The pharynx, the space between the tongue root and the back of the throat, is used for gagging, deepthroating and the Afroasiatic languages of North Africa and the Middle East. Arabic’s use of the pharynx is one of the most extensive.
Not only does it use the breathy H-like fricative /ħ/ and its voiced counterpart /ʕ/ (more accurately an approximant made by pulling back the epiglottis, the flap that covers the windpipe when one swallows), but Arabic has a pharyngealized counterpart to most coronal consonants (the ones that use the tip of the tongue). These consonants simultaneously pull the back of the tongue into the throat. While this doesn’t make a sound in itself, it causes a change in vowel quality, something that can take some time to get used to, especially true with high vowels like /i/ and strange Egyptian men who don’t realize how thick their fingers are.
“It’s not ت [taː], it’s ط [tˤaː]!” I had attempted to repeat طيز [tˤiːz] “ass,” but hadn’t heard the pharyngealization [ˤ] through his accent. He was Egyptian, and his native variety of Arabic had gone through changes in vowel quality that I couldn’t yet parse, having only been trained in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). For example, short vowels like the /i/ in زب /zibː/ “cock” is lowered in Egypt to [zebː].
Like most others, our evening together started with smalltalk, strained not only by the Manhunt-to-real life transition but by my grasp on idiom in a language standardized in part to avoid the kind of colloquial language that surfaces on sex dates.
That said, it’s always nice to start with…
أنت أجمل من صورتك [anta agmal min sˤuːratak]
You look more attractive than your picture.
It’s a great excuse to use the Arabic-style superlative made famous by [akbar] — “greatest.” Maybe he’ll ask…
عايز بيرة؟ [ʕaːjiz biːra]
You want a beer?
…with the obvious Romance language borrowing for “beer.” If that’s too heavy you can respond…
ممكن مية؟ [mumkin majːa]
How about water?
When the room falls silent a few sips in, you can awkwardly inquire…
كيف العمل؟ [kajfa al-ʕamal]
In Arabic there’s no need for a copula like the English “is” or “are” — just a simple “How work?” Or you can just comment on his ass.
I corrected myself and tried my sentence again: “عندك طيز كبير” [ʕindak tˤiːz kabiːr] “You’ve got a big ass.” [ʕind] is actually a preposition, meaning “near” — [ʕindak] meaning “near you.” This is a popular construction: To say, “You have a big ass,” many languages will say “A big ass is to/near you.” Its formal name is the mihi est (“to me is”) construction, as opposed to habeo (“I have”), from Latin which used both styles.
Despite my efforts, I’d still missed that [tˤiːz] was a feminine noun. I was used to the feminine ending ة /-a/ from MSA, not obligatory in many regional Arabic languages. He gave me a playful slap on the ass. “زب كبير، طيز كبيرة” [zibː kabiːr, tˤiːz kabiːra], he said. Not only did “a big cock, a big ass” highlight the differing noun genders using markers on surrounding words (something that has allowed languages like German and Hindi to phase out gender markers on nouns), but it taught by example. I took a brisk hit of poppers and forgot all of the syntax I’d studied for our date.
Earlier that evening I sat on the train, hoping that nobody would notice my fidgeting. I was already a bit lubricated from my pre-date washing regimen, but I was more distracted by the extensive reference tables that take up at least a third of every Arabic grammar text. Arabic is famous for its nonconcatenative morphology, a process of forming words that does not put them in a clear numerical order. In the case of Semitic languages, this involves a “root and pattern,” for example the word for “cock” has the consonantal root /z-b-b/ applied to the pattern /C₁iC₂C₃/ to form /zibb/. According to Wehr’s root dictionary, the plural “cocks” takes the pattern /aC₁C₂aːC₃/, surfacing in /azbaːb/. Of course, there are a few traditional suffixes; the dual takes /-ain/, e.g. /zibːain/ “two cocks.” I believe the dual only works in MSA; the distinction between two and three or more cocks in Egyptian Arabic remains untested for now.
My search involved the root /n-j-k/, “to fuck.” Roots with a /j/ (English “y”) or /w/ require the use of extensive transformational rules, and most books simply list special pattern tables for each possible case. I was curious as to how a verb in C₂ = /j/ would function in the imperative, perhaps a hearty “Fuck me!” would have an interesting ring to it. The table listed /C₁iC₃/. Adding the suffix /-niː/ “me,” my exclamation would surface in نكني /nikniː/. It sounded awful. I got off the train disappointed.
My experience with Mr. Egypt proved to be much less disappointing than my brush with imperative verbs. I was as close to literal pillow biting as I’ve probably ever been. I decided to put the /n-j-k/ root to better use with a more friendly volitional statement:
!دعنا ننيك مرة أخرى [daʕnaː naniːk mara uxraː]
Let’s fuck again some time!
Once the two of us had finished, we caught our breath and I raced to wipe the sweat out of the rubble that remained of my hairstyle. He joked, “!يا خول” [jaː xawal] (“Hey, faggot!”), a phrase well understood by the Arab world and its massive “down-low” style underground. I burst out laughing, and he joined, the two of us a grammatical and perspiratory mess.
As always, I made sure my navel was clean before saying “مع السلامة” [maʕa as-salaːma] — “Goodbye,” lit. “With peace.”