Arabic for Nerds

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We had the chance to interview Gerald Drissner, the author of the book Arabic for Nerds. Arabic for Nerds aims to transform Arabic grammar into an understandable and enjoyable subject and is an incredibly comprehensive book on Arabic grammar. In this interview, we discuss Gerald’s own journey with the Arabic language as well as his motivations for writing the book. You can purchase Arabic for Nerds on Amazon.

What was your path to studying Arabic coming from an economist background?

I spent my childhood in an environment that is pretty much the opposite of the desert – in a tiny mountain village in the Austrian Alps, where modern Alpine skiing was invented. That was in the 1980’s in pre-internet times. Arabic was very far away. Nonetheless, some of my childhood heroes spoke Arabic (and Persian). I loved the stories of Sindbad and Ali Baba, Jinns and flying carpets. When I saw words written in Arabic, I was fascinated by the shape of the letters of the Arabic alphabet.

It may take some time and coincidences until you discover your real passion. After having finished a master’s degree in economics and a two-year training at a journalism school in Germany, in 2006, I traveled to Egypt – and from the very first moment became addicted: to Arabic.

I decided to quit my job in Germany and move to Egypt. Some people thought I was crazy. But I wanted to entirely focus on Arabic – for years. I had reduced all fixed costs to the bare essentials. Thanks to the internet, I could work as a freelancer and made enough money. So, there was nothing to worry about.

But I did not only learn Arabic, my time in Egypt taught me a lot about life. I lived in Egypt during the Arab Spring in 2011. The Arab Spring had a great influence on me and made my connection to Arabic, the Arab world, and Arab culture even closer. The Arab Spring has also led to something very positive – at least for me: I met my wife Mey in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Why do you love the Arabic language?

When I was a child, I was obsessed with chess. Chess and Arabic have many things in common: it is basically about patterns. Move orders (= word order) can matter a lot. And it is more about hard work and passion and not so much about talent.

I had also studied mathematics at university before I switched to economics. Arabic grammar (and especially morphology) follows an almost mathematical logic, which produces a lot of beauty.

Instead of saying that “this is an exception to the rule” as in most other languages, the classical grammarians derived rules – not stopping until every sentence in the Qur’an could be reasonably explained. They developed a closed system and an almost entirely harmonious framework which we call Arabic grammar.

Algebra has a lot more in common with Arabic than just the fact that the word Algebra is an Arabic word. In Arabic, you solve equations too. This is true for the single entity (صرف) in Arabic as well as the entire sentence (نحو). The Arabic word for form or pattern – وزن – denotes weight; measure. That’s not a coincidence.

When I don’t know a word, I try to generate it from my knowledge; thus, I think in equations. x is the root; y is the target pattern. x should equal y (x=y). So, you need to throw in some weights – letters like م, أ, ن, ت, و, ي – to the left part until the equation is solved. Then I check the word with my dictionaries. By doing this, since there is an active, creative process involved, I will remember the words better.

If you study around twenty Arabic patterns for nouns, you have an entire army. You will be able to fine-tune your sentences and make them more robust against misunderstandings. Especially learning patterns of nouns that may function as an adjective (نعت/صفة) can broaden your understanding of Arabic dramatically.

Once you start developing a basic understanding of the character of the extra letters, it will open new doors of understanding. Take the ن, for example, which has the power of denoting extra force or passiveness, of binding sounds and building bridges for non-compatible sounds. This is where the beauty of Arabic starts.

The same is true if we switch to another level, the sentence. If you understand the inner logic of the diacritical marks used for case endings (“u”, “a”, and “i”) and what these sounds actually denote – from indicating important things, dragging things to marking additional information – Arabic becomes so much easier.

You may even put an entire sentence into an equation. If you want to make sentences grammatically work, you often need to search for the missing link; for the missing device that is implicitly understood but needed to explain certain case endings and meanings. Take, for example, the word شكرًا. Why is it منصوب? Or why do you use the منصوب-case after أَنَّ or إِنّ? If you add the device that is needed to solve the equation – usually a word with governing power, grammar will become logical. But not only that. The application of grammatical rules will suddenly feel natural.

What was the motivation and goal behind the tremendous undertaking of writing Arabic For Nerds?

The book was born out of necessity. Do you know the situation when you know all the words in a sentence, but you can’t translate it? Usually, it is because you have not understood the grammar. At least that is what I figured out; thus, I started to collect interesting questions which I needed to answer first for myself.

