ابتاع vs. اشترى and the Challenge of Children’s Book Vocabulary

When is a word too hard for a picture book?

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.

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2 Responses to ابتاع vs. اشترى and the Challenge of Children’s Book Vocabulary

  1. Skander says:

    I agree that the occasional silly “out there” word is not that unusual in children’s literature, but when every other word is just crazy, then it’s a problem.

    I also think that this is a diglossia issue – in my own experience and research, I’ve found that people tend to define fusha as “not 3amiyya,” so that when they’re choosing words, the one they chose is often whatever is furthest from colloquial. This is bizarrely even more common in children’s books, where you’d expect it to be the opposite.

    I personally kind of like the approach Hana Mina takes to his dialog in his novels – he basically chooses the closest fusha forms of local dialect words, and uses similar sentence structure, so that a reader can basically read it in a Syrian accent without it actually being IN Syrian dialect. I think a similar approach for children’s books might be a good tact.

    I also agree that books should “spiral” a reader into increasingly difficult and infrequent vocabulary, but it should be an “i+1” thing like a “i+1 million” that we get in a lot of these kid’s books. And it should be words that are actually used – itbaa3 is vanishingly rare.

    And one last point – kid’s books should be expected to have more complex vocabulary than TV shows – it’s a written register, while TV is spoken. They probably don’t have many discourse connectives and particles, while a TV show does. The type and variety of vocabulary can, and should, vary between the two registers. But that doesn’t mean that children’s books should be inaccessible.

  2. mlynxqualey says:

    Thanks, Skander–and thanks for the link to the Roald Dahl translation. I completely agree on accessibility. And it is so easy to turn children off books, especially if they have an alternative (reading fun books in English or French). It’s a hard game for parents…you don’t want to push anything the child doesn’t like, but I don’t want the kids to be monolingual English readers, either.

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