proper young ladies
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 17, 2008
Yesterday evening, H and I headed uptown to have dinner with his three preteen nieces, who have been spending the week with their grandparents. The three girls don’t get together very often, so this was a big, much-anticipated trip for them.
H had met up with them earlier in the week, and while he loved seeing them (he’s a good uncle), he did sound a bit haunted afterwards. I understand – I was a twelve year-old girl once, and I know how terrifying a pack of us them can be.
H got each of them two books as a good-bye present: one relating to what each girl had said she wanted to be when she grows up, and one a collection of Arabic phrases and expressions, transliterated into English script. They loved both, and while we waited for our salads, they decided to test us.
How do you say, “Do I need a prescription for this?” one asked.
How do you say, “I think there’s been a mistake here?” another quizzed us.
What does “3aiza twaleet” mean? the third asked me. Yes – “3aiza”, not “beddi”. Lebanese Arabic books are only available on special order, so H had to get an Egyptian version.
H was thrilled that the girls liked his gifts, and I was delighted to see that they were so excited to learn a bit of their ancestral language. And it wasn’t until we began walking them home that they began to wonder where the “cuss words” were located in the book.
I’ve done a bit of research on immigrant assimilation, and one piece of conventional wisdom is that ability to speak in the tongue of the “old country” disappears with the second generation of immigrants born in the US. Food habits last longer, and so do food words – Italian-Americans who don’t know a word of Italian still happily serve family pasta recipes, for example.
I haven’t seen any research done on the longevity of curse words and insults among immigrant communities, but judging from H’s nieces, they last longer than food words.
H’s siblings don’t speak Arabic, but they apparently incorporate a few key terms liberally when English just isn’t enough – and their daughters have clearly been all ears.
Where is sharmouta in this book? one asked, mercifully waiting until we had exited the restaurant, since the unwrapping of the Arabic books brought the maitre d’ over to say that he and the staff were all Algerian and delighted to meet us. The sight of sweet preteen girls excitedly repeating “sharmoutas, sharmoutas” might have made their welcome a bit less warm.
Listen, H said, frowning. There’s one thing your parents have never gotten right, because they never learned Arabic properly. They don’t know how to properly pluralize these words.
Its not “sharmoutas”? one niece asked, puzzled.
No, H said. And like a good uncle, he instructed them: Repeat after me: “shrameet”.
Shrameet, shrameet, they chorused.
Now, “manyoukeh”, he said. Manyoukeh, manayek.
Manayek, manayek, they said, their focus drifting a bit as they locked arms and began zig-zagging across the sidewalk.
And Uncle H, one asked boldly. What’s that really awful expression?
What expression? H asked, taken aback.
The one that Jiddo taught us, they all said, smiling. And really, what’s a grandfather for if not to indulge his grandchildren?
I’m not telling you that, H said firmly. Its very graphic, and you don’t need to know.
It was something like “ardi feet”, one said, musingly.
I’ll call my brother, said another. He’ll remember. But “ardi feet” sounded right to him, too – so apparently she kept on dialing family numbers.
H finally gave in, as a bribe to get them to quiet down while we walked through the foyer of their grandparents’ building. But don’t ever use this, he said. And anyway, it doesn’t really work for you to say.
A little while later, as we watched video footage they had taken earlier in the week, the landline rang.
Oh hi Dad, said niece number two when the phone was passed to her. Sorry to bother you. I just called earlier because I wanted to know how to say “a*ri feek” – but I figured it out, so its okay. Thanks for calling back!
I tried to imagine my Lebanese female friends using that phrase in conversation with their fathers – at age twelve or even as adults. Even in the most mellow families, I doubt that the conversation would have continued as breezily as hers did: with a casual okay – see you tomorrow! love you! and the phrase in question relegated to being a minor side note.
Curse words may last beyond the second generation, but when they become heritage rather than ordinary terms I don’t think they carry quite the same force as they do back home 🙂 .