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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.

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