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20 questions for: Andreas Dietrich (#26)

“Obviously you collect languages”, says Andreas Dietrich. Episode #26 of “9273 roots”: The man who is interested in how Semitic languages are connected.

Last updated: June 2, 2021

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…

Andreas Dietrich

أندرياس

The man who is interested in how Semitic languages are connected.

andreas dietrich office 1
  • Date of birth: 1952
  • Place of residence: Berlin, Germany

For more than 20 years, Andreas worked as the Public Relations Officer for an ambassador of an Arab country in Germany. Writing speeches, press releases, briefings – it was all in Arabic.

During the Cold War, Andreas worked as a language teacher in the eastern parts of Poland, just a 15-minutes’ walk to the Russian border.

He has now retired – but still continues to study languages and explore the Arab world. Despite his professional career, Andreas works as a tour guide in the Middle East and North Africa. “Join my tour and you will return as an almost perfect Arabist”, Andreas says.

Andreas studied Semitic Languages at the University of Leipzig (in former Eastern Germany/DDR) which back then was one of the leading European universities for Arabic and Semitic Languages. Diplom with magna cum laude.

Andreas is fluent in Arabic and other Semitic languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic and Assyrian (only passive).

His field of interest is lexicology/etymology.

Beside Semitic languages, Andreas also likes his native Germanic language(s): German, English, Dutch, and Flemish. He mastered Dutch at the age of approximately 60 in a short-time of self-study.

He has a working knowledge of Russian and some Modern Greek.

How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?

Good morning / good evening, my name is Andreas. I am German. Among friends and colleagues I am known as a fan of languages, especially Semitic languages (Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Assyrian). I focus on the narrow and exciting links between them in terms of vocabulary.

Some Palestinian friends of mine (my first contact with Arabs) bequeathed on me more than 40 years ago the nickname البغل. I like this name very much – and you are invited to make use of my nickname.

(Remark: البَغْل means the mule.)


What was your first Arabic grammar book?

Carl Brockelmann: Arabische Grammatik.

arabische grammatik brockelmann 1

I bought it when I was a kid in school and without the slightest idea of languages in general and Arabic in particular. (This was before the so-called Abitur, the high school diploma in Germany.) I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I think it was a kind of juvenile megalomania. I was a young bloke and nitwit.


Who was Carl Brockelmann?

Carl Brockelmann (17 September 1868 – 6 May 1956) was a German Semiticist. He analyzed the grammar of almost all known Semitic languages and was a specialist in Hebrew and Arabic.

Many call him the foremost orientalist of his generation. Brockelmann was a professor at the universities in Breslau, Berlin and, from 1903, Königsberg. He is best known for his multi-volume “Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur” (1937–1949) (History of Arabic literature) which included all writers in Arabic until 1937.

His grammar analysis “Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der semitischen Sprachen” (2 volumes) is still among the best you can get if you are interested in how Semitic languages are related to each other.

The book “Arabische Grammatik” is a summery of Arabic grammar including all what you need to understand Arabic. Brockelmann published it under his own name in 1941 – it was the eleventh edition of the grammar of Albert Socin, previously revised by Brockelmann several times.


What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?

Not only my favorite but also my FIRST Arabic book I heard of: Kalila wa Dimna (كليلة ودمنة)

kalila

Excursus: What is the book Kalila and Dimna about?

Kalila and Dimna is a collection of Oriental fables of Indian origin, composed in Sanskrit possibly as early as the third century BC. It is a text of pre-modern world and pop literature, it was highly influential. The text passed from Hinduism and Buddhism via Islam to Christianity.

Its Arabic version, produced in the 8th century (when Arabic was the most-spoken language of the Middle East) became the source of all further translations up to the 19th century. The Persian scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa most probably translated into Arabic.

Kalila wa Dimna is title of an Indian mirror for princes, formed by the corruption of the Sanskrit names of the two principal characters, two jackals, Karataka and Damanaka.


How much time does a native speaker of English need to master Arabic?

In my humble opinion, life long learning will not be sufficient. “Obviously you collect languages”, once I was told.

I consider grammar the soul and skeleton of a language. As a student of Arabic, I actually didn’t have to study much vocabulary or grammar. I only had to learn to think in roots and stems because the Semitic system of stem and roots is so very clear and understandable. Arabic, in my case and brain, soon became logical, predictable, and calculable.

After every course or lecture, I just got up, closed my notebook and ran away. No repetition or exercise was needed.

According to my life-long experience with languages, I am not able to differentiate between difficult and easy languages.

Learning a language means learning with the heart. I judge them as follows: Can a language become dear to me as a close friend or not? Do I get the necessary access to master it or not?

For example, I tried to study Korean – without the slightest success! I couldn’t find any access to it. During my studies in Leipzig, my other main field was Romance languages and literature where I encountered similar problems when coping with French.

Sometimes, I have the feeling of having too many languages in my brain.

