Friday, May 04, 2007

ليرى گغعمعل

As close as I can come to it, that's my name in Urdu. You have to read it from right to left and please don't forget that 'chotti yey' and 'bari yey' are only one letter even though they have two different shapes and two different pronounciations. The Urdu alphabet has thirty-eight letters with three long vowels, including the aforementioned two forms of the 'yey' vowel that somehow only count as one, and three short vowels that seem to dance around the letters without ever becoming a connected part of a word. Most of these thirty-eight letters have four written forms or shapes, three of these are the initial, medial and final shapes. They also have an independent shape, but that is never used except for the letters that are known to one and all as 'non-connectors'. There is also, apparently, one letter that is never used at all...but I may have misunderstood that last bit. Confused?...Read on!

We learn the letters in their independent shapes which are never actually used in writing because that would be akin to the printed form of the letters and Urdu is only written in script. It is a visually attractive language, but much more difficult to learn than Cyrillic. The letters and the sounds associated with them are unlike anything I've ever seen or heard. Many of the letters have sounds that are nearly indistinguishable from each other to me. Reciting the letters 'te' and 'Te', 'dal' and 'Dal', 'hay' and 'hey', and 'noon' and 'Noon' still earn me scowls of frustration from Mr. Qasim and an exasperated, "Once again, Mr. Larry, once again!", and don't get me started on the four 'S' letters which are totally unique, individual and distinct from each other yet are all pronounced exactly the same way! There are also at least two of the famous, "I'm not clearing my throat, I'm talking to you!" letters which are much more difficult to pronounce correctly than you'd ever guess. I've never felt as much sympathy for Eliza Doolittle as I do now.

An additional problem is that Urdu is a very rich language, a language of poets, and each letter and word must be pronounced correctly or the meaning of the sentence can be subtly changed. I'm about as subtle as a jackhammer and Urdu poets everywhere roll over in their graves each time I open my mouth. There are only three of us taking the Early Morning Urdu class and we have all been assigned to Islamabad. Lisa and I were in A-100 together, while John is heading there as his third or fourth tour. We'll have eighteen weeks of daily one hour classes then they'll both leave for Pakistan. I'll stay here for the summer, go through a whole smorgasbord of training, and finish up in September and October with six weeks of 'eight hours a day' Urdu. Asallamo alaikum!

Between the end of Early Morning Urdu in July and beginning FAST Urdu in September I can use the language labs and library at FSI to maintain the finely developed skills I'm honing right now. When I get to post, I should have an opportunity to improve further because I'll be working primarily with our Pakistani employees. Of course, my plan in Bulgaria was to speak only Bulgarian with my colleagues every day and that only lasted until we'd exchanged greetings in the morning and then we barrelled along in English the rest of the day. I'm pretty sure that our employees in the embassy also speak English so I've got to be more determined this time. My plan is to only speak Urdu and if they insist on switching to English, I'll answer them in Bulgarian!

This is a picture of me after studying Urdu for fifteen minutes without a break.

Status in Peace Corps was often determined by how rough your living conditions were and the size of the parasites that you acquired in your country. At the Foreign Service Institute, status is at least partially determined by the language you're studying and Urdu ranks right up there with Arabic and Chinese for top of the heap honors. But it isn't the only thing I'm doing by a long shot.

Next week I have a Gap Week. That's a planned break in my training schedule to allow me to take care of the myriad administrative tasks that have to be completed prior to my departure. I need to check in with the Medical people to set up my shots and vaccinations, touch base with the Travel Desk to make tentative flight reservations, begin the paperwork to acquire my Diplomatic Passport and Pakistani visa, meet with my Human Resources officer to ensure that my orders are cut in a timely fashion and talk to the Shipping folks to help make a decision about whether or not to bring the Volvo to Pakistan. I'll also be able to spend a lot of time at the Main State building in Washington researching Pakistan, our embassy in Islamabad and the job I'll be doing there. Of course, Early Morning Urdu will press right along during the Gap Week. From Urdu there is no respite. The truth is that I am really excited about having the opportunity to learn this language. One hundred and fifty million Pakistanis and nearly one billion Indians speak one or another form of the language and I'm determined to understand it when they say to each other, "Let's see if we can get this guy to eat these bugs by telling him they're clumps of fried rice!"


sara y poggi said...

Impressive Larry, Very impressive :) I can't wait to hear you speak!! Oh and that picture is absolutely terrifying!!

Matt said...

Hi Larry,

I hope you are having a good time with your training. I was just wondering if the "گغعمعل" part of your name in Urdu was the Gemmell part or not. I think it'd be pretty cool to know my last name in a language I've never heard spoken before.