Why you will never master Arabic

"slow my mind" by Joseph Gilbert (CC by-nc-sa)

“slow my mind” by Joseph Gilbert (CC by-nc-sa)

Cognates are why you learned pretty good Spanish quickly and will never ever speak passable Arabic. System is “sistema” en Español and “niTHaam” bilArabie. Circle is “circulo” en Español and “diwaar” bilArabie. You are never going to guess right.

And there’s a strike against you in the other direction. Arabic has a lot of the same short vowel sounds as English, so in the street in Amman I keep thinking I’m hearing words I know, which in actuality have nothing to do with English. Sometimes I pause and reflect that all the native Arabic speakers around me just understood me to say, “What? Where?” while a part of my mind is laughing at myself because it sounded like, “Shoe? Wayne?” These are false cognates. They sound like they might be close to an word in English – in reality, it’s just a funny coincidence.

The very best false cognate of all time is that “embarazado” in Spanish does not mean “embarrassed” – it means “pregnant”. There are some good ones in Arabic presented here for your enjoyment.

Arabic word Arabic pronunciation (sounds like…) Actual Meaning in English
جاف “Jeff” Dry
نوع “Noah” Variety
مجلة “Miguel, ah” Magazine (Egypt)
فني “Fanny” Artistic
طعم “Tom” Flavor
وين “Wayne” Where? (Jordan)
شو “Shoe” What? (Jordan)
مسؤولين “Masculine” Those responsible
لون “Loan” Color
كافين “Caffeine” Enough of them
طرد “Turd” Eviction
نقل “Knuckle” Translation
نضج “Nudge” Maturity
رمز “Rams” Symbol
فساد “Façade” Corruption
حرية “Hooray, ya!” Freedom
حكم “Hook ’em” Governing
تفضيل “Tough deal” Preference
عسكري “Ice cream” Military
منشور “Mmm, unsure” Publication
النوم “A gnome” Sleeping
فجأةً “Fudge, a ton” Suddenly…

There’s some juicy material here for mnemonic devices, but otherwise, false cognates are just going to mess with you.

Bonus: Animal vs. enamel

To someone studying English, the difference is subtle. To a native speaker of English, there’s no reason to ever confuse these. To me, I’m not sure which one to associate with انامل (click to open Google Translate, then the speaker icon on the Arabic side to hear the pronunciation), which means “fingers” in Arabic.

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