Most grammar books never explain the reason behind rules – that is why people think Arabic grammar is complicated and boring. If you read German grammar books, you eventually know more about Latin than Arabic grammar.

I wanted to understand the nature of every single bit of Arabic grammar. Even if I have no idea of any word in a sentence, just by parsing, by identifying the function of all the words in a sentence, I may tell you something about the meaning, about the nature of the situation of the narration (does it express emotions? A turnaround? A contrast?), about the position of a sentence in a page (is the sentence at the beginning, does it start a new paragraph/idea, etc.). It is like solving a puzzle. You start with what you know for sure and eventually, you bit by bit, you will know the entire skeleton of the sentence.

I am a native German speaker who has studied Arabic only in Arab countries. So, I also wanted to build a bridge between the Arab method and the Western approach. The Western approach is using a universal Latin linguistic framework to explain Arabic. However, the authors and grammarians think in their respective native languages when translating from Arabic and therefore sometimes cannot reproduce the characteristic nuances of Arabic. Why shouldn’t I take the direct route, but make a detour by adding a secondary level? I never understood that; and I don’t see any reason for this nowadays.

Quite a few Latin terms do not do justice to their Arabic counterparts. At least that is my opinion. For example, the مبتدأ is translated as the “subject of a nominal sentence”. That’s fine, but that is probably just the intersection in a broader picture. The body and DNA of the مبتدأ are much richer, for example, a مبتدأ  is entitled to priority, its function and possible positions in a sentence may even convey emphasis, etc. The term مبتدأ is a derived noun of the verb “to begin” which already indicates a lot – but gets lost in the translation as “subject”. To call a مبتدأ just a “subject” is quite dull and ignorant in my opinion. Nevertheless, I also use the term in my books in addition to the Arabic term. I do not want to confuse readers. I want them to acquire a deeper understanding and it often helps to connect to things a reader already knows.

In general, I think that it is much easier to stick to the Arabic grammar terms because they are meaningful words that explain the grammatical concept whereas in the English/German hemisphere, Latin grammar terms usually don’t mean anything to students. I mean, most students don’t know what the term “accusative” literally means. If you look up the word منصوب in a dictionary, you will learn that it means set up, fixed, attached, etc. which at least makes some sense if we analyze an “object”. The idea of منصوب in the sense of being something additional is so much more intuitive. Many students have never examined the underlying basis of a construction with أنَ. Once you understand that, translating sentences will become much easier (which is also true for the “absolute object” since you have to be very flexible when translating such words).

How do you take something as complex as Arabic grammar and make it digestible and interesting to students of the language?

You need to break it down to interesting questions. You need to challenge your readers by asking them questions they may not be able to answer immediately. Questions they always had but perhaps forgot to ask. Questions that are useful in their daily work with Arabic.

My books are not suitable for classroom teaching. They aren’t textbooks, nor are they filled with exercises. You read them and pick up bits and pieces which will help to fill missing puzzle pieces. Eventually, you will become more confident in using Arabic – because you understand it. Once you understand things, you are able to break them down, to even break rules, because you know how to defend yourselves.

But I have to admit, I am not sure if I succeed in making grammar interesting. My wife still believes that Arabic grammar is an instrument of torture.

I think it is important to understand the environment and character of a language. If you want to dive into the Arabic grammar ocean, there is an important first step you need to take. You need to adopt the nature of Arabic. German, for example, is perfect to write instruction manuals. If you go to a DIY store (which are very popular in Germany) and you write down all the terms for tools, you will end you with an entire dictionary. This is mainly connected to a peculiarity of German, i.e., to string nouns together. You can connect noun+noun+noun+… almost infinitely and produce incredibly long words like “Fußballweltmeisterschaftsendrundenteilnehmer” (a soccer team playing in the final of the World Cup). Therefore, German often has a word for one very specific thing or action which often can be artificially created. The accentuation may even change the meaning (einen Absatz umschreiben; ein Wort um-schreiben). There are almost ten words for “why” in German. The prefixes of a verb can give you a migraine attack, especially because sometimes they are cut-off and put at the very end of a sentence. A nightmare for learners.

Arabic is the opposite. Arabic is vague. You enter the world of the approximate. One word may denote dozens of things. Sometimes, the meaning is only given by the context, and sometimes, you need to guess.

In Arabic, I think it is very important to learn new words (vocab) in two steps: first think about the pattern; then think about possible translations. Your brain will save the correct pronunciation automatically if you connect a word with a pattern, and you know the nature of word which is essential for the analysis of a complicated sentence.

