Last updated: February 20, 2022
Lisān al-‘Arab (لسان العرب), the famous dictionary of Classical Arabic, contains 9273 roots (and 4,493.934 words). A huge playground for people who are passionate about Arabic such as…
حسام أبو ظهر
The man who created the best online dictionary for Arabic dialects: Lughatuna (livingarabic)
- Date of birth: rather not say
- Place of birth: USA
- Place of residence: outside of Washington, DC
- Personal website: http://www.livingarabic.com
- You can find Hossam’s apps (dictionaries) on the Google App store (Android) and on the Apple store.
How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?[
I’m a practical Arabic linguist: I’ve studied enough linguistics to roll with the best of them, but focus on creating practical tools that serve laymen and advanced linguistics.
What was your first Arabic grammar book?
I think it was A New Arabic Grammar by J.A. Haywood and H.M. Nahmad, but it was so long ago now I’m not sure. In my first year of studying Arabic in grad school I bought The Syntax of Spoken Arabic by Kristen Brustad, which is probably the grammar book I reference the most.
What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?
I love موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال (Season of Migration to the North) by Al-Tayyib Salih.
I also really like Ahmed Fu’ad Negm’s autobiography, which is written in the Egyptian dialect.
Remark: Ahmed Fu’ad Negm’s (أحمد فؤاد نجم) autobiography is called الفاجومي.
Who was Ahmed Fu’ad Negm?
Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929 – 2013) is often called a “dissident poet”. He has inspired generations of Egyptians with his poems in Egyptian Arabic. His main topic was the life and struggle of working class people, but he also wrote about the corruption and greed of Egypt’s leaders.
In 2007, Ahmed Fouad Negm was named a UN “ambassador of the poor”. Some lines of his poems became a slogan for protesters. For example, during the Arab spring in 2011, you could hear a line of his poems which goes like this: “Who Are They, and Who Are We?” According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Negm’s disdain for authority put him in constant conflict with the government, however, and during his life he spent a total of 18 years in jail.” Negm had little formal education and worked as a labourer on a military base and then as a street vendor until he was imprisoned (1959) for the first time for fraud.
He began to write in prison, composing the poems that were later collected as صور من الحياة والسجن (“Pictures from Life and Prison”; 1962)
How much time does a native speaker of English need to master Arabic?
The US Department of State estimates around 2000 hours. Several friends have told me it took them 10 years before they felt comfortable with it. Honestly, it depends on how you define master. Are you just trying to learn to speak some?
An intensive year of dialect studies could get you there. Do you want to be able to be fully functional in Arabic? Then you need Al-Fusha and at least one dialect, and that will take you awhile. One of the goals of my project, The Living Arabic Project, is to create tools to make the learning process smoother and more efficient.
What is your favorite Arabic word?
I’ve put in tens of thousands of the words into the dictionaries that I work on, and now you want me to choose just one? How about كان، يكون?
Which Arabic word do you like least?
I’ve never really found a word I didn’t like. From a programming perspective, I hate dealing with a word like لوى because compensating for the morphological changes it goes through is annoying.
Remark: The root لَوَى denotes to turn; to bend.
Which Arabic dialect do you like best?
Every dialect I’ve studied is fun for different reasons, but what I enjoy most about them is their expressiveness. Levantine dialects, given my heritage, come easiest to me. But I’ve grown fond of the Egyptian and Moroccan dialects after studying them as well.
What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?
There are so many!
Like when someone asks where you’re going, you can say رايح على جهنّم الحمرا (I’m going to red hell). I love how ridiculous some are, especially when parents get mad at their kids.
I once heard someone say بخلي راسك يصير اتنين, I’ll make your head become two, which is an expression about beating someone. It gave me this image of a cartoon character getting hit hard and I had to try not to laugh out loud.
What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?
Two expressions about travel that I like are:
His hoof is wandering.
.الرِّجْل تْدِبّ مَطْرَح ما تْحِبّ
The foot stamps wherever it wants.
I also love the many expressions that reference donkeys. For example:
إنْ كنت فْ بَلَد يعبِدُوا الجَهش، حِشّ واْدِّي لُه
If you are in a country where they worship the ass, cut some grass and feed him (meaning when in Rome, do as Romans do.)
