Sunday, January 03, 2016

Quirks between Arabic and English

As I learn Arabic and speak it with my friends sometimes my translations result in puzzled looks. Sometimes it is because I am thinking of the English phrase in my head then translating it, and by doing so you discover some quirks of the two languages, which has led to some amusing conversations about the differences between Arabic and English.

So here’s some examples, with the backstory as to how I discovered it.

Wearing: one day a Qatari mentioned there was a nice smell in the air and I mentioned (in Arabic) that it might be because I was wearing cologne (‘albis’). In Arabic the verb ‘to wear’ only refers to clothing, you don’t ‘wear’ a perfume.

Desert: I mentioned this one before in my blog, I learned in Arabic class that the Arabic word for desert is ‘sahara’. So when we say in English, “Sahara Desert”, we are actually saying “desert desert”. It would be more technically correct to call it “The Great Sahara” in English, I think some old explorers used to call it that.

Balcony: also learned this in Arabic class, in Arabic you are ‘in’ a balcony, not ‘on’ it. A balcony is treated like you would any other room.

Bedroom: I always mix this up and directly translate it from English, saying “ghurfa sarir” (room of bed) but Arabs call it ghurfa noum (room of sleep). Similarly they use ‘sitting room’ as opposed to ‘living room’

Soup: like many other languages in Arabic you ‘drink’ soup, as opposed to ‘eat’ it. In fact the common word for soup, ‘shurba’, is derived from ‘ashrub’ (to drink). I usually forget and once in an Arabic restaurant the waiter raised an eyebrow when I said that I will eat some soup.

Amber: many Qataris have misbaha (prayer beads) made from amber so I asked one of my friends if his was made of amber and I got a strange look. The English word ‘amber’ derives from the Arabic ‘anber’ and the Arabic word refers to what we call in English ‘ambergris’, the stuff from sperm whales that is used in perfumes. So my friend basically thought I was asking him if his misbaha was made from ambergris, which, yeah, would seem like a weird question. The Arabic word for the yellowish-stone we call amber is ‘karaman’. It was English that mixed this up, for some reason back in the day English speakers referred to the whale stuff as “grey amber” and the rock as “yellow amber”, eventually it evolved to the rock being amber and the whale stuff ambergris.

That’s all I can think of right now. These differences aren’t usually an issue, my friends are amused but they generally understand what I was trying to say.

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