Reader Skander recently posted in the comments here a complaint about the “bizarre” vocabulary found in some Arabic picture books.
It’s a complaint I’ve heard from a number of parents. Skander notes, for instance, the use of, “ابتاع instead of اشترى. I feel like this kind of willful obscurantism is one of the major barriers to making reading in Arabic fun.”
A simple vocabulary, of course, can sometimes be the best. Translator Denys Johnson-Davies recently praised Naguib Mahfouz for his non-obscurantist prose. The same could be said for the prose in Fatima Sharafeddine’s YA novel, فاتن. The book was written in fos7a, but it isn’t filled with an abundance of dictionary words.
I do find that, with my children, there’s a difference in appropriate vocabularies for rhymed vs. un-rhymed texts. There are many words my three-year-old doesn’t understand in الغرفول, but it doesn’t matter if the text has rhythm. The words become predictable and “sing-able,” and it’s less important that they be easy. They’re fun even if they’re unfamiliar, just as with “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey.” (What’s a tuffet? Who knows? Who cares?)
In an unrhymed book, like the charming كنغوري الحبيب, unfamiliar words can be more off-putting. My seven-year-old still loves the book, translated from the English, which he says spreads the important message that kids should “love up their stuffed animals.” But the three-year-old is less enthusiastic. For him, رضيع could be أخوها.
A colleague told me that his daughter—who loves books—threw some Arabic books on the floor in frustration at the difficult vocabulary. My children tend to drift off into their imaginations instead, but the result is the same.
How simple should picture-book vocabulary be? I don’t know. In English, “studies have shown that most prime-time television shows use less complex vocabulary overall than the average children’s book.” So it’s not as though they’re never introducing new words.
But still. It’s not all tuffets out there. We need some كراسي, too.