The Intricacies of Language

I spoke very little English when I was a small boy, mainly because of my mother, who emigrated to America eleven years before I was born in 1931. She spoke very little English after arriving in South Dakota. She did, however, teach me Arabic, most of which I lost as I grew up and attended school in the Rosebud Reservation village of Wood, South Dakota. My father had settled there after traveling throughout small towns in South Dakota peddling goods out of a pack on his back. He had opened the store in Wood in 1912, and another in the Reservation town of Mission in 1920, the year my mother was able to come to America, along with her brother, John Mickel, who my dad appointed to run the store in Mission.

It was my burden to learn about the Arabic word, “Inshalla,” as I grew up.

After moving to Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, I also learned from the Arabic speakers I met there, as well as in the Middle East, great variety of ways to use Inshalla. The most recent experience was watching television news after the disappearance of the Egyptian Air Bus passenger plane in the Mediterranean. I watched one day with amazement as an Egyptian official was asked by a reporter if the search for the “black box” would produce imminent results, divulging the secret of why so many people had tragically died in the crash.

“Inshalla,” the Egyptian official said, increasing the mystery by breaking out in a huge smile. The literal translation of the word “inshalla” is “God willing.” It is a two word phrase that has real meaning only to Arabic speakers. If one breaks down the word into its usage, it can have a plethora of meanings, most of them known only to veteran Arabic speakers who have had years of experience in using inshalla. It can mean, I’ve learned, something will happen very soon, as in discovery of the airplane’s black boxes. Or it can mean it will happen if God intervenes and desires that the black boxes will be found, as well as a dozen interpretations in between. It would also include the thought that if the searchers are lucky, we will have the answer to the mystery.

But until the boxes are found, inshalla, we are content to speculate on what the Egyptian meant when he gave the answer to the world via American television news, mostly because when answering, he had a mysterious smile on his face.

Which brings to mind another mystery created by people who do not like to be pinned down on the meaning of words.

In Mexican Spanish, the word “manana”means, I understand, “tomorrow.” But it is used in many indefinite ways, meaning mostly the speaker is hopeful that something will happen, as in “when will you be able to finish the work you’re doing for me?”

Manana.” The English speaker can be excused for confusing manana with Inshalla, but these words have two entirely different meanings. I will now bring in the Arabic word, “bukra,” which means tomorrow, and I will illustrate it by relating an anecdote about a Mexican and an Arab debating the meaning of words in their respective languages.

“I understand,” the Arab said to the Mexican, “that the word, manana, means that there is a possibility that something will happen in the near future. We have a similar interpretation of the word, bukras. “But you should know,” the Arab said that bukra does not have the same sense of urgency as “manana.”

More articles by:

James Abourezk is a former US senator from South Dakota. He is the author of: Advise and Dissent: Memoirs of an ex-Senator.

March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography