Some months ago, back when the coronavirus quarantine was really starting to get going, my wife and I found ourselves looking into new hobbies that we could do at home. She rediscovered Duolingo, and, a few days later, so did I. “Why not try studying the basics of a brand new language?” I thought, and motivated solely by the fact that I think it has one of the nicest-looking writing systems of any major language, I decided to pick up Arabic.
I also have a hobby of calligraphy, and make a habit of filling one (relatively small) page a day with some sort of writing practice. My first day of trying to write Arabic, shown above, was… not great. I will not be winning any calligraphy competitions with my first try, especially given embarrassing mistakes like the upside-down ُ in there.
Over time, I got a little better, though. A few days later, I could at least remember to write things the right way up.
Arabic is a pretty interesting language, too, just from a linguistic standpoint (though, before I go any further, please let me remind you that I am still very new to the language, and by no means an expert!). Unlike English and Japanese, Arabic adjectives go after the nouns they modify (so instead of “big house,” you would say “بَيت كَبير”/bait kabir, or “house big”). Another interesting feature is that there’s apparently no Arabic word for “to be” — instead, you simply say, grammatically, “Omar teacher.” or “Rania chef.”
One of the most interesting and unique aspects of Arabic, to me, is how heavily gendered the language is, on a fundamental grammatical level. Linguists have noted that Japanese has very marked differences between how men and women speak, but that’s more sociocultural than grammatical.
In Arabic, though, in addition to all nouns being either masculine or feminine (a trait it shares with many European languages), other aspects of the language have gender “baked in” on a fundamental level. For instance, much like how English has masculine and feminine third-person pronouns (“him” and “her”), Arabic actually extends this to second-person pronouns, with masculine and feminine forms of “you.”
(As an aside, I found myself wondering how Arabic must handle things like prompts on computer screens to say things like “enter your password.” After a few moments, though, I realized that this probably isn’t a problem in practice, because Arabic writing omits short vowels — though the words for “you” or the suffixes used to indicate “your” have different vowel sounds to indicate masculine/feminine, usually these vowel sounds wouldn’t be written at all for native adult speakers, so something like ما اسمك, or “what is your name,” would simply be read with the appropriate vowels added for the reader.)
One separate matter that I’ve found myself thinking about is that, when learning a new writing system, there’s a weird relationship between “writing neatly” and “writing like a native speaker.” A nonnative adult who is a complete beginner will initially write in a way that looks sloppy and wrong, in a nonnative way, but with practice nonnative speakers can make their handwriting look much nicer and more legible.
However, this often winds up looking “nonnative” in its own way, as it will often be too neat, or perhaps a little too closely based on how printed text looks. So the final step, for learners of new languages, is to study the way that native speakers write quickly and a little sloppily, but in a way that everyone is familiar with, and can read, as a result.
Needless to say, I am nowhere near that point yet with Arabic, but I’ve at least found study materials specifically on how native speakers write for everyday purposes and for calligraphy. I doubt I’ll ever even make it to the point where I can have much of a conversation in Arabic, but it’s been an interesting hobby nonetheless, and I always enjoy the experience of having an unfamiliar writing system gradually change from “cool-looking squiggles” to “text” in my brain.