Fun with Americanized Arabic (3)

Fun with Americanized Arabic (3) August 25, 2019


Al-Taqwa Mosque, Brooklyn
Brooklyn’s Masjid at-Taqwa (roughly, “The Piety Mosque”)
Wikimedia Commons public domain image


I continue here with my lengthy quotation from H. L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, 4th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937), 684-685.  In this passage, helped by H. I. Katibah and by Princeton University’s great Philip K. Hitti, Mencken  is giving examples of English words assimilated into their native Syro-Lebanese Arabic by early Arab immigrants to the United States:


haldab (to hold up).  A recent borrowing.

sayyan (to sign, as a check).

mass (to miss, as a train)

farraz (to freeze)

t’amrak (to become an American).  This has an analogue in Standard Arabic, to wit, tfarnaj (to become an Ifranji, or Frank, i.e., a European).


Other obvious parallels include the verb tanasara (“to become a Nazarene” / “to become a Christian”) and even — I know people who claim to have encountered this verb, though I myself have not — tamarmana (“to become a Mormon”).


Arabic has a large capacity for coining verbs which convey the meaning of whole sentences in English.  When a Syrian related a hard-luck story to a Syrian friend a third Syrian present said Fartinlu, meaning “Tell him it is unfortunate.”  Kaddam is a verb signifying to say God damn.


(I apologize to my fellow Latter-day Saints for this bit of profanity and for that which briefly follows.)


Inflectional variants are kaddimlu (Tell him God damn) and kaddamlu (He told him God damn).  Sometimes a recent immigrant mistakes English suffixes, e.g., -ing, for Arabic case endings, with curious results.  An old Syrian woman once said: “Everytin you buy-it-in, in the house-in-it you make-it-in” (Everything you buy, you can make in the house.)


Loan-nouns are given Arabic pronominal suffixes.  Thus your business is bizinsak and my business is bizinsi.  Plurals are commonly formed by adding the Arabic -at, as in house-at (houses), star-at (stores), baz-at (bosses), shoes-at (shoes) and lattat (lots).  It will be noted that shoes-at is a double plural.  The doubling of the first t in lattat indicates what is known to Arabic grammarians as tashdid, or  intensification: the word is pronounced lat-tat.


I might mention that -at is simply the standard Arabic sound feminine plural nominal ending.  It’s slightly surprising to see it applied to nouns whose equivalents in classical and/or modern standard Arabic would plainly be masculine (e.g, to house and boss).


American proper names offer some difficulty to the Syrian who has not mastered English.  He commonly converts them into nearly related Arabic words, and sometimes the meaning of the latter is amusingly incongruous.  Dr. Hitti tells, for example, of an old Syrian in New York who wrote down his own telephone exchange, Adirondack, as al-qadi ‘indak (the judge is with you).



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