Sunday, November 26, 2006

Speaking Arabic in public; or: don't say Yallah

You may have heard about the imams who got taken off a plane in the US (Minneapolis) because some passenger thought they were suspicious. Apparently:
Before passengers boarded, one became alarmed by an overheard discussion. "They seemed angry," he wrote in a police statement. "Mentioned 'U.S.' and 'killing Saddam.' Two men then swore slightly under their breath/mumbled. They spoke Arabic again. The gate called boarding for the flight. The men then chanted 'Allah, Allah, Allah.'"
It's bizarre the way that "They spoke Arabic again" seems to be characterised as somehow suspicious in itself - but the part that really makes me think "duhhhh!" is "The gate called boarding for the flight. The men then chanted 'Allah, Allah, Allah.'" It's obvious what they must really have been saying (although I haven't seen any paper point this out): Yallah, yallah, meaning "come on! let's go!". If even the use of the word "Allah" alarms some paranoid passengers, then Arabs will be hard-pressed to speak at all - between inshallah, hamdulillah, and bismillah alone (let alone yallah or wallah) you could easily reach at least one mention of "Allah" every couple of sentences in a completely mundane conversation! I hope this is an isolated instance rather than a trend.

In related news, speaking Yan-Nhangu is apparently suspicious as well...

In unrelated news, I thought Tulugaq's Google Map of Inupiaq was pretty cool, as is Sydney Place Names - I hope this is a trend.

7 comments:

rob said...

Yeah, I heard about this. I was thinking many of the same things.

I was on the phone with my dad the other day, and he recalled how in the Cold War, Russian had very much the same effect. It made me wonder, "If my bags get searched at the aiport, will my Arabic homework make them suspicious?"

Jaŋari said...

It amazes me that people still think that 'terrorists' (whatever that means) would be so conspicuous as to speak in Arabic and shout Allah, Allah, Allah! before boarding a plane! Honestly.

I hope this is a trend.
You started it!

KNL said...

Lameen, you would be surprised at how "suspicious" people in the States regard speaking Arabic or whatever Middle Eastern language is in question. It's not an isolated instance. I haven't followed this case as much, but there have been many instances like this, some reported more than others. Most of the time it is exactly this kind of misunderstanding (I consider it bigotry most of the time judging from some of the things the passengers that reported the men said when interviewed on ABC, such as "my daughter told me they were speaking Terrorist, and I looked at them and they looked like Terrorists and I reported them" or something to that effect) that gets a lot of people in trouble here. A lot of Arabs here resell electronics (phones, cameras, etc.) after buying them in bulk legally. There were tons of Middle Eastern guys arrested for this over the summer on totally false "terrorism" charges. I should mention that lots of non-Arabs do this as well (Ecuadorians, Dominicans, blacks and Asians where I live), but when Arabs do it, it is somehow in support of terrorism. I remember a while ago a Pakistani/Canadian doctor got kicked of a plane (in flight, the plane landed half way between California and Toronto I think in Colorado) because he prayed in Arabic (or Urdu, I think it was the latter, though) and it made a series of drunken white passengers "uncomfortable" and they basically had a coup on the flight and forced the pilot to land to get him off, and he was taken into security. Such nonsense. There was even a report on the news last night about how many passengers are getting kicked off of planes for stupid things like this (even non-Muslim passengers, which is why the story got on, I think), as flight attendents have much more authority over this nowadays because of 9/11, and passengers are more paranoid as well.

Anyhow,

How's the PhD process going?

Best

Nouri

Anonymous said...

Like your blog (found it through languagehat). I think that incident of linguistic discrimination at the airport is disgraceful. I've studied a little Arabic in recent years, and find it fascinating, though very difficult. On a more humorous note though, this notion of people latching onto things in a foreign language which they don't understand....

I was at a conference a few years back in Glasgow, Scotland. Returning from the bar late one night, we flicked on the TV to find a cookery show in Scottish Gaelic. My friend spoke no Gaelic, I'm fluent in Irish, which (from my modest knowledge of Arabic) appears closer to Scottish Gaelic than say Levantine Arabic is to Maghrebi dialects. I was intrigued: completely familiar words, others used in a strange way, still others interspersed with others than made no sense. We watched for five minutes.

Then my friend asks "How come all they're talking about is Haggis? That's not even what they're cooking.". I thought he was kidding (we were in Scotland, after all, cookery show/haggis - geddit?!), and didn't get what he meant, until he asserted that they were saying the word over and over again. I realised he was hearing the word for 'and', which is 'agus' in both Scottish and Irish Gaelic. I hadn't even noticed - it was one of those 'transparent' words that was identical in both languages. But if your lexicon is English, the closest match is probably Haggis (leave out the 'h', and it's very close). Seems like we always try to force those 'square' foreign words into the 'round holes' of our own language.

Lameen Souag said...

Nouri: "my daughter told me they were speaking Terrorist, and I looked at them and they looked like Terrorists and I reported them" - nice! On that subject, you've probably seen http://articles.news.aol.com/news/_a/radio-hoax-exposes-anti-muslim-sentiment/20061202154609990001?ncid=NWS00010000000001 ...

Anonymous: That is an excellent example. I imagine the strong Scottish associations of both haggis and Gaelic made that reading leap to mind more than it would have otherwise... I didn't realize Scots and Irish Gaelic were so different; how long does it take for a speaker of one to learn to understand the other?

Anonymous said...

How different is Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic) from Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic)? Each language refers to the other by the same name, with the name of the country attached: Gaeilge na hAlban ('Irish' as spoken in Scotland), and Gàidhlig na hEireann ('Gaelic' as spoken in Ireland). So they're really quite close. I don't know a way to quantify it, but perhaps it's like the difference between Català and Castellano...

In other words, there are great parallels in grammar, vocabulary, etc. but then you hit speed bumps that throw you: why does Català use 'amb' where Castellano has 'con'? why does Gàidhlig have 'ri' where Gaeilge has 'le'? (All four words correspond to English 'with'.)

So it takes a while to get used to the speedbumps, and that applies to reading as much as listening: Gaeilge's spelling has been 'modernised' a few times in the twentieth century, whereas I think Gàidhlig's was modernised earlier on. The result is that in some ways, Gaeilge's has leap-frogged over Gàidhlig's, giving the latter a somewhat archaic feel to the Irish-reader's eye. (I'm sure the converse is true in some ways too.)

If there were written forms of Arabic dialects, from what little I understand, the most distant of them (maghrebi and levantine?) would be "further" (however you might measure that) apart than these two Gaelic languages.

Ally said...

I speak scots which is a differnt language from gaelic (I thought it was a dialect, but its been classified as a language...who knew?)

I have worked in Arab countries and found similarities in pronunciation and all in words. Scots and arabs both use the word "Shufti" to mean "take a look" .... I find the similarities fascinating...even the scots and arab culture (to me) has very strong similarities.