Thursday, January 28, 2010

What a difference a voiceless alveolar plosive makes

I was walking home with a couple buddies after our late Sunday classes. It was 9:45pm and we were just passing the petrol station and the laundry when a young man in a wrinkled thobe (robe) but no shemagh (linen head dress) stepped up alongside us, shook hands enthusiastically and started into a friendly, well…over-friendly conversational jabber in basic beginner English.

One of the guys I was with is usually pretty chatty with strangers, or else the interloper, in his mid-20s, knew him from the laundry, so I just listened in for a moment as we walked. The conversation seemed to consist mostly of one word, “smile” or “smiling,” repeated over and over, back and forth between the two guys. After a couple minutes of this nauseating exchange I could hear my buddy indicating to the guy, without breaking stride, that we needed to be on our way and kept saying “so long” and “have a nice night.”

The guy wouldn’t stop bugging us though so I stepped in with my new Arabic word of the day, which I had just learned from the students. I was warned that it was rather harsh and should only be used when you really need to get rid of someone. It’s considered quite rude, the equivalent of “Get the H out of here you annoying person.”

After a few minutes of watching the intruding guy dog our heels I figured this would be a good time to try it out.

So I turned to the shadow guy and said what might be phonetically rendered as [dose].

I had been practicing during the day with students so I thought I had it down pretty fair.

The guy still wouldn’t leave us, even after we sped up and waved our hands goodbye. I was busy calling to him “dose dose dose!”

The next day I reported my attempts to students who laughed and quickly informed me that the Arabic word I really wanted had more of a ‘t’ sound and no vowel. It should have been (again, more or less phonetically): [tose] with barely a hint of the ‘o’; more like a hissed [ts].

I learned that what I actually said to the shadowy figure was what you might say to a driver moving too slowly when you want him to step on the gas—in effect, “go faster.”

Linguistically, it’s only just the difference between a voiceless “t” and a voiced “d” really.

Culturally, it’s the difference between a shadowy sidekick and an unencumbered walk down Al Farazdaq Street.

[Note: At the risk of getting all word-wonky on you, the linguistic terms "voiced" and "unvoiced" simply mean the vocal cords are vibrating or not, respectively -- touch your throat to feel the difference. "Alveolar" means that the tip of the tongue is touching or near the inner ridge of the gums of the upper front teeth. And "plosive" just means that a burst of air is expelled. You can feel it by holding a piece of paper in front of your mouth.]


  1. loooooooooooool... i am sitting here putting my nearly 5 month old to sleep and reading this.... i could not control my laughter!!! woke him up... oops! thanks for the much needed laugh!!!

  2. Saalam aleikum, Om Lujain. I'm delighted that you enjoyed my tale. My goal in this blog is to keep toddlers on their toes.

    But seriously, I'm thinking that my next item might simply be some photos from a camping trip up north...or it might be some thoughts about attending a Saudi wedding party. Haven't quite decided yet.

  3. Hi Jim, I was in your Intro to Linguistics class at the University of Dayton. We got together over a term paper on "linguistic relativity." I continued on in linguistics and speech science (i.e., acoustic phonetics). The /t/ in Arabic is dental and unaspirated, rather than alveolar and aspirated as in English. So to English speakers,it sounds like /d/. Thought you'd like to know (although probably no one else would!). Deborah Rekart (UD, Class of '72)