Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps


8/3/09 What’s up with the 3?

A few of you have asked about the letter I represent with the number 3 when I’m transliterating Tamazight or Arabic words. And since today is the 3rd, it seemed timely to answer.

Quick background: Arabic, like English, has about two dozen consonants and a handful of vowels. The specific numbers of each aren’t the same, but they’re close. The vast majority of the letters correspond pretty directly to English/French/Latin letters. The “taa” sounds and acts just like our T, the “mim” just like our M, etc. There are a few letters that represent sounds that don’t exist in English. Most of these sounds are found in French or German, though, so if you’ve studied any of these, you’ve at least encountered them before. The “raa” is like an R, rolled Spanish-style. Then there’s the “ghain”, which I transliterate with a “gh”, which is a sort of gargly sound that’s almost identical to the R at the end of “Louvre” or “Favre” (if Brett hadn’t gone and switched to Fav-err), and there are a couple of others.

But there’s one sound that’s unique. OK, I don’t speak Chinese or Russian or any of the Indonesian languages, so I can't say for sure that it's unique to Arabic and Tam. But it’s a sound I’ve never encountered before I started studying Arabic: the “3in”. See, you can’t even say the name of the letter without using it. (But then, you can’t say T – “tee” – without a T, so I guess this shouldn’t be surprising.) In Arabic script, it’s written like a big soft cursive capital E, or like a backwards number 3. Since it doesn’t correspond to any letter in English, it makes sense to me to write it with a 3.

To pronounce an “3in”, you flatten your tongue against the bottom of your mouth, tense your throat, and say an A. I’ve heard it described this as the doctor’s-office-tongue-depressor-sound. One of my Arabic books calls it the sound of someone being strangled.

OK, enough background. The point is: it’s tricky to pronounce.

After a couple years of practice, I’m doing OK – people know what I mean when I try to say it – but it still doesn’t sound right.

This wouldn’t be as annoying if it didn’t show up in so many words. It’s in many, many Arabic words – in fact, the easiest way to tell in a second if someone is speaking Arabic or just differently-accented Tam is to listen for the sound of lots of 3ins – but since lots of Arabic words have been incorporated into Tam, I still have to say it.

And the single most common greeting phrase – llah y 3awn – May God help you – has one. I say that to every woman (and some men) I walk past, unless I have time to stop and run through the whole set of greetings with her. So I have to pronounce an 3in several times a day.

And then there are all the other words.

3awn – help
3id – Festival
w3sher – Holiday
3ayd – return
3wm – swim
3wd – arrive
3shera – 10 (ten)
rb3a – 4 (four)
rb3 – ¼ (one-fourth)
seb3a – 7 (seven)
sib3 – baby-naming feast on the 8th day of a newborn’s life (like a bris, but without the circumcision)
3arabiya – Arabic
3iraq – Iraq

…and so many more. Not a single one of which I pronounce correctly. Yet…

No comments:

Post a Comment

Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps