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  • Modern Iraqi Arabic: A textbook by Yasin M. Alkalesi
  • Alan S. Kaye
Modern Iraqi Arabic: A textbook. By Yasin M. Alkalesi. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2001. Pp. xvii, 253.

This is a traditional (read: old-fashioned) textbook of spoken (why modern?) middle-class Baghdadi Arabic with dialogues, grammatical commentary of all sorts, transliterated vocabulary with English translation, fill-in-the-blank exercises and translations, and an Arabic-English and English-Arabic glossary (206–53). It also contains material on cultural and religious themes and idiomatic phrases with explanations; however, the English prose used is occasionally awkward. Consider: ‘Invoking the name of God in daily life may explain some of the (sic) Arab thoughts. Namely, God is involved in everyday (sic) life of the Arabs’ universe . . . everything . . . is the will of God’ (47). Stylistic infelicities occur many times throughout the work: ‘The other fifteen of the (sic) sounds will require more attention and practice by students from the beginning’ (1); ‘I have camera films’ (43); ‘Make orally (sic) definite the following indefinite masculine noun-adjective statements’ (62); ‘Do (Would: ASK) you like to drink something?’ (175). Also, sometimes an English translation is not accurate, for example, the very common alħamdu lillaah is not ‘thanks be to God’, but rather ‘praise be to God’ (47). There are, unfortunately, also errors in the Arabic. Iraq is not 9iraaq (twice given on 59), but rather il-9iraaq with the definite article (given correctly on 243). (The author uses [9] for IPA [ʕ].) Unfortunately, the dozens of typographical errors (which cannot be listed here) further mar the usefulness of the volume.

The terminology employed and the linguistic observations offered are occasionally problematic. The introduction speaks of diglossia in Arabic, making specific reference to classical and colloquial ‘with different levels of differences’ (xiii); this phraseology is most puzzling. Also, Alkalesi asserts that, if one learns one Arabic dialect, one should be able to communicate with another who speaks a different dialect (1). This is not the case. Many Egyptians, for example, find Moroccan Arabic very difficult to comprehend, and interdialectical compatibility among speakers of different Arabic vernaculars often involves the use of either Modern Standard Arabic or a foreign language. Additionally, one commonly speaks of the Arabic alphabet—not the Iraqi alphabet (1). Furthermore, one normally refers to the glottal stop, not the glottal stop sound (205). I refrain from expatiating on additional examples.

Let us leave these types of errors and now turn to other matters of a more significant nature. Some of the vocabulary used is Modern Standard Arabic rather than Iraqi Arabic. To cite only one illustration, let us consider the word given for ‘vegetable’: xu-ð̣rawaat (178) (more properly the plural ‘vegetables’). In checking this in A dictionary of Iraqi Arabic [DIR] (ed. by R. E. Clarity, Karl Stowasser, and Ronald G. Wolfe, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1964:194), we find listed only mxað̣ð̣ar.

There are also mistakes in the phonological analysis of the data. Consider that the author does not transcribe the final geminate in ħaar ‘hot’ (241) ħaarr (DIR 1964:88) yet inconsistently marks the final gemination in ħabb ‘to like’ (243 and passim). The word for ‘glass’ is a loanword from English, but [End Page 604] A has gḷass (178) for the correct glaaṣ. (DIR 1964: 196). Iraqi Arabic is famous for its secondary emphatics. Thus, mayy (252 and passim) is incorrect for ṃayy with an emphatic /ṃ/ (DIR 1964:196).

Studying A’s work afforded me an opportunity to re-examine the classic textbook of yesteryear, John Van Ess’s The spoken Arabic of Iraq (London: Oxford University Press, 1917, 2nd edn., 1938). While this older tome is far from perfect, it is not marred by some of the blemishes pointed out above. One can express the hope that better Iraqi Arabic pedagogical materials become available in the future since Arabic dialectology has already produced solid manuals for the dialects spoken in other Arab countries.

Alan S. Kaye
California State University, Fullerton