Thursday, January 25, 2007

Cat in Rabat's Tongues & A Few Parenthetical Thoughts About the Spanish Inquisition**

I have a natural and possibly queer aversion to food that is named after parts of the body - especially animal parts. I think this eccentricity may stem from the acute guilt I experienced as a child whenever my mother gave me a box of animal crackers. Do I eat the head first or the feet? O the horror of it all! The idea of serving "finger" foods at a party makes my flesh crawl; hors d'oeuvres I can live with. Consider the langue de chat, or cat's tongue - a crisp buttery little confection whose consumption starts innocently enough: it begins to melt deliciously in my mouth until I visualize (which I inevitably do) the mastication & destruction of a tiny pink cat's tongue under my teeth which then triggers my pharyngeal reflex.

Historically, I have had more success with tongues of a different breed; last fall I decided to embark on a language course in an effort to prevent the complete mush-ification of my brain. My hope had been to start a programme in Spanish, but because of a scheduling conflict (thanks holy month of Ramadan), I registered for a course in Standard Arabic instead. The savvier of you are probably thinking what ho! where are you going to practice Standard Arabic in Morocco - why not study Darija, the Moroccan dialect? Excellent point. I probably should have, but I thought that I'd get more bang for my buck, more mileage out of Standard. Who knows when Mr. CinR and I might want fly off to Mecca for a romantic getaway?

It was less than stellar; or more precisely, I was less than stellar. Although I eventually grew comfortable with the Arabic script and could produce a fair hand, I butted heads with the language in a most pugnacious manner, and unjustly held my instructor accountable for the language's quirks and, in my mind, idiosyncrasies that bordered on the nonsensical. I am not a complete pinhead when it comes to languages: I am proficient (or at least was) in Latin, ancient Greek, ancient Egyptian (4 stages of the language, each in monumental and cursive scripts) and Coptic. If I could learn to differentiate between 50-some birds in Egyptian, then surely I could successfully plumb the mysteries of the "
ع", or ayn (which by the way, existed in ancient Egyptian).

I could never come to terms with the habit of dropping vowel markers in writing. If vowels exist, use them. If anyone has spent one moment listening to an Arab speaker then you know that vowels (some of which take a full 30 seconds to completely articulate) abound. This is not only a slap in the face to a vowel, but defies logic. When in the evolution of a written language is the decision made to stop using vowels - this in a language where the same group of consonants can be pronounced in a gazillion ways and each mean something completely different? Who was responsible for that decision? The result of this is that you must know the meaning of the word before you can pronounce it. At least in the Romance and Germanic languages (as an example), you can make a fair attempt at pronouncing a word correctly without knowing its meaning. Cat in
Rabat spent many a class with her head held mournfully in her hands after she had just demonstrated that her oral skills were those of a complete retard whose tongue had previously been removed by hot pincers.

Then there was the grammar. Oi vey - it was as inconstant as the moon, whose waxing and waning I believe, hold great sway over Arabic grammar. If it is a gibbous moon then you must add a taarmabuuta to the end of a noun, but only if the reader is a menstruating woman. But if the tides are high and the moon is full then you use a sukun. Omigod ... all I could see was a grammatical system based on exceptions and idiosyncrasies that, in my mind, were more idiotic than syncratic. Inanimate plural nouns are considered to be feminine singular; a verb in a verb-initial sentence is always marked as singular regardless of its semantic number. Get the picture?

We parted company.

Having bid a hearty masalama to Standard Arabic, Mr. Cat in
Rabat and I, with dark brooding Romance in our souls, turned to Spanish. In my mind, Spanish had much to recommend itself: its alphabet was already a known commodity to us and its grammar (especially its verbal system) is greatly akin to Latin (not a huge boon for Mr. CinR but it made me grin). And more importantly, we would be able to walk into class everyday and greet our instructor and fellow students with a sing-songy little ¡Hola! – so sing-songy that one might hear those quirky little inverted exclamation marks in our voices as we call out our greetings.

And we do.

Three times a week we begin our morning with an ¡Hola! and then resign ourselves to 2 hours of learning with Moroccan students. Not that this is a bad thing in and of itself – our fellow students are a very amiable bunch. But Moroccans approach language acquisition slightly different that non-Moroccans. I am sad to say that I already had some experience on this front but with me on the other side of the desk. Now I am the student. For one thing, owning a text book is not considered de rigueur – after 2 weeks of class, our instructor was compelled to march those still sin sus libros over to the bookstore to make their purchases.

I haven’t yet decided whether Moroccan students are impatient or just naturally exuberant. Regardless of the answer, I want to strangle them all. I am beginning to harbour dark thoughts about the Spanish Inquisition and secretly wonder if Torquemada (“the hammer of heretics, the light of Spain”) had chatty Moroccans in mind when he began his persecution of the Moors in Spain. You see, it is completely irrelevant that the instructor has called upon Mr. CinR to answer a question because the entire class will answer it before he has a chance to. If you make a mistake and if you are lucky, the entire class will correct you; if you make a mistake and if you are unlucky, the entire class will correct you and then dissolve into gales of mocking derisive laughter at your expense. When asked to repeat a phrase after the instructor (thankfully a native speaker), they will recite with her rather than after, completely obliterating the sound of her native cadences. If I acquire an accent at all in this class, it will be a Moroccan-Spanish accent for I can seldom hear Ms. Gonzalez.

For some reason completely unknown to me, it takes them thirty times longer to complete 5 lines of gap-filled sentences although I suspect that this is because their seatwork is getting in the way of some serious chatting and catching-up since last class. Because chat they do. They never shut up. By the end of class I look like the image of the Grinch (the 1966 Chuck Jones version not Jim Carrey’s Pretender to the Throne) with little imaginary drumsticks beating the sides of his head in a sustained undulation of agony.

Nonetheless we tell ourselves that this is a good experience – that acquiring even a smattering of another language is good for our own personal and professional development. As we move on past our mastery of the sing-songy ¡Hola! we may even learn not to snigger as the French-speakers in our midst continue to mispronounce the Spanish es (in which the final “s” is articulated) like the French es (in which it is not). See – we don’t dissolve into gales of mocking derisive laughter, we just snigger. That sets us apart from our fellow initiates.

Until then, adiós Muchachos.

** Which, in fact, nobody expects.

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