Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Šaddah & Sukūn

Dialects in the Arab WorldImage via WikipediaIn Arabic, the sign above or below a consonant indicates the required vowel pronunciation. Yeah - there are letters missing. Kind of like Hebrew. (All of a sudden, the puzzle of the Dead Sea Scrolls has new meaning to me.)

The technical term for the indicator is "diacritic", and it's probably the biggest reason I can't read Arabic. I can spot the letters sometimes, if the calligraphy is very basic, but there's too much going on for me to sit there and decipher. Speaking it is enough of a challenge.

And don't forget the many dialects and variations. See the map above? If you live in the blue zone over in Morocco, don't expect to understand the red zone of the Emirates on the other side of the map. Even relatively close countries can speak a special blend. For example, the word for Friday is Juma in many countries (including Turkey) but in Egypt, it sounds more like Goma. And chicken? Djaj. In the Emirates it's Deyay. In Jordan it's more like - I can't even figure it out in English letters. You get the idea. The middle ground is classical Arabic, which many people understand and no one speaks. That's the one that the teacher is writing on the whiteboard in Berlitz class or whichever course you're taking.

The Šaddah and Sukūn, Fatḥa, Kasra  and their various other diacritic friends are supposed to clue people in to what the words are sans an accent or dialect. These play a huge role in literature, especially when it comes to the Qur'an. Observe the chart at left showing the evolution of diacritics in Arabic.

This brings me to the word for genie.

Surah Al Jinn of the Qur'an refers to genies as Al Jinn, pronounced a'jinn because of a sukūn between the l and the j.  Folklore, which is more heavily influenced by variations of dialect, sometimes uses the Šaddah instead, which effectively doubles the j, producing a dj or dz sound.

Maybe it won't help at all, but since I want to stay as far away from religion as possible, I use the "djinn" version. So does Jonathan Stroud - and half my battle is getting people to realize a djinn is a genie, without conjuring images of Robin Williams in a billowy blue get-up.

Make sense?

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Sarah said...

This is fascinating! It makes total sense that Arabic would have numerous dialects based on the country and culture, as it's so widely spread. It's neat to hear some of the specifics.

Old Kitty said...

Oh how I wish I was gifted with linguistic skills!! I love that you are alive to this amazing and beautiful language!! Yay for you!

You know I would never have associated Robin Williams with the word d'jinn before your post! LOL!!! Now I must erase! :-) Take care

Jules said...

Okay, I am amazed, Arabic! And to the diacritic... it's still just simply, "y'all." :)
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

KatOwens: Insect Collector said...

how did you make that so fascinating?! It really was. I think you're uphill battle is always going to be the robin williams "genie"-- but then, all it takes is one well-known book to change how we think of magical schools, or sparkly vampires, or... djinn

Lydia Kang said...

This is so neat. I love your genie example, though I did have problems getting Robin Williams' voice out of my head as I read this!

Missed Periods said...

My husband is half Lebanese, so much of his family speaks Arabic. I've toyed with the idea of trying to learn to speak it, but it sounds so hard.

LTM said...

those blue pants really made RW look fat in the can... and we've discussed this Scotch-Irish genie in the cereal commercial...

sigh. Your work's cut out for you, my friend! <3 said...

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