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The story of Abu Dhabi, as told in its own living words

A new book, Local Language, outlines some of the Emirati words and phrases used in the capital through the generations.

ABU DHABI // Ever been stuck for words when it comes to greeting an Emirati in the rain, or congratulating the winner of a camel race?

Have you been bewildered after a UAE national has addressed a five-year-old boy with the title "father"?

Your dilemmas will soon be resolved. The author of a book on Abu Dhabi terms has expanded it for a second edition to be out next year.

Local Language lists Arabian Gulf and Abu Dhabi terms collected by Aisha Al Rumaithi over a year of sitting with elders.

Its seven sections include a list of Emirati colours and nicknames, and other peculiarities of the language such as those listed above.

"When our director asked me to work on this I tried my best," said Ms Al Rumaithi, the head of training and development at the Women's Union, which commissioned and published the book in August. "Of course, inshallah, there will be a second edition that will be longer than this."

The book offers a glimpse into Emirati culture through its language. It begins with a long section on expressions of hospitality, or what Ms Al Rumaithi calls "the quantity of the welcome", and ends with words borrowed from Urdu, Swahili, Farsi and English.

It holds an extensive vocabulary for the welcomer and the welcomed. The idea of hospitality is captured by the local word "igrab", a concept that roughly translates as "welcome, be and share with me".

In a country where men left home for months at a time to work at sea, goodbyes are equally poetic. Ms Al Rumaithi lists no fewer than six sentiments for the departing traveller.

Emirati colours hint at the products of trade. There is kurkumi, the colour of the turmeric; qahwi, coffee; neeli, an indigo stone used to whiten clothing or the face; and amlah, the colourless grey of an old white kandora.

"That means it looks very old and there is no colour in it - not dark, not light," Ms Al Rumaithi said.

Professions are associated with land, sea, survival and beauty: there are racing camel trainers, rope haulers, pearl merchants, porters who carry water to boats, porters who carry water to the houses, hairdressers, henna artists and ear piercers.

Ms Al Rumaithi, in her 40s, chose to document words still commonly used by her generation but which are at a risk of disappearing.

Shaima Al Sayed, an Emirati Arabic language teacher from Ajman, said many Emirati words were endangered.

"For this generation it's uncommon for youth not to know English," Ms Al Sayed said.

"It's become OK if you don't speak Arabic, but in the last year and a half there's become this sort of awareness among Emiratis regarding national identity that Sheikh Khalifa and Sheikh Mohammed have been trying to concentrate on, and part of that is the language.

"So the generations, the ones that have not been able to perfect their Arabic, have found themselves stuck because they've lost their Arabic. Now I do have a few who come to me because they can't express themselves any more."

The book is not an academic work. Ms Al Rumaithi does not explain word origins, where words should be used or whether they are current or archaic.

All interviews were conducted in Abu Dhabi city and there is no mention of the Arabic dialects of the mountains. And there is little of the enormous vocabulary relating to camels, falconry and music.

"This book is not from the museum, this is from our life," said Fatima Al Roumaithi,a friend of Ms Al Rumaithi.

"This is our accent, this is our language. Until now the people who are our age or a little younger than us, they still use this language but people who are younger, in their 20s, no."

The book could help to document the shifting trends of Arabic in Abu Dhabi.

"Concentrating on these expressions and collecting it for a young generation is a good thing," said Dr Latifa Al Najjar, an Arabic-language professor at UAE University in Dubai. "It's important."

"I don't know what will happen in the future. Maybe it will be like Standard Arabic - some of the words will be without meaning, sentences will disappear."

The second edition may be published in English, or with a CD so people can hear pronunciation. Ms Al Rumaithi hopes to expand it to include sections on time and different Emirati dialects.

The book is available for free from the Women's Union. Ms Al Rumaithi can also be contacted at www.wu.gov.ae .


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