Besides, I don’t think that Arabic grammar is difficult. Okay, that might sound arrogant. But to put it logically, something that was written down more than a thousand (!) years ago should not overwhelm us now, right?

Arabic uses three case endings; Hungarian has 18 (!) cases if I am not mistaken. Arabic verb forms and tenses are quite easy compared to French. And since many people talk about gender issues in language usage – Arabic is simply perfect with its already built-in feminine pronouns and forms.

Even the core vocabulary base is relatively limited. Arabic is the language of the desert. You have plenty of words for camel, lion, or sand. But as soon as you leave the desert and the nomadic lifestyle, you quickly run out of words. English is spoken in all kinds of natural environments – deserts, snow, jungle, the sea, with all kinds of animals, etc. Therefore, of course, English has to be the richest language today.

In my Austrian dialect, we have around ten words for snow. In Arabic, however, describing “Pulverschnee” (powder snow) is already difficult and “Staublawine” (powder-snow avalanche) is almost impossible. You need to translate an idea that is alien to Arabic.

From your experience, what resources are lacking for advanced students of Arabic and how does Arabic for Nerds seek to fill that gap?

I realized that even advanced students from Europe or the US had the same problem I had: the frustration of not being able to translate even simple sentences despite knowing all the words.

I think this has to do with the teaching material. Most foreigners build sentences using the English logic: subject + predicate (usually in the form of a verb) + object. Many books use these “simplified” sentence structures and teachers accept them in class. I don’t say that this is wrong. It gives students quick results which is good for their motivation. But in the long run, it is nothing but poison which corrupts a student’s language skills.

So, students start sentences usually with أنا plus verb plus object. It is easy for their brain to translate sentences word by word although it is awkward to begin almost every sentence with a separated pronoun. That is understandable but not very sophisticated.

Furthermore, foreign students are usually very limited when they need to express emphasis. They often only know one or two words and one or two basic constructions. The fine implementation of emphasis is one of the strengths of Arabic. The Qur’an is full of them! Sometimes they are left untranslated but if you read the original you should be aware of them and absorb the finesses.

However, as soon as students encounter constructions with fronted direct objects, the absolute/inner object (المفعول المطلق), sentences with the additional ما, sentences that include the اسم المرة or اسم الهيئة, sentences that substitute verbs, then suddenly sentences may get difficult although they are still quite basic.

You may encounter words that are not found in dictionaries because they follow a generic pattern that can be used in a flexible way and in many situations; patterns that cannot be translated word-by-word anyway because sometimes you may need an adverb of manner in the English translation, sometimes a word like “very” or a punctuation marks would do the job; in English and German you can play with punctuation marks. In Arabic that’s not common. You use different tools. Such constructions are just not common in the learner’s environment.

I am even going as far as that once you understand the DNA of all the Arabic “objects” (المنصوبات), half of the job is done. Your writing skills will skyrocket.

Furthermore, most advanced students cannot read an unvowelled sentence correctly. This is mainly related to a lack of understanding of the morphology and grammar of Arabic. If you ask them, okay, in this word, why did you use فتحة and not ضمة on this letter or whatever, oftentimes, they cannot even tell you what the difference (in meaning!) would be. They just know what the word usually means.

The foundation of Arabic grammar can be learned by anyone in around half a year. Regarding the vocabulary and regarding applying all the tools, it may take a lifetime. The better you understand Arabic, the more you will be able to play with words and structures. Your Arabic will develop to the next level.

People often say that the Qur’an is difficult to read. I think we have to differentiate: The grammar should not cause any problem. It is only the vocabulary that is difficult because we simply don’t know what certain words really meant back then. Many words are not used anymore. But the grammar remains the same.

Everyone has a different opinion on the benefits/drawbacks of studying Classical Arabic before Spoken Arabic and vice-versa. What are the benefits of learning and understanding Classical Arabic grammar before one decides to take on Spoken Arabic?

I think it depends on your goals and the amount of time you want to invest. I do not think you can ever fully learn a dialect. What students learn is a “hybrid” version of Arabic.

Let me explain why I mean by hybrid Arabic. You learn that the prefix ب in Egyptian Arabic is used for the present tense and the ه to denote a future action. And then you use mostly MSA vocab for the rest of the sentence. And in intermediate classes, you learn some common expressions. Fine, but that is not speaking a dialect. That’s a bit of cheating in many books.

A dialect is very much connected to the environment, the identity, the history, the traditions, the culture, the humor of the people who speak it – which you may eventually learn and understand when you live there for twenty years. Even Arabs themselves struggle to understand each other when they fully speak in their own dialects.

