Posted by: jt | February 3, 2008

i’m at a place called…what?

Given the number of people I meet who speak it, my lack of Arabic is a little embarrassing. I’ve dabbled in three other languages to the point where I can exchange pleasantries and occasionally even follow along but, sadly, the all-important tongue that gave us both alcohol and algebra just isn’t one of them.

Surrounded by eight native Arabic speakers for two days, I was determined to increase my vocabulary to more than “peace be with you,” “and also with you” and “chill out.” As the default photographer for the group, counting to three seemed a good place to start. I knew I’d asked about numbers in Arabic before and I really should have known there was a reason I hadn’t internalized them.



I’m sorry, what?

Naturally, part of my challenge is that this is entirely different from any language I’ve ever studied. Neither Romance nor Germanic, Arabic is, in many ways, an entirely different world.

Remembering my fourth grade teacher’s admonishment that, “It’s not hard, it’s just different,” I resolved to smother the voice in my head screaming, you have GOT to be kidding, and embrace the challenge. It would have helped if I could have persuaded my eight Arab friends to shut up long enough so I could actually hear one of them pronouncing these ineffable words, but regardless, I couldn’t get past the question:

How the hell do y’all learn to count?

Can you imagine trying to teach a two year old “wâhid, ithnân, thalâtha?” It’s hard enough to keep a kid’s attention for the three syllables of “one, two, three,” as opposed to seven. Seven syllables to count to three. There’s something a little twisted about that.

Seriously. Have some numbers with a side of masochism.

I figured, yet again, this is me projecting my American ways upon another culture. And then I started thinking…









From Europe to Asia to North and South America, we have monosyllabic numbers. (Okay, I’m cheating a little with the Japanese, but you can’t tell me that “ichi” is too hard to say.) What the hell happened in between Europe and Asia? Kind of like, what the hell happened to German when it hit the British Isles and nouns lost their genders?

I love linguistic idiosyncrasies.

I’ve got four more days before I’ll reconnect with these guys and my goal was to be able to count to eight (to count them off) when I saw them. It’s a little disorienting to realize that this will actually be a challenge.

Could be worse though. I could be a native German speaker trying to get my tongue around all those “th” sounds. I bet German/Arabic interpreters are paid really well. :-)

Since I don’t have any native Arabic speakers to harass on a daily basis, I’ve been looking online for pronunciation guidance. I have to say, this makes my brain hurt, but see if you can guess which part makes me snicker. British English, I assume?

Wâhid, ithnân, thalâtha…‘arbaca???

*sigh* Miles to go here, people. Miles to go…


*If Ricky Martin can count in Spanish this way, I can too. At least it’s not one, two, three, fourteen.



  1. At least it’s not one, two, three, fourteen.

    THANK YOU! That has always annoyed the piss out of me!

    And, good luck w/ your Arabic endeavors. Keep us posted. (I’m sure you will.)

  2. Ha. I snickered too. I was all, why would a kid need to know that term? :)

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