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Vol 40  No 1
August 9, 2007


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Learn Modern Arabic
by Leslie Vryenhoek

A person learns a great deal about a multitude of languages just talking to Dr. Vit Bubenik for an hour, so it’s easy to imagine that a student could acquire a good grounding in Arabic from him over a semester or two.

And that’s exactly what Dr. Bubenik is offering Memorial students starting this fall.

“Whether people are interested in understanding the culture, literature and philosophy, or if they have a linguistic curiosity, this course will give them a foundation,” he said.

The course is Linguistics 4058: Modern Arabic I, and it’s being offered Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 2-3 p.m. It’s a chance to gain familiarity with a language that is spoken by 250 million people, primarily in the Middle East and North Africa. The fall course will examine the structure and sounds of words and the language’s syntax.

A second course planned for winter semester will build on this, offering grammar and setting students on the path to reading simple texts.

It’s been two decades since he’s offered a course in Arabic at Memorial. “The Arabic world wasn’t top of mind back then. There wasn’t such an awareness, or a sense of the need to understand the Arabic world.”

He acknowledges that the course will provide an interesting challenge for students, who might initially feel a bit lost when confronted by the sounds and letters of this Semitic language. However, he says students may be surprised how many words they know that have been borrowed from Arabic.

Those who study Hebrew, another Semitic language, will have a leg up, of course – but so, too, will those who speak Spanish, which shares about 3,000 words with Arabic.

“Because Spain was under Arabic rule until 1492, the Spanish language was influenced,” he explained. “Quite a few words in Spanish that start with ‘al’ are of an Arabic origin, because that’s the Arabic article.” These nouns often refer to agricultural and labour products, an indication, he noted, of the kind of work done by Arab speakers.

It’s that ability to discern what language tells us about human history, experience and culture that makes its study so worthwhile, the linguistics professor asserts.

Dr. Bubenik will be assisted throughout the Modern Arabic course by two linguistics PhD students whose first language is Arabic – one from Jordan and one from Saudi Arabia – who will serve as “native informants.” In fact, one will be in the classroom for each class, providing authentic pronunciation.

Modern Arabic is just one of the Semitic languages Dr. Bubenik is familiar with. In a current SSHRC-funded project, he is also investigating the morphology and syntax of Akkadian and Aramaic, two other members of the Semitic family, as well as the related Hamitic language referred to as ‘Berber’ dialects and spoken in Morocco.

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