Monday, 26 February 2018

Malfuf wa Malik: Unobtrusive Vowels and Vivid Verbs.


A wide range of music today because I couldn’t just pick one – first, Haifa Wehbe with  Tamaneen milyon ehsas (80 million feelings) her song dedicated to Egypt. Haifa is a popular young Lebanese musician, but here she is singing the lyrics in the Egyptian dialect.





Then the two indie bands – Wust el Balad and Mashrou’ Leila, both unconventional newer fusion sounds, blending Western and Oriental, from Egypt and Lebanon respectively. Enjoy!











Arabic is an ancient script deriving from very old alphabets, winding its way down through the ages from Phoenician through Aramaic and Nabatean into its present form.  

Some of the very first alphabets were developed in Egypt in around 2700 BCE, they had a set of symbols which were used for logograms, more as pronunciation guides than fully fledged alphabetic system. By 1700 BCE, these hieroglyphs had been developed into the Proto-Sinaitic script, and then further into the Proto-Canaanite script. Based on the latter the Phoenicians developed their alphabets – a set of symbols used to represent phonemes. The Phoenician alphabets – note that none of these early systems of writing were true alphabets but abjads. Abjads are systems of writing which do not have separate symbols for vowels, the speaker supplies the vowel while speaking, if a vowel is necessary.

The Phoenician script was the first major phonemic script with a couple of dozen letters. This made it simple to learn, and it spread across the entire Mediterranean due the the Phoenician supremacy in trade. It was, on the norther shores of the Med, adopted by the Greeks, who then added more symbols for the phonemes in their own language, put vowels in place and so repurposed it to fashion the Greek alphabet. This became the foundation on which Latin and its subsequent derivatives were based upon. 

On the South Eastern side, it made its way into Aramaic. By 500 BCE, the Nabateans had adopted it. They were a desert dwelling nomadic people from Southern Arabia, who migrated to present day Jordan and built the magnificent city called Petra. In their time it was known as Raqmu. The precise origin of this tribe remains uncertain, there are references in Mesopotamian history that indicate they could have originated in the Hejaz and migrated to the later locations in 6th – 4th centuries BCE. Another theory put their origins in Yemen, but this is less widely accepted. What is certain is that by the 5th century BCE they were in  Petra, building cities and monuments of spectacular proportions and dotting the countryside with graffiti scratched all over the desert. Analysis of their writing shows this script to be the forerunner of Arabic. Aramaic was used as the official and trade language, as it was the only one understood across the region. The hybridised version of Nabateans’ own language and Aramaic led to the formation of the Arabic script which had a greater cursive element than the previous Aramaic version. At this stage, many of the letters had very similar shapes.

The Arabic script did not get modified the same way as the Greek – it remained an abjad, that is there were no vowel symbols. Later, by the 7th century when the first Qurans were being written down, the similar shaped letters posed a problem, it made exact transmission difficult. So a system of dots added below or above the basic letter shape was introduced as a distinguishing feature. The lack of vowels posed a further challenge. This was overcome by adding specific, new symbols for short vowels and using three existing abjad symbols to denote long vowels. However, the vowel diacritics are written only in the Quran and for first readers. Fluent readers are still supposed to deduce and supply the vowels on their own from the context. Like the original starting scripts millennia ago!

It is interesting to note that Arabic has some eight or nine separate words for love – romantic love, filial love, platonic love etc. It also has astonishingly specific verbs I’m told, things like ‘chopping off the top of a vegetable with one stroke,’ wow! Arabic is a lyrical, vivid language but one where vowels are only a whisper.





10 comments:

  1. No vowels? I wonder if that made it easier or harder?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. From a non-native POV - definitely harder!

      Delete
  2. Alex asked my question. Language and its variations is very interesting. And I can understand many words for love - I don't think it's one size fits all in every situation. Many nuances. Rather like Eskimos and their many words for snow. Vivid, indeed. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nope, agree - one size fits all doesn't apply to any emotion.

      Delete
  3. There's so many variations in language. We have only a surface knowledge even if we study them. Every culture has their own unique emphasis on certain things, like the Arabic whispering of vowels, compared to say, the German, where the vowels are fully formed and guttural.:-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. True, we can only have a very superficial knowledge. Languages are best learnt in early childhood I think. Once the 'brain is within its groove' it's just a Sisyphean job!

      Delete
  4. Well! Lots of interesting info today, but I'd have to say I was most impressed by the very last paragraph!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Arabic is rather an impressive kind of language that way :)

      Delete
  5. Hi Nila - this was fascinating to read ... and I needed to come back to it to re-read. What a great resume of the development of language ... wonderful read through the changes and the Arabic languages ... that I have zero idea of what the characters are telling me ...

    Great comments too ... adding to the mix. I enjoyed this read and will remember your post on those Unobtrusive Vowels and Vivid Vowels ... the clips you gave us made great listening ... thanks so much you're always opening up our eyes.

    Cheers Hilary

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Hilary, glad you enjoyed the walkthrough :) I had fun writing it too.

      Delete

Comment moderation is on. Anonymous comments will be deleted forthwith. Nonymous comments always welcome :) Thank you for your patience!