision. What should I wear to work? That’s nice, but I wore it last time, and I don’t want them to think I’ve only got one set of clothes. That’s also nice, but I don’t know if I’ll be warm enough on the ride over. What about this third option? It’s warmer and I didn’t wear it last time, but it’s not very comfortable. Is it better to be warm, comfortable or stylish? Don’t I have something that fits all three requirements? Yes, I do! Except…this one looks terrible with my shoes. I’m your regular vanilla straight white male, and this particular indecision often brings me literally to my knees, rooting around in the bottom drawer for something that might work better than the options I simply can’t decide between.
But the terrible purgatory of indecision lasts far longer, and has more devastating effect, with larger life decisions. For example, I have always wanted to learn Arabic. I’m already quite addicted to speaking foreign languages while traveling, ever since I learned that my passable French was a lifesaver in Morocco. I love the idea of traveling through the Middle East, delighting locals with enough Arabic to get me invited for tea at their homes, using it as a surprise bargaining chip when haggling in the markets and feeling better about myself not being “that” kind of westerner only peering at their culture from across the language barrier.
There’s just one problem: “Arabic” is not a language.
As demonstrated in the comic above, “Arabic” is more accurately a term for a collection of related languages, sort of like Romance languages are related through Latin. And just like speaking French does not mean you’ll understand Portuguese, learning one kind of Arabic does not necessarily grant you access to the other types. Unlike European languages, however, Arabic throws on a second layer of complication: media Arabic vs. colloquial Arabic. If you’re in Italy, the TV and newspapers will use regular old standard Italian, which everyone also speaks. Yes, you might hear a very strange, very different dialect between locals in the countryside, but for the most part everyone can still speak the standard version. With Arabic, Modern Standard (MSA) is exclusively used in the media, and as it’s not based on any particular dialect, nobody speaks it on the street. You might make yourself understood, but you aren’t going to understand what anyone else is saying. If you want to do that, you essentially have to choose one of the chief dialects, depending on your area of interest: Maghrebi Arabic (for North Africa), Egyptian Arabic (for Egypt; also the most common dialect used in television show dubbing), Gulf Arabic (for Saudia Arabia and the other Gulf states) or Levantine Arabic (for Syria, Palestine, Jordan, etc). Generally speaking, these dialects are not mutually intelligible, so you might as well be choosing between Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese.
And this is where my old nemesis indecision comes in.
I can’t choose between the dialects. I don’t favor one region over another, and I know that if I focus on one, I’ll find myself in situations wishing I had learned another. It’s probably not a good idea to learn two or three at the same time, or I’ll just get them all confused. So what do I do? What do I do?
Currently, nothing. I’m so paralyzed by my indecision on this matter that I’ve learned exactly zero Arabic. It’s a shame, because it’s a language I would really enjoy learning, to get away from the Euro-languages in which I’m currently steeped and see the world from another linguistic perspective. It’s topical, especially living in Europe, with so many immigrants coming in from Arabic-speaking countries, and my wife is obsessed with Arabic culture, so I know I’d have a study partner. I really want to learn Arabic!
But then I remember: there is no “Arabic,” and I’m paralyzed again.
What do you think I should do?
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