I Meta Man Who Wasn't There

One of the problems inherent in teaching is the difficulty of finding a metalanguage. That is, of inventing or locating a set of terms - and therefore a theory which uses them - which describes what you're trying to teach.

There are dozens of overlapping metalanguages for teaching english, with terms like Noun, Object, Phrasal Verb, Modal Verb, Determiner, Clause and Conditional.

Some of them have more than one meaning, some have confused meanings - in that they mix up issues of grammar with those of semantics, common usage etc. - and some I think refer to things which don't exist in English. But that's a rant for another post.

My problem at the moment is coming up with a metalanguage which describes English...in Arabic.

In english, we think of vocal sound as a concatenation of phonemes - a chain of sounds. The word 'dog' is [d] + [o] + [g], where the vowel [o] might have one sound in West London, England (maybe /o:/ - 'Dorg') and another in Austin, Texas (perhaps /au:/ - 'Dawg'), but in both places it's part of a system of vowels where the relationships between them are (usually) the same.

Arabs...doesn't think of vowels as phonemes at all. In their model, you can think of a word as a train journey between several stations, usually 3. The stations are the consonants, and the vowels are the tracks between them. So the vowels are ways of getting from one fixed point to another, not fixed points themselves.

If you change the line of the track, the base meaning of the word doesn't change, but the detail of the meaning does. This 'detail' is whether you have a verb referring to two women doing the action to something else in the present, a verb for more than two men doing it to each other in the past, a noun naming the place where the verb usually happens, and so on.

It's a complicated, elegant, and very different theory, tying phonetics and semantics together in a way that would make no sense for non-semitic languages.

In English, verbs come in two forms, which I label V1 and V2. Both have many functions, but V1 often refers to the present, and V2 to the past - so most books call them 'past' and 'present' forms. We say verbs 'decline for tense', that is, they change form according to time.

Almost all verbs produce two participles - P1 and P2 - and almost all participles are produced by verbs. P2 is always V1 + 'ing' - thinking, wanting, giving etc. P1 is identical in form to V2 in regular verbs (listen, drag, push etc), and different in about 200 irregular ones (come, wake, eat etc.)

Participles can function as adjectives (eg, the eaten food, the running man), and P2 is also used for gerunds, that is nouns which name the action (eg, eating is done here, running is healthy).

P1 refers to actions which are completed, whether in the past or present. P2 is for actions which are ongoing, past or present. Thus: 'The food is eaten', but 'The family is eating'. So we can say that participles 'decline for completedness', whether the action is finished at the time we're talking about.

In conventional English grammar, completedness is combined with whether or not the focus is on the action or the consequences of the action, in a category called 'aspect'. Thus there are reckoned to be four aspects:


  • He eats / He ate - completed, focus on action
  • He is eating / He was eating - not completed, focus on action
  • He has eaten / He had eaten - completed , focus on result
  • He has been eating / He had been eating - not completed, focus on result


So here's the first problem: Arabic doesn't have participles. It doesn't have anything like them. When arabic textbooks talk about participles, they're taking about nouns which refer to the doer or receiver of an action, eg. payer and payee.

For my students I need to describe an entire lexical category which doesn't have a near-equivalent in their language. An important one, which by the way also has several different functions.

Here's the second problem: Arabic verbs also come in two flavours, but depending on what other words are present, they decline for compledness. Or tense. Or both at the same time.

In English we show the time in the verb itself - the choice of V1 or V2. We show the aspect with the auxiliary verbs 'be' and 'have' - and the time with the V1/V2 choice on the auxiliary if it's the first verb in the sentence.

In Arabic, the completedness and the time of an action are shown ambiguously by the V1/V2 choice in the verb itself, which is only disambiguated by surrounding particle words. The nearest analog in English is words like 'yet' and 'ago'.

It's difficult enough to explain all this to native English speakers. I've got to do it in fragments of a language where the words for past and present (maadhi and mudhaara) also mean completed and not completed.

This is the metalanguage I've come up with so far for talking about English grammar in terms of Arabic grammar:

Sentence - Juumla
Statement - Juumla fe~elia
Question - su~al
Command - amr

Noun - ism
Verb - fe~el
Auxiliary Verb: fe~el musa~aad
Adjective - seifa
Particle: haarf
Preposition: haarf al Jaar
Non-prepositional part of prepositional Phrase: ism mejrur
Intensifier - hal al hal [provisional]

Subject - fa~il
Object - maf~ul
Phrase - ibaara
Noun Phrase - ibaara ism
Verb Phrase - ibaara fa~il
Adjective Phrase - ibaara seifa
Adverb Phrase - ibaara hal [possibly]

Prepositional Phrase of Place - dhaarf makaann
Prepositional Phrase of Time - dhaarf zamaan
Prepositional Phrase - [provisionally use ibaara muunharif, translation borrowing of 'Oblique Phrase']

X of Y - mudhaaf [second part of gentive phrase]
X of Y - mudhaaf ileeH [first part of gentive phrase]

Transitive Verb - fe~el mutaad
Intransitive Verb - fe~el mutaad leisa, or fe~el laazim
Ditransitive Verb - [don't know]

In present time - Fii mudhaara
In past time - Fii maadh
With Completion - maa nihaya
Without Completion - beduun nihaya
With Result - maa netizha
Without Result - beduun netizha

Figurative or Metaphorical - majaazi


Double vowels are pronounced long, vowels in italics are emphasised syllables - the two are not the same in words with no long vowels. The '~' indicates the vowel has an emphatic gutteral explosive onset and the throat remains open while it's in progress - say the vowel deep in the back of the throat. In other words, it represents the 'consonant' Ayn. 'u' is as in 'put', 'dh' is 'th' in 'this', 'j' is 'j' in 'jazz', 'H' is a breathy 'h'.

This is of course a work in progress, but so far it's proven useful.



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