“The Art of Coffee”: Prelude to Semitic Vowels

Old Jeddah in the Hejaz (2010): this is the “fun” café that is the subject of our scrutiny, not because it fails to live up to its name . . . but because it is an insult to language. Is there a joke I am not seeing?!

Fenn al-Qahwah (translation: The Art of Coffee). But wait . . . Fun Café? Oh, what fun!
Here is a “fenn” fact:
The lack of vowels as independent characters within the abjad, is one of the many challenges of the Semitic languages, especially for new learners. Instead, Semitic languages use vowel markings. Bear with me, my non-Semitic speaking Humans!
The word fenn (“Art”) in Arabic is written with two consonants: ‘F’ ف and ‘N’ ن. Strung together, it looks like this: فن … Since vowels are absent from the abjad, new learners of the Arabic language (without knowledge of that term), might read the consonant cluster “FN” as “Fin”, “Fan”, “Fun”, “Fon”, or “Fen”. At times, the use of harakaat (Arabic diacritic marks) appear over each letter. In the case of Hebrew consonants, niqqud act as vowel marks. These vowel markings may appear in pieces of Arabic, Hebrew, or Syriac literature where accuracy of pronunciation and context is necessary. In the case for these languages, one does not typically find text written with any vowel markings unless it is in children’s books, poetry, or religious texts; it is assumed that readers understand the context of the text well enough to know how to vocalise the words properly.

Semitic consonants can sometimes be pronounced differently, too. For example, when I read the word “butterfly” in Hebrew for the first time, I mistakenly pronounced it as “farfar” instead of “parpar”. Why is that? Because the dagesh was not typed in any of the text, making it hard to distinguish some of the consonants apart.
In Hebrew, the letter Peh פּ and Feh פ are like nonidentical twins, as both share the same character, yet Peh is an unvoiced plosive and Feh is an unvoiced fricative. The difference in appearance lies in the Peh being distinguished by a dagesh marking. Both dagesh and niqqud are oftentimes omitted from text, making it even harder for new learners of Hebrew to acquire reading skills.
So, in reading that one simple word, parpar, my Arabic background kicked in and lead me to assume the word פרפר would be similar to the Arabic term for butterfly, “farashah”, with an “F”. . . hence the “farfar” affair. Since Hebrew predates Arabic, one may incorrectly assume that loan words from Aramaic into Arabic simply swapped out all the P’s into F’s, since P does not exist in the Arabic abjad. No p?

Seinfeld Humour, anyone? “No soup for you, either!” – Soup Nazi, 1995.

If p, then q.
∴ ~q.

Therefore, no fefferoni fizza for you! — Hey wait, if P is correlated with F, then why do Arabs tend to pronounce all P’s as B’s? (#NotAllArabs, I know, I know.)
This is but a surface-level anecdote to illustrate the importance of vowel markings in language acquisition of all Semitic languages. However, my last line demonstrates another frustration in Semitic Orthography. I will be writing a post on that very soon.
On a final note: I suppose this sign would be read as “Penn al-Qahwah” if we swapped Arabic with Hebrew. Or even “Pin”, “Pan”, “Pun”, “Pon” . . .
Oy vey.

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