Friday, September 9, 2011

The wonders of Language

Language is beautiful. Language binds communities together and gives people a shared identity. Language connects you to the world; the more languages you can speak the more people you are able to communicate with.

Colonisation on the other hand is disgusting. It is a violent dehumanising process. Colonisation breaks down societies and tears them apart from within. Colonisation brings with it many things, one of which being language. Colonisation spreads language through force and that is why we see, for instance, much of North Africa speaking French or perhaps most of South America speaking Spanish.

For Iraq, I was aware that many of our words were Turkish and originated from the Ottoman Empire, like ‘parda’ for instance (translating to curtain). But I had no idea that some of our words actually came directly out of British colonisation. This all stemmed from a conversation I was having with my dad and his friend at an Arab gathering - naturally I tend to find much more interest in the mens conversations about politics as opposed to the womens conversations about hair and makeup! It is somewhat unacceptable to participate in these sorts of conversations for a ‘young woman’ but I mean come on... there is only so much you can say about fashion in one night!

So apparently many words are formed from combining other words such as coffee + tea + area = cafeteria but what struck me the most is how Iraqi’s used English words and combined them with a bit of an Iraqi accent to make Iraqi/Arabic words. How bizarre right? Why would you want to take the words of the coloniser in any way? I suppose this is a subconscious process and it is how many words have come about such as ‘Kleenax’ – this comes from the tissue brand Kleenex and with a bit of Iraqi accent it turns into Kleenax and is literally the term used for tissues in Iraqi.

A traditional Arabic Istikaan.
Arabs all over the world love tea and drink tea in a little glass/cup thing called an ‘istikaan’ which we all would think is an Arabic word... But think again! It comes from Imperialism, from Colonisation, from Orientalism and from mystifying the orient of the East! Apparently this term comes directly from the British themselves after they took Iraq from the Ottoman Empire. When the Brits were around they would see all the Iraqi’s drink tea and they would refer to this Arabic cup as an ‘East tea can’ and so... East + tea  + can = became Istikaan. It is really amazing how colonisation can not only affect the language you speak, in terms of introducing English, French, Spanish etc into a country but how it can also make its way into and change the country’s native language, in this case, the Arabic language! I am not sure as to when the creation of this word came about or if it even originated in Iraq only, perhaps it came about earlier and from other Arabic speaking countries that have been colonised but my father said it was certainly of Iraqi origin, the heart of the Arabic world at that time.

Another interesting word that came out of British colonisation in Iraq is place naming. There is a place in southern Iraq called Tuwareej (between Najaf and Karbala I believe) and this area had two different ways to enter either through Najaf and Karbala and so for short the British called this place ‘two way reach’ and over time the Iraqi’s incorporated this into their own language after seeing the British use it and two way reach = became Tuwareej – It’s the official name of the area now and is marked on the map! What I find amazing is this notion of self colonisation or imposing colonisation on the oppressed. Why must Iraqi’s use the same name for places as British colonisers? I suspect many Iraqi’s looked up to them (barf) as a superior power and in turn privelleged their language and saw those who spoke English as somewhat above regular folk men. To me, this is a disgusting thought process and it calls for a decolonisation of the mind. The coloniser is not superior and the oppressed are not inferior because they have been colonised! While this may be a simple point, it is evident that most people do not see things this way.

There were other interesting examples that I talked through with my father who is always full of interesting and fun facts. ‘Schtiger’ is the common word used for roof tiles in Iraq because at the time of the first World War there was a British man whose last name was Stiger who used to make the best roof tiles. When people would ask what kind of roof tiles you had or where you got them from the answer would be Stiger but Iraqi-fied to become ‘Schtiger’. This over time developed into a regular term part of the Iraqi dialect. One other example that I cannot really make sense of is ‘darnafees’, this translates to screwdriver. Apparently it comes from the French who used to call the screwdriver ‘turn face’ and so turn face = became darnafees. I don’t really know exactly how this could have been from French in Iraq? Perhaps there were some Frenchmen living in Iraq or perhaps this comes from a North African region and has been adopted that way.

I am sure there are many many more interesting examples like this and not just for Iraqi but for all other Arabic dialects. A good project to take up would be to research the connection between colonisation language and specifically the effects on a native language of a Nation that is colonised. I sincerely hope I am able to do some sort of research like this one day. Discussions such as these really make me wish that instead of wasting my time studying Law and Politics I studied Language and linguistics or something like that! Ah the possibilities... 

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