February 28, 2010

Wiki Friday: Calques

These are expressions taken from other languages and translated word-for-word or root-for-root. Most of them are probably overlooked; we never think about where they came from. For example...

the moment of truth (from Spanish, el momento de la verdad. Based on the moment when the bullfighter goes in for the kill.)

staircase wit (from French, l'esprit de l'escalier. When you have the perfect response, but too late; the person has already passed you on the staircase.)

homesickness (from German, heimweh)

brainwashing (from Chinese, 洗脑)

Calques go in both directions, of course.

Gratte-ciel in French and rascacielos in Spanish come from the English, skyscraper.

Laisser le bon temps rouler is an awesome/ridiculous Cajun expression I just heard from Melodee. Definitely a calque of Let the good times roll.

February 27, 2010

Wiki Friday: Maltese

Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin alphabet in its standard form.

Its vocabulary is 52% Italian/Sicilian, 32% Siculo-Arabic, and 6% English, plus some French. 

Romance language-speakers may easily understand complex ideas express in Maltese, such as "Geografikament, I-Ewropa hi parti tas-superkontinent ta l'Ewrasja" (Geographically, Europe is part of the supercontinent of Eurasio), while not understanding a single word of a simple sentence, such as "Ir-ragel quighed fid-dar" (The man is in the house), which would easily be understood by any Arabic speaker.

As if this weren't interesting enough, speakers code-switch with English, thus creating Minglish.

February 23, 2010

Quote of the day

And then I found, quite simply, that my dream had become my address.

--Marcel Proust


Alaina realized tonight that the Spanish azar comes from the Arabic zahr, meaning chance or luck. 

e.g. Ma aandi zahr = I'm not lucky.

Yeah language!

February 21, 2010


From Spanish, it translates to "chance" or "fate."

Isn't it funny that the word contains both ideas?

February 20, 2010


"And what languages do you speak?"

"We're speaking it."

The only person in Morocco with such an answer: The US ambassador.

It was a snotty question, as I knew he didn't speak French or Arabic. An American friend had mentioned it in dismay a couple months ago. I had to do it, though. Especially because of the irony--he was standing in a classroom of Moroccan students, busy crowded around a table where they were producing a set of flash cards with the 100 most common expressions in not just two languages, but five! Houria wrote the expression in English; Aya wrote the French; Farouk wrote the Spanish; Ayman wrote the Darija; Zakaria wrote the transliteration version of Darija; and Mohamed wrote the standard Arabic. Sarah and Assia were on quality control.

I told the ambassador that when we finished our flash card product, I would be sure to send him a set.

February 19, 2010

The intensity of living


A mosquito, God’s most annoying alarm clock, bites me on the nose. I refuse to be fussed. Do morning stretches and sit down to write. I’ve been doing this for a few years now, on and off. Rain is falling and the mountains are white with fog.


Oatmeal. I took a taxi to Tangier yesterday to buy it. Useless girls claimed they didn’t know the street and gave me a “huh” look, the specialty of teenagers. I entered the Spanish institute across the street. Donde esta calle Inglaterra? A Moroccan employee happily walked me to my destination. Gracias, y baslama.

The woman in the grocery store didn’t speak French, so I switched to Arabic. Min hinaya ila taksi kabira ila Tetouan, bishahal? Ashara dirham, au sebaa. That was nice.


Hamam. Amina is not as good a masseuse as her sister, but I love that every time is different. Today I was in a private stall, because the big room was too cold, Amina said. She really tried to talk to me. Maybe I’ll switch from classical Arabic to Moroccan dialect. I want to talk.


Mosaic. Alaina is there already. Young Mohamed is, too, and he is playing loud, obnoxious music on tinny speakers. Eventually I stand up and order him to turn it off, if just for an hour. I want to work, I say in classical Arabic, and I am not sure he understands. I finish my mosaic design for a fountain with the help of Ali.

Walk through the medina. It’s still raining, so we dodge umbrellas and soak our feet in puddles. I buy figs, bananas, cabbage, and two carrots. The fig man is funny. Ever since I said that his figs were the greatest and he corrected me—Allah is the greatest (to which I replied that after Allah, his figs really were the greatest)—he has been very warm.


Lunch at La Union. An old man follows me to my seat. He elicits in Spanish that I am Canadian, and says in passable English that he was in Quebec and Ottawa. Why? Muj…something about working in a mosque. He asks what I will be having for lunch. Couscous? No, soup. Ah, harira, he says. He asks if I have something for him. I fish around in my pocket and find a 10 dirham coin. Three more beggars come up to me in the course of my lunch, but I am out of change and annoyed to be hassled.

I eat tomato soup, an omelet, bread, and finish with a café au lait. This is ordered in Spanish and Arabic.


Arabic. I read Fatima my sentences in past tense. This is my favorite tense so far. It makes sense. I can see the three parts of every Arabic word clearly. I can see the shapes as they come out of my mouth. “I went to Ecuador and stayed there for eight months. I taught at a university. I didn’t study Spanish, but after a couple months, I knew some words, and I spoke with people. I listened a lot, and that helped me. I felt happy to speak.” And now I feel happy, because you are speaking! Fatima exclaims. I really like her. Half the reason I go to Arabic is to make her laugh.

We look at pictures and she asks me to make a story in past tense. I have to ask the word for café—maqha. Mecca? I ask. Haha, no. “They went to the café, and then maybe they went to Mecca.” Hahaha. It’s funny in Arabic. Then I make up a story about a woman who was a taxi driver, but then she decided to go to university. She studied French and graduated and got a job at the United Nations. Alumam almutahida. Hahaha.

I show Fatima what I want her to teach me on Tuesday. We’ll do three weeks of Moroccan dialect, because my brother is coming, and we’ll be traveling in the south, and I want to navigate in Arabic. For Fatima to teach me what I want, I have to give it to her in French. I stayed up last night with Babelfish to check my translated phrases.


Run into Ali the Brazilian on the way home. I thought he was still stuck in Spain! Apparently Morocco let him back in. He rubs me with his beard when we kiss cheeks. We can’t decide what language to speak, because he has been speaking French with his friends, and I have just come out of Arabic. We settle for English and Spanish, mixed.


Music conservatory. A really chatty new guy in choir says we won’t start until five. Then he asks if I’m a Muslim. La. He says something about the Koran and how great it is. I smile politely and go upstairs to the Institut des Beaux-Arts.

Coming out is Abderrahim, whom I was supposed to meet earlier. I explain that I got stuck at mosaic in the rain, and show him the text that wouldn’t send—I really need to deal with my phone. He laughs it off and tells me not to worry. I have 20 minutes now, so we go upstairs to his makeshift office to look at the stop-motion animations that he wants me to narrate. Does he have an idea about the content? Nope. Wow. It’s like the drawings he gave me to add writing to—totally open to interpretation. Immediately I think of the Morccan culture guide that I read two weeks ago. The chapter on friendships would be hilarious as a voiceover, to go with the two characters in his animation. All this is in French—crude, but functional, like a wrench. I tell him about my idea to write poetry to go with his other images. I tell him about the BBC “MyWorld” competition, too, that Alaina and I want to enter.


Choir. We don’t sing the song I know, so I read along. As people come in, they give me that warm, good-to-see-you nod. Iman kisses both cheeks and asks if I got her message. No. She says she’ll come over tomorrow to teach me some more of the songs.


Quick dinner of leftover lubia (white beans with a savoury tomato sauce) and rice, and one of those perfectly ripe bananas from the medina.


Advanced One. In the last class, they recorded themselves doing interviews. “Moroccans on the Air” was the title of the mock radio show. The idea was that the Moroccan ministry of tourism had decided to do a publicity campaign to attract tourists and investment. Part of the campaign was having “average Moroccans” on radio shows across North America. So today, we gather around the laptop and write notes as we listen. They give each other written feedback with error correction. I teach them the positive-negative-positive feedback sandwich. They’ll write observations on their own speaking as homework. Then we introduce the new unit, “Family.” I write Marian, Richard, Steven, and Andy on the board and wait for the students to ask questions. We get around to living in Saudi, and Aicha is fascinated. She’s 22 and wants to go live in an English-speaking country to improve her speaking, so that she can work for an American company, but she’s also married, and it’s unlikely her husband will up and move. Later we learn that Aicha has a twin.


Liquor store. The only one in Tetouan that I’m aware of. Masa al-khair. Labes? Bighair? Alhamdulilah. Vino, por favor. Pero no hay grandes de eso? Hmm…dos “Flags” entonces. (This is beer made in Morocco.) Bishahal? Thirty-one. English? Sometime English, sometime Swede…Shukran. La shukr. Bslama. Bye. Ciao.