That is what makes learning Arabic so difficult. If an Arabic student would hear, see and read formal Arabic in daily life like a student of German does in Germany, progress would be so much quicker.

It is a dilemma. In Austria and Switzerland, people only speak in dialects and my native Austrian dialect is as far away from Standard German as Egyptian Arabic is from MSA. But still, even a farmer in the mountains can speak and understand formal German and will switch to it when needed. It is hard for me to understand what went wrong in the Arab world that many people cannot speak formal Arabic continuously on a high level – especially since a good command of Arabic is needed to understand the Qur’an, which they hear and read every day.

So why do students like to start with dialects? Because dialects – mainly due to the foreign influence – follow the subject plus predicate plus object logic; a structure that is very familiar to us (native English/German speakers).

That’s just natural because you cannot freeze a language for centuries. Modern Hebrew (Ivrit) is also much easier to learn compared to formal Arabic because it very much absorbs the structure of English. Active participles often replace  conjugated verbs. That makes life much easier.

I am sorry but there are things you have to learn by heart brutally. You need to learn the conjugation of, let’s say, common 50 verbs like you learn multiplication tables in school. You must not think about the conjugation while speaking. Otherwise, you will automatically switch to hybrid Arabic. Eventually, you may not be able to speak any version of Arabic properly.

Now, what is the solution? I think you need both. It is like chess. You need to play. It is not enough to study 1000 rook endgames before you start playing. It will end in frustration, in a disaster.

I would suggest a parallel process. You need to develop basic skills for speaking Arabic using a simplified version of Arabic which is enough for most situations a beginner will encounter. You also need to understand the features of modern Arabic dialects which share many similarities.

A formalized, standard version of a language is more universal and – in the long run – easier to learn in my opinion. I think that it is much easier to almost perfectly understand Al-Arabiya compared to an Egyptian soap opera in all its nuances.

As soon as you know the structure and nature of Arabic (morphology and grammar), picking up a dialect (in the hybrid version) is actually not such a big deal.

You need to learn question words (which are always pretty different in any dialect), the main negation word and the prefixes to denote the present and future action. And you need to know about the stress/intonation and if there are consonant clusters which happens a lot in the Maghrebi dialects. Arabic dialects still use patterns. If you are familiar with the logic of patterns, your brain will easily digest this kind of information. The only problem is the vocabulary. You often need to start from scratch.

By the way, I never had trouble speaking Fusha in any Arab country. Once people realize that you are capable of telling a story and not just who you are and that you like Egypt…, most people will respect you.

If you speak MSA instead of classical Arabic, you leave out most emphatic constructions anyway because it is the إِنّ and أنّ that make Fusha sounding kind of awkward. I mean, you don’t need to apply the dual unless you want to stress on the number.

Let’s say you use a disarmed version of Classical Arabic, and you are fine. But you will need to find a way to deal with the lack of modern words, especially words that are related to feelings. Arabic is pretty weak compared to French and perhaps closer to German in that particular sense. Dialect words can help you out , and in that situation, it is totally fine and actually quite normal to use dialect words because we do the same in English and German.

If the Arabs used their formal language more often and forced students to use Fusha in schools and universities, the language would develop automatically and would find ways and words to express modern things and actions. The Arabs just need to revitalize Fusha.

Arabic students often say that Fusha is like talking in Shakespearean English. Do you think about Shakespeare when you watch Al-Jazeera? I don’t think so.

The fact that foreigners study Arabic and can actually speak it is still quite new for Arab native speakers.

I still “over-emphasize” certain Arabic letters and speak kind of slow to make sure that people understand me correctly. I am not a native speaker so I don’t have to pretend to be one. It is fine to have an accent; everyone has one. It is just that native Arab speakers are not used to listening to white or Asian looking people speaking Arabic and automatically think it is awkward and funny. So this shouldn’t be the point. When a foreigner visits my village in the Austrian Alps and speaks standard German, it also feels alien and unnatural. But it is accepted as a mean of communication. English is most advanced in that sense; you can work as a TV-presenter on CNN with a foreign accent.

The main point is that you can transfer what you want to express. That is what communication and exchanging ideas is all about. To find a common language and ground.

What are some future Arabic passion projects that you’re planning for the future?

There is still one important part missing in the “Arabic for Nerds” series: a book about morphology (صرف) which hopefully will be published as part three by the end of this year. Furthermore, since I am still working as a journalist, I am currently working on material that will deal with Arabic newspaper texts.


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