For example, I hear a word other than German, and I am immediately aware of its meaning. For example, the word şimdi. It means now – but in which language? I then need a second and have to ponder and ruminate so that my brain can detect the source of the word.

By the way, şimdi is Turkish.


What is your favorite Arabic word?

The word نُور (which means light) all its derivatives also in other Semitic languages. Also the word رُوح (which denotes spirit, soul). There is a story to it. It was part of was my first Arabic sentence ever – a tongue-twister:

… روحي وروحك روحين بروح وان

I had to pronounce it again and again in front of my Arab friends who made a fool out of me and laughed and cried at me about my idiotic and ridiculous pronunciation.

And surely حككفكبكفعسكفكبكفيك


Which Arabic word do you like least?

سفر عالشمال

That’s naturally non-classic.


Which Arabic dialect do you like best?

Syrian/Palestinian and to some extent Gulf dialects. I don’t get along with the Egyptian dialect. Sorry I am not made for this dialect.

As students, we had once to process a speech of Anwar as-Sadat, the Egyptian president (1970 – 1981) who was assassinated on 6th of October 1981.

.أنا أنوار وأنتم نور
. أنا سادات وأنتم سادة


It was horrible to me. I have many Egyptian friends, but sorry, I am not made for this dialect.


“Obviously you collect languages”, once I was told.

Andreas Dietrich

What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?

توكل

Astonishingly enough in the sense of: piss off.

And there is:

ان شاء الله

…with its all encompassing meanings except for a straight answer (“yes” or “no”) to a question!


What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?

My favorite and very first quote which did my Palestinian friend Fateen Zreik break to me at the end of the 1960s is one by Imru al-Qays (امرؤ القيس):

.اليَوْمَ خَمْرٌ وَغَدًا أَمْرٌ

Today is for drink, and tomorrow is for serious matters.

My friend’s explanation was: “Look Andreas, that’s how we live in the Middle East” – an almost perfect description, I guess.


Who was Imru al-Qays?

Imru al-Qays was an Arabic poet of the 6th century AD and also the son of one of the last Kindite kings. The tribe of Kindah had its origins in the South Arabia of and migrated north to Najd sometime in the 4th or 5th century AD.

Imru al-Qays is sometimes considered the father of Arabic poetry. Like many figures of early Arabia, which at that time lacked a formal writing system and relied on the oral transmission of stories, the details of the life of Imru al-Qays are hard to determine with any certainty.


What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?

لغة الضاد

It is the language of the letter Dad.

Remark: The letter ض is a very unusual sound and led the early Arabic grammarians to describe Arabic as the لغة الضاد since the sound was thought to be unique to Arabic.


What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?

Learning (languages) should become a joy, your job, and a friend. Regarding vocabulary learning I took advice from a Russian book on linguistics.

Imagine a long road you are familiar with. Place in every single entry/door of the houses a word and go ahead. Keep the words at their place for frequent visits. Same door, same word.

Unfortunately, I do not remember the title of the book.


Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?

Three people from different ancestry whose languages I do not understand.


What was the last great meal you had?

مقلوبة شامية

maqluba
source: wikimedia

What is your favorite city?

Jerusalem (القدس) and Casablanca (الدار البيضاء). I still remember the language challenge I had encountered in a bar/hotel lobby in Casablanca.

By chance, I met a bunch of people from different countries and had to speak to them in their language because we couldn’t find a language we all speak: English, French, Arabic, Hebrew. I am now aware of the intrinsic meaning of “brain storming”.

casablanca
The Hassan II Mosque (مسجد الحسن الثاني) in Casablanca, Morocco, is the largest mosque in Africa and the 7th largest of the world.

Which book would you give to a dear friend?

I’m am not sure – but Dr. Faustus by Thomas Mann is always a good choice but also Don Karlos by Friedrich Schiller.


What is your all-time favorite movie?

Abschied (1968), a movie produced by DEFA in former Eastern Germany. It is based on a novel by Johannes R. Becher. The German word Abschied means farewell or parting.

abschied

What is the movie about? First World War started in August 1914, and Germany seemed to be caught in a nationalistic frenzy. But Hans Gastl, the 17-year-old son of a Munich public prosecutor, decides against the zeitgeist: “I’m not going to take part in your war.” The decision shocked his father, but it didn’t come as a surprise. As a child, Hans rebelled against the saturation and apparent morality of the elderly.


What music do you listen to?

Different genres.


When were you happiest?

Traveling and walking in the Syrian desert from Palmyra to Deir el-Zor (دير الزور)/Mari.


What is your greatest fear?

Stupid people.


What is your life motto?

المزيد من المعرفة وأصدقاء

Or vice versa…


Andreas Dietrich, thank you for your time.

People who were also interviewed:

Picture credit: Andreas Dietrich, pixabay (noelsch, dannyloz202), wikimedia.

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