My relationship with Arabic is one of puzzled yearning.
Every small triumph (reading a road sign or assuring the taxi driver that the weather is in fact nice) is followed almost instantly by the realisation that I am still far from the object of my desire.
The road that takes one from flirting with Arabic to moving in together is a long and winding one.
Spoken Arabic has such an abundance of synonyms you can never be sure you have used the right word for “nice” for example. Is it nice nice or just a bit nice or mainly nice or a quarter good and three quarters nice?
Three sophisticated, versatile linguistic beasts I particularly love are:
1. Yallah – Literally “come on” but wonderfully complex in use. “Let’s move on” or “I’m bored” or “Ok, we’re clear” or “Hey, you”, “Oh, you’re here” or even “Blimey!” with the right intonation.
2. Marhabtein – This is a lovely variation from “marhaba”- “hello” and it literally means “double hello”. This word is a small gift. You get it when the giver is in a good mood or you’re having a particularly good hair day. Playful. Nice. Four quarters nice.
3. Hallas – Not this is the ultimate king of polysemy. If meanings were wives this word would have the biggest harem on the planet. “Enough”, “stop it”, “I understand”. “Ok, we have a deal”. “Finished”. “No, thanks”. “That’s all right”.