Monday, December 13, 2010

How Many Syllables Are in That Word?

When most Americans see Arabic script, the first thing that comes to mind is Islam, the Koran and perhaps those blue and gold postage stamps commemorating the holy month of Ramadan.

I, on the other hand, think of a former linguistics professor who once gave our class an unusual exercise. She put a big sheet of Arabic writing on the wall and asked us to describe what we saw. The lines reminded me of a time when, as a small child not yet able to read, I used to draw pictures and scribble squiggly lines underneath, my first crude attempts at writing a story. The Arabic looked a lot like those scribbles. Only prettier.

No matter how hard I squinted at the script on the classroom wall, I couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began. There were dots everywhere, but nothing that resembled punctuation. For the first time in decades, I felt illiterate.

Fifteen years later, my Iranian husband’s parents came to live with us, and in a few months I had acquired rudimentary Farsi conversation skills. But the language uses the Arabic script so I still couldn’t read or write a single word. Unacceptable.

My husband patiently wrote out the Farsi version of the Arabic alphabet for me, all thirty-two letters (four more than in Arabic), then showed me how to form them. I tackled the problem much the way I’d learned to write the Latin alphabet, taking each letter in order and practicing its various forms. I had vague memories of first grade and lines of letters marching across the page: Aa, Bb, Cc and on to Zz. So I tried creating similar lines of آ to ى.

Unfortunately, the Arabic script doesn’t work like the Latin one. For one thing, it’s written in cursive style from right to left, except for the numbers which go from left to right. Then there are four forms to most letters, not just two, depending on where they occur in a word: beginning, middle, end or sitting all lonesome on their own. And here’s the clincher: even after breaking the words down into individual letters, the script still looks like bewildering squiggles, each symbol distinguished from its sisters only by the number and placement of the associated dots.

So is jim (prounounced like the man’s name) the one with the dot in the middle of the loop (ج) or above the letter (خ)? Is the ت with two dots above the line pronounced like a T, or is that the one with a single dot below the line? Nope, ب sounds like a B.

I was nearly at my wit’s end, figuring I’d never learn to read Farsi, when a cousin in Iran came to the rescue. She sent me a set of first-grade primers with pictures. Bingo! Turns out, Iranian kids don’t learn their letters by memorizing the alphabet from alef to ye. Instead the letters are presented in sets, so you learn these together: ب ت ث, and then these: ح ج خ . So much easier to remember where the dots are supposed to go this way.

I know the Arabic script now, but that doesn’t mean I can read the language with ease. That’s because Farsi has one more bewildering quirk: you don’t write the vowels! Vowel symbols do exist, but no literate person would be caught dead using them in written form.

So how do you sound out an unfamiliar word? Simple answer: you don’t. When all I’ve got are two or three consonants to work with, I can’t even tell how many syllables the word contains.

Over time, I’ve gotten a better feel for Farsi and its linguistic patterns, which makes reading easier as well. Sometimes I can even correctly guess those unfamiliar words. One thing is certain: practice makes perfect, and the more Farsi I read, the easier it becomes.


  1. A very interesting book on Endagered Alphabets was recently published by Tim Brooks here in Burlington, VT. I saw an exhibit of the carvings he did of each alphabet he wrote about. It is wonderful to expand one's mind by learning to speak another language, but to learn to write a foreign language that uses a different alphabet is that much more of a challenge (as I remember from taking Russian in school). I can't even imagine learning one that doesn't write the vowels! It certainly gives one perspective on how difficult life is if you can not read.

  2. If anyone is interested,the book is called Endangered Alphabets and it is by Tim Brookes, sorry for the misspelled name

  3. I want to read Tim Brooke's book. It sounds fascinating.

    Cyrillic was easier for me to learn than the Arabic alphabet because it was more familiar. Many letters are the same as in the Latin alphabet, and the ones that are different, or have different sounds, were easier to remember (although the latter would trip me up occasionally).