Language is so deliciously complicated. And yet, with our native language, we all know how to express things, perfectly, all the time.

Last week I learned the English verb tense/aspect categories. For the first time in my life, mind you. Of course, it was so I could strengthen my ability to convey meaning in Arabic. Until I knew the names of the sixteen (!!) tenses, I couldn’t research them or think about them analytically.

I knew how to speak about simple and continuous tenses in Arabic, but didn’t know perfect and perfect continuous, which we use all the time in English without the slightest consideration of how complicated they are and how much meaning those “hads” and “had beens” and “have beens” are conveying.

So, having been looking at Arabic textbooks for some years now, it occurred to me that I still hadn’t seen an explanation of how these had beens and have beens are conveyed in Arabic. I googled and learned the names of the English tenses. Then I googled again, and found an academic paper written by a professor in Egypt analyzing book translations from English to Arabic to see how these tenses are translated IRL.

And the mind blowing thing: English past perfect tense might get translated one of 10 different ways.  English present perfect might be translated in one of seven ways.  This is all to say that the languages simply do NOT categorize time statements into neat little bits that can be translated without consideration of the broader context.

I can already observe this: having spent the hour or less it took to understand how time statements are categorized and thought about in English, I am MORE likely to notice them in Arabic and take note of the language tools used to mark them. So that’s cool.

Coming soon- a chart of the ‘top choices’ way to convey these English tenses in Arabic, which Kifah and I have been working on together and will post on arabiclanguage.me.

And up next: let’s look at the conditional!!

 

Posted by:brook delorme

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