While I was in Lebanon, I had dinner in Saida with two impressive women. Over snacks and crepes, we talked about a whole wide range of topics, but I finally brought up a question I’d been struggling with in nearly a week of speaking Arabic every day.
How can I be polite in Arabic?
At my current level, about what the State Department would consider S-2 for speaking, and probably S-1 for listening and reading, I can get away with using awkward phrases because I’m clearly a learner and most people give me slack. It helps that I often look like an American. But as I get better, I want to demonstrate not only linguistic fluency but cultural competence.
I explained my problem with a particular phrase. Say I wanted to say:
“Would you like to go to the souq with me?”
in Arabic, expecting a range of answers including “yes,” “no,” “later,” “tomorrow,” and “maybe.” That is the question I would use for an acquaintance, for an older non-family-member, or for a near-stranger. I use the subjunctive (“would”) to distance myself from the request and the person I’m requesting from the personal consequences of a rejection. I’m showing politeness through indirectness.
That’s not how I would do it in Arabic. In Arabic, as the ladies for whom it was a first language explained, I would say (read English transliteration from right to left):
|me (no direct object/subject difference for personal pronouns in Arabic)||with (implying in-person accompaniment)||the market||to||you (female, singular) go||Will (requiring a “yes” or “no” answer only),|
Saying it this way seems terribly rude to me as an English speaker with a background in Spanish. First, I’m restricting the range of answers the person I’m talking to can use, which seems presumptuous. How do I know they only want to reply with a “yes” or “no” answer? What if they say “no” but if I’d asked a different way, they would have said “tomorrow”?
Then there’s using the “you” pronoun. Growing up in California, everyone learns a little Spanish, and I spent a summer in high school taking Spanish at UC Santa Cruz. This means that, when I speak my 3rd language, I tend to think in my second. And in Spanish, when addressing 1) a stranger, 2) an older person, 3) a person of higher rank, you (formal) use the you (formal). This is not true of all Spanish accents or all Spanish speakers–I think Spanish-speakers from Spain use the informal “you” a lot more than speakers from Mexico.
The last confusion isn’t one of politeness but of grammar–in English, when a verb is doing something to me, I use the direct object form of the first person singular pronouns (“me”) rather than the subject form (“I”). In Arabic, there’s only one. This is one of the many reasons why I react with confusion when people ask me if Arabic is hard. A language with regular spelling, no unpronounced-letters, only 3 tenses (as opposed to Latin’s 6), no subjunctive, and no class-based pronoun changes? On those metrics, it’s super simple compared to Spanish, French, Latin, or English. In Arabic, there is a way to indicate something is a direct object, but in some cases we use the same form as the subjective.
Likewise in Arabic, we don’t use “Please” very often–“I’d like a soda, please?” becomes “I want a soda.” or “Can (“yes” or “no” answer only) I have a soda?”–both of which feel very rude to me as an English speaker.
There is a formal “you” in Arabic, though more used by Egyptian dialect speakers, but that I’ve never heard used outside of a classroom. And there are ways to show politeness–when you meet someone, you talk to them and say that you’re pleased to meet them. When you sneeze, you say “Yahamulkulallah,” or when you say something nice about a child or someone’s luck, you say “ma-sha’allah”. Those are all social norms, the performance of which indicates membership of the club of adults who know how to behave.
I know I will rarely if ever pass for a native Arab speaker, but because the region and the language have squeezed their roots so deeply into my heart, I want to show my deference to them by speaking politely. But instead of using the subjunctive or open response questions, I guess I’ll just have to learn enough to demonstrate with my proficiency, rather than my verbalized etiquette, how much I value that region.
I’m on my way to the River of Jordan
Gonna wade right in to the rushing waters
I’m going down to the River of Jordan
And let the cool waters cleanse my soul.”–River of Jordan