Expressions I Wish English Had
“Is there anything you say in Arabic which you wish you had a way to say in English as well?”
The question by Amy J. Wall caught me off-guard. What a random, curious, question. More importantly — how did she know?
Yes. There are so many. Every day. All the time. And when I do literally translate some of them, I am looked at oddly.
Why? Because Arabic was not built for convenience. It was built for poetry.
From the very earliest stages in the Arabic literary tradition, poetry has reflected the deepest sense of Arab self-identity — Britannica Encyclopedia
Arabic is a language born in the Arabian Peninsula, most of which is currently taken up by modern-day Saudi Arabia. Arabic is a Semitic language, the most spoken language of all the Semitic ones, by over 300 million speakers. Other widely known ones would be Hebrew [~5 million native speakers according to Wikipedia] and Amharic [~7 million].
Arabian tribes were the first known speakers of Arabic. And they used it as a tool of competition and status — through poetry. Whether to resolve tribal disagreements, to profess and proclaim love, to display anger, or to express gratitude, loyalty, or fear, the poet was the key player, and poetry the key weapon. Odic competitions were common and normative.
And so as Arabic evolved and its spectrum of verbiage continued to expand, it was built on poetic satisfaction and eloquence of speech. Efficiency and speed were never an input.
This means, for every word we have in English to describe an object or an emotion, you can bet we have multiples of it in Arabic — for example, for the word “love”, I can personally think of 11 equivalents in Arabic. And for an expression we can convey in a few words in English, its equivalent is at least a few words longer in Arabic — that is, one of its equivalents.
Hence, when asked that question, my first thought was: you have no idea.
What you say when someone calls your name
In English: Yes?
In Arabic: oh so many options.
Simply saying “yes” [translated] will probably get you smacked by your parent or grandparent for how rude of a response that was. No, I am not exaggerating. I have felt it.
In Arabic, you must show your utmost willingness to help, to offer your time, to answer to the call and do the bidding of whoever called your name — may it be a parent, a sibling, a friend, a neighbour, or a stranger [well, not a complete stranger since they know your name!].
If there is one rule to the language or the Arabic culture, it is generousity. In this case, it is generousity of time and willingness to help.
Translated, some examples of acceptable, and completely normal, responses may be:
- Please command, what can I do to help?
- I’d be happy to give you my eyes [or heart, or life] if you ask for it
- How may I be of service?
And this is not by any means formal, or odd or exaggeratory, this is what I would naturally respond with if a friend called my name. Not even a best friend!
So when I respond with “Yes” in English, even today, almost 2 decades of living in a north american country later, I still internally cringe at how little this portrays my willingness to help with whatever ask is about to come, and how little hospitality I am showing whomever just called my name, wishing I can show them just how much I would like to help, yet unable to say more than a simple “yes”.
What you say when you enjoyed a meal cooked for you
In English: thank you. Or, that was delicious. Or equivalents of such.
In Arabic: you guessed it, so many options.
- May you always be blessed with food on your table
- May the hands which made this meal be blessed
- May you be given good health for all that you put into this meal
Once again, in English, I often struggle with expressing my gratitude when someone makes me a meal. Poetry is generousity of words, food is generousity of time, effort, and spirit. It is the only, and ultimate, way to show your hospitality, your love, and your respect — putting your heart into making a home-made meal. In very generous portions.
And so when anyone makes me a meal, I feel an intense sense of gratitude and sense of being loved and taken care of. I yearn for a way to show just how much I do. And ‘thank you’ simply does not cut it. 20 thank you’s later and I look weird for just how thankful I am — did no one ever cook for you growing up?? is probably what people are thinking.
When in I am feeling rude and ungrateful with my response, and looking for a way to make it up.
When someone gets a haircut or takes a shower
In English: uh… “did you get a new haircut?” and probably best to stay quiet on that shower one before you get in trouble!
In Arabic, I’ll stick with one main one: “may this shower/haircut bring you happiness and blessed gifts”. Cute, isn’t it?
It still sticks with the same theme — generousity. Of expressions and expressiveness. More words, more ways to hope for the best, to wish for the best, to want the best for those you love.
Today, in my English-speaking life, I find myself still translating in my head, my own versions of expressions — when I see someone smiling about something on their phone, I think “may life always bring you happiness”. When I see two friends laughing or kids playing happily, I think “may you always be this happy”.
So maybe I am awkward with my expressiveness, my intense need to show my willingness to help, or the number of thank you’s I say to a simple nice homemade meal. I am also more grateful, happier, and more filled with wish-filled thinking for others. All about the balance?