Carrboro, N.C. — Petrodollars and Arabic scholars. An Arabic language boom, greased by oil profits which support Middle East modernization projects, which in turn bring in American businesses, is gushing across the United States.
Students taking Arabic in US colleges and universities jumped from a handful (371) in 1959 to some 3,070 in 1977-78. In just three years, between 1974 and ' 77, registration in such courses increased 51 percent, despite declining enrollments in foreign-language classes overall.
These figures do not even include the many private schools and institutes that are gleefully watching their Arabic classes fill up. The president of Berlitz Schools, Raphael G. Alberola, says demand for Arabic has increased steadily since 1974, especially inthe Houston, NEw York, and Washington areas.
Many students of Arabic enroll in Berlitz's Total Immersion program, which can cost from $1,500 to $3,000. Many are sent by their companies, who see interpreter-free communication as a good investment.
Business promoters outside the US agree -- including those in Israel. This spring, with the ink barely dry on the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty, three courses in "commercial Arabic" were offered by the Export Institute of Israel.
Few Americans understand how strongly Arabs -- especially those from the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula -- feel about their language. Scholars and government officials are preparing for a 1980 conference on the Arabization of all scientific, professional, and technical terms.
In 1978, Saudi Arabia's Council of Ministers decreed that all foreign companies and their branches and offices must use Arabic in correspondence with the Saudi government. The fine for noncompliance is 10,000 Saudi riyals ($2,900 ) for first-time violations, or double that amount, plus suspension of business for one year, for second violations.
Last May the Saudi government put companies on notice that names and trademarks of businesses could no longer be "alien." Some are holding open competitions, offering automobiles as prizes, for redesigned logos that meet the new standards.
Today approximately 130 million people in 18 independent states speak Arabic. Language is the glue that holds the Arab world together. Jabra I. Jabra, an Iraqi scholar, explains that "anyone who speaks Arabic as his own language" is an Arab.
By tradition, the Arabic-language Koran is said to be a direct gift from God. Thus, translating the holy book was avoided, resulting in the spread of the language wherever the Islamic religion was carried.
An 11th-century writer called Arabic "the best of languages." Modern Arabs may point to its rich vocabulary, strong rhythms, logical grammar, subleties of poetic emphasis, and repetition as advantages. Philip K. Hitti, a historian at Princeton, speaks of Arabic's "irresistible influence," which native speakers call "lawful magic."
Perhaps the only parallel possible for us Westerner's is the power of Handel's Messiah or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
One dy in Tunisia, where I lived in the summer of 1978, a friend was reciting some Arabic poetry.While not getting the meaning very well, I was pulled along by the alliteration, the sonorities of word endings, and his almost musical accenting. Then he began the translation and broke the spell. The words became "just words."
Islam forbids the representation of living beings, so that often a framed verse from the Koran, in vibrant calligraphy, provides the only decoration in a home or shop. The word as art abounds.
Look closely at those ubiquitous brass trays from the Middle East and you will see stylized, repeated letters among the abstract swashes, triangles, and curves. As I type, I can see on my wall what looks like a drawing of a graceful minaret -- actually a rendering, to the trained eye, of the Arabic word "Allah."
Even a beginner's letters ought to look right. When I studies Arabic in Tunis, my Tunisian friends urged me to copy the day's lesson over and over until harmonious shapes and balanced spacing flowed from my pen.
Mastering the 28-consonant Arabic script takes five to six weeks in a college course. Besides the main form, most characters have three others, for use at the beginning, middle, or end of words. A further complication involves the difference between typeset and handwritten Arabic. And students must learn to write from right to left.
Despite these barriers, individual instruction via computers used in classes at the University of Texas has cut those five or six weeks down to four or five hours. At Harvard, computers go beyond teaching writing; they supplement class work with drills in grammar and vocabulary.
As the author of one Arabic textbook has pointed out, vocabulary will present greater problems than grammar for English-speakers. Three special barriers stand in the way of English-speakers in search of an Arabic vocabularly.
First, since English and Arabic belong to different language families, there are no related words. For example, the French verb "indiquer" is clearly a kissing cousin of "indicate"; but in Arabic, that same verb is "dalla." (One answer is to construct elaborate mnemonic devices. I always remember that "haywi" means "lively" by picturing a spiirted, energetic Hawaiian hula.)
Second, certain Arabic sounds seem well-nigh impossible for English speakers, yet if you mispronouce them, you're not saying what you mean. Presenting the biggest problems are "kha," which sounds like you are clearing your throat; "ain ," which sounds like you are about to choke; "qaf," which sounds like a faucet that won't yield up water; and "ha," an "h" sound with a triple dose of expelled air behind it.
Third, the student of Arabic must deal with the fascinating but frustrating root-and-pattern system. Newspapers and most other written Arabic print only consonants, no vowels. In context, a native speaker knows that "ktb" stands for "ktaba" ("he wrote"). But in theory, that word could also be "katiba," "katabu, " "kitba," "kutba," "katab," and so on.
All this does not mean that Arabic grammar is a snap, once you have mastered the vocabulary. In truth, the two cannot be separated. To look up a word, you need to know its root; to know the root, you must understand the grammar.
We could talk on and on about the idiosyncracies of Arabic, but let's touch on only one more: verb conjugations. Besides learning separate forms for I, you , he, she, we, you all, and they, there are special forms for speaking to two women and two men and others for speaking about two women and two men. Furthermore, you must add letters onto the beginnings as well as the ends of words.
Instead of seeing Arabic as a series of brick walls, the beginner would do better to regard every grain of progress as a small investment. After all, the shape of tomorrow's business world will probably be more international, not less. Furthermore, the Middle East is looming larger and larger in importance. To date, some 300 American companies have opened offices in Saudi Arabia alone. Egypt, too, is growing more important for US business.