September 9, 2009 | Arabic

Miscellaneous Musings: Dialect, Memory, and Swingers

I take trips to the bookstore, Central Park, and the garbage chute.

All day today I thought it was Thursday. I was so happy when I realized it wasn’t. Discovering that it was only Wednesday was kind of like finding a big pile of money on the ground.

I am having to redo a lot of these Pimsleur lessons. Often the stuff just isn’t sticking. The sounds, words, and structures are far more unfamiliar than in Russian. Plus, I am getting confused between the two languages: twice during a Pimsleur lesson today, I used the Russian word for “she,” which is ona, rather than the Arabic word, hiye.

Eaglevale Bridge, Central Park

On my way back from my Central Park run this afternoon, I saw two women looking lost in the area of Eaglevale Bridge, at 77th Street on the West Side. I paused my Pimsleur and asked if they needed help. They did.

One pointed to a body of water on a map and asked, “What is this?” Her finger was on Turtle Pond.

Mystified, I started to explain, “It’s like a small lake…” and was seriously about to add “with turtles in it,” when I stopped. I asked, “Do you mean ‘What is this?’ or ‘Where is this?’”

Of course they meant where. I asked what language they spoke. They said, “English.”

Hilarious. They could barely understand a word I was saying. I said, “What other language?”


“Oh.” I waved my hands to indicate my ignorance. I can’t wait to learn Italian. I wish I could have spoken it with them.

Turtle Pond Residents

Anyway, I told them where Turtle Pond is in English and ran off. I did my best, but I don’t know that they really understood me; my hopes are low.

This afternoon I went back to Dahesh bookstore to buy the answer key for my Alif Baa book. I did Pimsleur all the way to the store, where I once again found Mike Masri, the helpful manager. He seemed blown away by my Arabic skills. I don’t think he was making it up. Naturally that was gratifying.

Besides a little conversational exchange (“hello,” “how are you,” that kind of thing), I told him some of the sentences I had learned, such as, Biddee ahue, bus ma biddee sukar. (I want coffee, but I don’t want sugar.)

He said my pronunciation was beautiful. I said I’d been working really hard.

“In a couple of weeks,” he told me, “you’ll be speaking Arabic.”

Some of the Many Books at Dahesh Bookstore

Mike observed that I was learning dialect, and asked if that was what I wanted to be learning. I said I didn’t know for sure, but that the Pimsleur lessons, which I love, are Eastern Arabic, so that’s what I was going with. I added that I was having some problems with language differences among my various learning sources. For example, I explained, the VocabuLearn differs from the Pimsleur in terms of pronunciation and sometimes vocabulary. He said maybe the VocabuLearn is not a dialect (meaning it may be modern standard Arabic).

In any case, he said I am learning “the most beautiful” of the Arabic dialects. Then I said shukran and ma salaami, and he shook my hand.

In the evening, I had a funny encounter by the garbage chute. Each floor in our building has a door to the chute, which leads, as one might expect, to the basement and a whole huge pile of garbage. Kids love throwing garbage down the chute and hearing it bounce its way down from floor to floor before landing with a thud at the bottom.

Kids Seriously Love This. Go Figure.

In the trash room on my floor tonight, I ran into one of our neighbors, whom I’ll call Michael, and his four-year-old son, Jeff. I opened the door to the garbage chute and threw in a bag of garbage, and Jeff was suddenly at my elbow announcing, “I love putting things in there.”

I said, “Really?” And added that I wished it were easier to fit the bags in the chute door, that the doors on some other floors were bigger and therefore better.

Upon hearing this, Jeff promptly told his father, “I want to go to the fourteenFUH floor to throw away the rest.”

Michael said, “We are on the fourteenth floor.”

Jeff said, “No, I want to got to the fourteenFUH floor.”

“There is no such thing as the fourteenFUH floor,” Michael said.

Jeff pointed upward and said, “No, I want to go to the fourteenFUH floor.”

“Oh, that’s the fifteenth floor,” said his father. And off they went.

I went home laughing and told Brandt about the encounter, adding that the FUH reminded me of Arabic, because of the way certain consonants are stuck onto certain other consonants in combinations that seem nearly impossible to English speakers. At least to this one. Like the bt at the beginning of btehki (I speak), or the h right before the k in the middle of it. It’s hard to have such consonants jostling each other, but Jeff had no problem at all snapping an f onto the back of an n. And he’s only four!

On the subject of memorizing vocabulary: I find that my techniques for recalling things are rather random. Sometimes the best way to remember a particular word may be one that best remain, er, nebulous. For example, the word for “bridge” in Arabic is jisr. When I first saw it, it reminded me of something I had just heard about in a documentary film on Plato’s Retreat, a swingers’ club that was located on the Upper West Side about 30 years ago. I won’t go into more detail here.

The point is, currently I remember this noun better than almost any other Arabic noun I have studied.

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