Dance party of one. I do this most nights. Then I have to lie down on my back, because I’m reeling. So many projects! So many languages! So much…And Tetouan gives. It gives and gives and gives.


“Two a Day” on MTV. Alaina and I stare in horror. The program doesn’t end until the wide receiver and the varsity cheerleader shoot a deer. The discussion turns to anticipated culture shock. Is it going to hurt? 

February 16, 2010

Top 10 in Tetouan

shukran (thank you)
bsaha (to your health)
bslama (bye)
hatha bishahal? (how much is this?)
salamaleikum / wa-aleikumasalam (peace be upon you / right back at ya)
wakha (ok)
safi (that's all)
atey (tea)
qahwa bilhelib (café au lait)
labes? bighair? alhamdulilah (how are you? good? praise be to God)

These are probably the 10 most useful phrases for me living in Tetouan.

What about you in your city?

Neighbourhood Watch

"Alaina, is ustetha some kind of title?"

"Umm, I don't think so."

"Ok. Then somehow the nut guy knows I'm a teacher."

"The nut guy by the French Institute?"

"No, the other one."

"Huh. That's weird."

"And then today, a stranger gave me an Hola, profesora."


Upon reflection, it's not so surprising that after four and a half months the neighbourhood knows me and my profession. There are only a few foreigners wandering around. It has its benefits, too, as we discovered tonight, walking home from work.

A boy split off from his two friends and crossed the street toward us. He had something in his hand. He walked straight at us, fast. Alaina veered left and as the kid passed between us, he raised his hand. I spun to dodge him. Then he laughed. 

"Qu'est-ce que tu fait?!" I shouted, fear in my lungs.

We turned the corner, but I saw in my peripheral vision that he was coming back for more. We were already on our block, though, and caught the attention of two men in the garage next to our apartment. "This boy..." Alaina started, but our neighbours were already running into the street. Even before they could grab the boy, though, our colleague, who had seen him approach us the first time, was running him down. 

Nothing had happened. I'm not sure the boy intended anything but to scare us. Nevertheless, I felt protected, valued, even treasured, as our community members launched into this kid. What was he doing? What was he thinking? Did he want to go to the police? It went on for a couple minutes. He apologized. We accepted the apology and went upstairs. 

February 15, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!

This is from Jardin Majorelle, a beautiful garden in Marrakech.

After the original owner died, Yves Saint Laurent and another artist bought the property, which includes a beautiful garden full of plants from five continents, and did art there. These "love" prints fill an entire room, just a step away from the palm trees and cacti.

February 13, 2010


In Arabic, there's singular, there's plural, and there's "two of something."

Hamami = one dove
Hamamatan = two doves

The word appears in Eid Al-Mara, the new song they are learning in Andalusian choir. I have been going for the last two months--the music conservatory is just a few minutes away--but always to listen. Today, though, my friend Iman came over and helped me learn some lines of this new song. Then we walked to choir practice together. At her encouragement, I opened my mouth. Mr. Hisham was surprised. "Bravo."

The music is all in Arabic. I have the lyrics in front of me, and I can read along when the group sings, but I don't trust myself to read fast enough and accurately enough to sing with the Arabic script alone. Having Iman sing slowly, and writing English transliteration, solves the problem. "Avec le temps," as she says, I will get better and more independent. And as I continue learning Arabic, I will understand more words. For now, it's hamamatan and maybe eight others.

February 11, 2010

Club Athletica

Hatha rajul mezyaaaaaan.

This man is goooooood.

Said the drunk man, clutching Peter. I concurred. From across the bar, a Spanish man bought us two more gin and tonics. Mohammed resumed his rant on the importance of his wife being intelligent, if only for the sake of his 10-month old son. Karim, the owner and manager of Club Athletica, which I now understand to be a private drinking establishment and not a gym, introduced himself and said that I was welcome any time. The pleasure of the Tetouani bar experience, however, came largely from the novelty.

February 9, 2010

Wiki days

When you live abroad, you might find it easier to experiment with living, because you have already broken your routine. For example, you might designate a day to looking up on Wikipedia all the things that made you go, "I wish I knew more about..."

This week:
World War I and II
Arabic -- syllabic or time-based?
New Zealand
vestigial organs

Now I know what the appendix was for. It digested cellulose for our herbivorous ancestors. And look at that sweet picture of a baleen whale again. Picture c indicates its undeveloped hind legs. What!