Term of Today: shwiya

Language…

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as I’ve written before, is the key to integration. While I learn the language, there are words that become more important to me than others. Reasons can range from the words’ utility, anecdotal significance, ease of remembrance, or humor. My Term of Today series will dissect the importance of certain Darija words and give you a whiff of what’s going on here in Morocco.

Word: shwiya

Translation: little

Importance: shwiya was one of the first few Darija phrases I learned and it has quickly become one of my most spoken. I’ve used it in two ways:

1) It helps define how much I understand. Native speakers in any language usually speak faster than a language learner’s understanding can match. My host family situation is no different. Following four hours of Darija class in which my teacher speaks slowly and clearly, I come home for lunch and suddenly the pace of dialogue is lightyears faster. I recognize a word every now and then; I often smile out of sheer arrogance. But then my family turns their attention to me and ask, “Fhmti?” (“Do you understand?”). My response? “shwiya.”

2) It’s necessary to indicate that I am learning Darija. The phrase shwiya b shwiya was one of the first I learned and it is now probably my most used. It’s a failsafe phrase that I use after struggling through any sentence with the little vocabulary I already know. For example, today my older host sister (to whom I’ve given the American name Stacy) asked who I went to the cafe with. I answered, “hay’Aat salam… sabki… smitu Matt… u khu – khuya – khuh… juj khuh. Darija, shwiya b shwiya” (Literally, “Peace Corps… my friend… his name is Matt… and brother – my brother – his brother… two his brother. Darija, little by little.”) And, without fail, whoever has been patient enough to listen to me tear their language apart will repeat “shwiya b shwiya” with a huge understanding grin. Then we both laugh.

Language, Part wa7d

1 wa7d, 2 juj, 3 tlata, 4 rb3a, 5 khmsa, 6 stta, 7 sb3a, 8 tmnya, 9 ts3ud, 10 3shra

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Darija & Technology

Darija is a purely verbal language. You can write its words in Arabic script, but due to the variance in pronunciation, one person may spell a word different than another. What complicates Darija even further is the factor of technology. Cell phone use is increasing throughout many parts of the world, and I haven’t seen anyone in Morocco – save some older community members – without a cell phone.

Phone keyboards, however, are often limited to the Latin alphabet. To compensate for this, Moroccans write words in Latin script that more or less represent what they sound like in Darija. They know Latin sounds likely from the French they studied in secondary school.

We now must take into account the Arabic sounds that don’t exist in the Latin alphabet:

Arabic character: ض
Transcription character: D
Sound: like English “d” but with greater tension in the tongue and throat

Arabic character: ص
Transcription character:
S
Sound: like English “s” but with greater tension in the tongue and throat

Arabic character: ط
Transcription character:
T
Sound: 
like English “t” but with greater tension in the tongue and throat

Arabic character: ق
Transcription character:
q
Sound: 
like English “k” but pronounced further back in the throat

Arabic character: خ
Transcription character:
kh
Sound: 
like the “ch” in the German “Bach”; some people use this sound to say yech!

Arabic character: غ
Transcription character:
gh
Sound: 
like the “kh” sound above, but pronounced using your voice box; similar to the French “r”

Arabic character: ح
Transcription character:
7
Sound: 
like English “h”, except pronounced deep in the throat as a loud raspy whisper

Arabic character: ع
Transcription character:
3
Sound: 
approximated by pronouncing the “a” in “fat” with the tongue against the bottom of the mouth and from as deep in the throat as possible

(source: Peace Corps Morocco, Moroccan Arabic textbook)

Moroccans use the transcription characters to represent the non-Latin-alphabet sounds. PC Morocco’s language model has evolved to better reflect this new cultural norm. As I understand it, the staj before mine didn’t use “q” or “7” or “3”. They used other letters until it became apparent Moroccans were using “q” and “7” and “3” on their cell phones. PC Morocco then changed its Darija textbook for my staj.

Note: PC Morocco uses a transcription approach to Darija, meaning we trainees follow the cell phone standard and use the Latin alphabet. I will mostly write Darija words in this alphabet, though I may accompany some words with the Arabic script.


Community-Based Training (CBT)

Six days a week you can find my five group mates and me in our Language and Cultural Facilitator’s (LCF’s) rented apartment. In the mornings Majid walks us through language lessons, some of the most recent being about possessive pronouns and conjugating the verb “to want”. Interspersed in the lessons is new vocabulary that we practice out loud, one at a time, to take with us to our host families and neighborhoods.

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Sometimes we have classes on the roof.

The lessons expand upon the Darija textbook. I like to read a little bit ahead, making it only slightly simpler to understand during the next day’s class. I also have begun a flashcard regimen that I review every night with my 8-year-old host sister. She’s learning English while I learn Darija, and we both enjoy helping each other.

Language classes are just one part of CBT. Afternoons are devoted to culture lessons and Arabic script. The former prevents us from making poor cultural mistakes – like hugging a member of the opposite sex in public – and helps us understand/participate in the culture further – like the opportunity to fast during Ramadan. The latter helps make life easier; after all, how will I know how to report my location in the case of emergency if I can’t read road signs? Or know what’s a hammam and what’s a dar chebab?

That is Majid’s job in a nutshell: teach six wide-eyed Americans Darija and how to exist positively in Moroccan culture. A third aspect of his job, though unofficial, is being our friend. He is only a year older than me and he has many of the same interests as all of us in his group. We have all visited a few cafes during culture sessions where we were free to ask questions and shoot the breeze. Though he’s still somewhat shy, I think he’ll become a close friend by the end of CBT.