What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?
A professor of mine once said that the Arabic language is like a solar system, with Al-Fusha as the sun and the dialects as planets around it.
That expression was key in helping me develop a model that could tie the dialects and Al-Fusha together.
I have to add here that I’ve been criticized about this particular description, with some people saying that it is not historically accurate, that the dialects are likely older than Al-Fusha and so Al-Fusha is not the center, and other things. To them, I have three things to say.
First, I never said anything about the history of the language; I’m talking about developing a model that can tie together Al-Fusha and the dialects so that people can learn them easier and the diglossic gap can be lessened.
Second, if you insist on trying to (inaccurately) box me into a certain category to criticize me, it says more about you than me.
Third, if you still insist: طُزّ، طُزَّين، تلات، عايش ومش فارقة معي
Hossam’s apps are a great tool for Arabic lovers:
His app Lughatuna is the first multi-dialect Arabic dictionary, containing dictionaries for MSA, Levantine, and Egyptian. Users can search by root, Arabic word, and English word. The Egyptian and Levantine dictionaries are some of the largest Arabic-English dialect resources ever created, including tens of thousands of definitions and examples, non-transparent phrases, sayings and proverbs.
The database is updated monthly with new entries. Future plans are to add other dialects (North African, Gulf, Iraqi, Yemeni, and Sudanese). You can get the app for only 1.99 USD/EUR.
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Not advice per say, but there is a Xhosa proverb that goes: “Ubuntu ungamntu ngabanye abantu,” meaning “People are people through other people.”
It’s part of why I think learning languages is important and should be valued, even as machine translation gets better every day. You study a language because it embodies a culture, and you want to come to understand that culture and (maybe even) become a part of it.
Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?
Do they have to be living? Anis Freyha, Sayyid Badawi, Waheed Samy, and Khayr al-Din al-Asady (yes, that is a fourth).
They were all amazing linguists and did phenomenal work on dialects, and I think having them in the same room together would be amazing.
What was the last great meal you had?
I feel like I’m fortunate enough to eat good meals regularly. I made some great venison brisket tacos recently, I going to have a quiche this morning.
What is your favorite city?
I’m not really a city person. I like villages, rural areas.
Which book would you give to a dear friend?
I enjoyed The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, and I enjoyed Edward Said’s autobiography Out of Place. I find that I relate well to books that deal with coping with one’s complex heritage and would happily share those with a friend.
What is your all-time favorite movie?
I’m not much of a movie person, but some of the ones that I’ve enjoyed include Pan’s Labyrinth and بيروت الغربية.
These days, though, the only movies I watch are kids movies in Arabic with my son, preferably the ones in Egyptian rather than the newer ones that are translated into some odd mixture of Egyptian and Al-Fusha (which just confuses my son more since he has to deal with two new “dialects” instead of just one while watching a movie).
His favorite, which automatically becomes my favorite, is The Incredibles.
What music do you listen to?
A lot. Right now I’m listening to أَيُّهَا السَّاقِي, which is an old Andalusian poem. The rendition I’m listening to is gorgeous and I’m thinking about translating it. Since I grew up in the US, I love a lot of music in English and find myself translating it into Arabic as a language exercise and to try to imagine what it would sound like.
I love Iron Maiden and I’ve listened to them for days on end while doing data entry. Can you imagine what that would sound like in Arabic? What about Flogging Molly? Or Tom Waits?
When were you happiest?
When I was in Peace Corps. There were hard times, but I grew a lot there, and I loved living in a rural area, learning the local language, and settling in with the community. It was that experience that drove me to study Arabic.
What is your greatest fear?
No idea. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself, to paraphrase FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt), so I try to not spend a lot of time worrying and instead just focus on doing what has to be done.
What is your life motto?
I try to accept life as it comes and whatever it brings without getting stressed out about it. If I spent time worrying I’d, well, you know, be worried constantly and not get a lot done.
Hossam Abouzahr, thank you for your time.
Nerds, experts and Arabic addicts who were already interviewed: