Monday, January 24, 2011

How Languages Represent their Respective Cultures

Greeeeeeeeetings to my beloved readers!

I have a beautiful fascination for languages. I think most people I know have said the same thing. Sadly, though, while I know or am studying several different languages, I know only two different scripts: Pashto, Urdu, Persian, Arabic = Arabic script; English, Spanish, and French = "English" script. (No, I'm currently not studying French, but I will be picking it back up soon, ka khairee.) This is why I look forward to learning Hebrew, Hindi/Sanskrit, and Japanese. Maybe Chinese as well, but we shall see, ka khairee.

Anyway, so my Arabic teacher wasn't able to make it to our first class due to some unjust circumstances, and so we had a substitute. The substitute, as much as everyone feared him, turned out to be this amazing and pleasant gentleman full of knowledge and wisdom, carrying with him a deep passion for the language he teaches (Arabic). Pashtuns often say that Pashto isn't just a language; it's a culture as well. You don't just speak Pashto, we say; you live it as well -- you practice it as well. Some other time, ka khairee, I will give you some examples of Pashto phrases that represent Pashtun culture. Here, my mind is fresh on a couple of Arabic phrases that represent the Arab culture (or cultures) really well. Or at least the wisdom behind these phrases, anyway.

 Ahlan wa sahlan
This is an expression the English equivalent of which is "welcome!" or "Hi!" It's a form of greeting. In Arabic, ahl means "family," and sahl means "easy." Altogether, the phrase means: "Welcome! You are now a part of our family, and may everything be easy for you." [If someone got a better way of explaining it, please do.]

Marhaba: This word, too, means "welcome." Its root letters (r, h, and b) mean "space." In many cultures, including the Arab one, when someone enters the room or space you're sitting in, you get up and offer them your space, and when they refuse, you insist they take it; they don't have a choice. So marhaba means, "You are here, and my space now belongs to you. It is my honor to give it to you."

Both expressions above are intended to welcome the person such that she/he becomes a part of you, one of you. How beautiful is that!

In Arabic, to say, "He thinks" or "He believes," you say, yadhunnu (يظن). Interestingly, the Arabic word for "doubt" is dhun (ظن). So when you use yadhunn, you are really saying, "He believes this to be the case, but doubts inside him persist." The reason I love this word now is that it acknowledges the possibility of one's being wrong, one's opinion being not the only one--the possibility that everything you believe is wrong, that everything you know could be wrong, that everything you are can be wrong. How powerful is that!

The Arabic term for "politics" is siyaasiyyah (سياسية). There's history behind it, but to make a long story short, I shall tell you only this much: It is related to saas (ساس), which means something like "leading" and "leadership" and the like. And guess why I think it's important that the world know this :D Well, in Urdu, the word for mother-in-law is saas! haha? No, not really. My theory, unconfirmed yet and possibly wrong but I'm sticking to it till I'm proven wrong, is that the word makes perfect sense because, despite the claim that women are oppressed (yes, many women actually are oppressed, and, no, it's never all of them, or even most, I assert), women do hold positions of power in their communities. The mother-in-law in many societies makes the final decisions. I think that's enough to make my point, though I'll be happy to elaborate if need be.

Some other interesting terms and their explanations as far as I know now are:
- qalb (قلب), which means "heart" in Arabic, comes from the same word that means, "to turn." Wanna guess why?
- anf (انف), Arabic for "nose," comes from anfah (انفة), which means "pride." Hmm... I wonder why!

That's all for now.

Remember that this powerfulness is not unique to Arabic. I discuss it here just because these words and the class discussion we had on them are fresh in my mind, so I figured I could share the knowledge. I will share similar things in other languages, especially Pashto (my native language, yes! :D), another time.


  1. haha love the in-law part =D
    Sadly scripture now days across all language has been influence by those who have conquered them. It is not always easy to know the true language and reform it.

  2. awesome! marhaba sounds divine!!

    a lot of our hindi songs use this word!! so was some what familiar with it!

    i ll practice the other ones as well..!

  3. Love this! I love the richness of the word yadhunnu, it is explanations like this that make words into my favorites. What a rich language

  4. The Hindi script, Devnagari is extremely easy to learn, I think you could teach yourself in 6 weeks since you already speak Urdu and know the sound system.

    I love languages, too. Anything language related fascinates me to no end. I can speak a few, and pick up accents easily by ear. But alas, English is by far my bestest language.

  5. What a beautiful and interesting post Q! I really loved what you wrote about yadhunnu, though unfortunately, though the word does originally express doubt as well, I don't think most people would keep that in mind when using it, unfortunately.

  6. I always learn something new from your blog posts=) I am working on learning Spanish right now and after that, I want to learn Pashto, Balochi, Sindhi, and Punjabi as well. I have always wanted to learn Arabic as well, but I do that on the side-pick up some words here and there.
    @LuckyFatima-I want to learn the Hindi script as well! Can you recommend some sites? 6 weeks seems quite doable.

  7. Hello, beautiful folks!
    Thank you, thank you, all, for your comments!

    ~ Kochaye, I must agree to a large extent. It's also that languages have evolved so much that it's hard to figure out what exactly a certain word may have meant at the point of its revelation. Interestingly enough, I have learned, the Arabic dictionary today isn't much help because it bases its definitions on the Quran's words, or what interpreters believed the words meant!

    ~ Sepo, yes! And then Hindi (Urdu, really) has soo much in common its incredible! Makes learning Persian really easy ;) I'm now interested in the history of Urdu. I keep reading and hearing different things about its origin, so it'd be good to find out about its "real" origin.

    ~ Becky, that's true! Most of us don't note that depth in the word, eh.

  8. ~ UnsettledSoul, same here! I am now never, ever, ever going to stop studying this language and gonna go for as many more as my lifetime will allow me, inshaAllah.

    ~ Luckyfatima, I'm with Rukhpar Mor! Please share some nice links on that :) The script looks so appealing and tempting!

    ~ Rukhpar Mor! That's a great list! I know a liiiiiiiiitle Punjabi, thanks to Punjabi songs/movies :p Sindhi and Balochi!! mmm! Add Kashmiri to the list, toooo... and then teach moi :)

  9. I quite like this guy's site:http://www.learning-

    and also this looks great:

  10. "Latin" script not "English" script ;)

  11. LOL. I prefer to call them Roman script, actually!

  12. Hey Orbala, the Hindi script thing - go for it! I used this link to start (aimed at English speakers):

    , along with the second one Fatima posted (though the first looks good as well), plus the excellent book 'Beginners Hindi Script' by Rupert Snell. I learned it within about 4 weeks. Knowing Urdu of course is what really helps, as it's basically just learning a different writing system for the same language. However, the key is (like with everything) to just practice, practice, practice! Keep a pen and paper with you at all times and whenever you have a few minutes just keep writing those letters! Also, I found it really helped to transcribe Urdu songs, poems etc that I already knew into Hindi script (imagine transcribing the Pakistani national anthem in Hindi - felt kinda subversive!). The script itself is extremely phonetic and very logical. I'm sure it is much easier to learn Hindi script knowing Urdu than the other way round. My reading speed is still a bit slow, and sometimes I forget the odd aspirated consonant (there are so many!) and have to look it up, but I'm still improving. Learning it has hugely enriched my life without a doubt (I share your fascination for languages! And especially south Asian ones). Good luck! :)

  13. In my language (Malay), 'sia-sia' means 'in vain'. :D


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