I know some Tunisian Arabic. It’s not great, but it’s enough so that I don’t get lost or ripped off in a taxi, I can buy what I want in stores and restaurants, I can communicate where I’m going, comment on the weather and other various phrases, and understand at least the topic of conversation when two Tunisians talk. I’m still learning.

It’s interesting how language shapes a culture, how words that exist say a lot about the people who speak them. For example, the plethora of nicknames for “vagina” that are negative and derogatory (cum dumpster, ever lasting cum stopper, bearded axe wound, etc), or define the vagina as in relation to a penis instead of an entity in and of itself – it reflects the sexist culture that we live in, the negative and inferior way at which women are still looked. Take this in relation to the nicknames for penis that make it sound mighty and large (the shaft, rod, sex pistol, Russell the one-eyed wonder muscle). This indicates that men are stronger, sex machines, etc. Language says a lot.

Now take Arabic, or at least the Tunisian dialect. I recently learned what to call my boyfriend – sa7bi (transliteration because I don’t have Arabic letters on my computer, and some numbers look like Arabic letters that don’t exist in the Roman alphabet, pronounced SAH-bee). Lyoom, bish nimshee fee piscine m3a sa7bi. “Today, I will go in the pool with my boyfriend.” Now, in this instance I am referring to a male who I am dating. However, if I meant a friend that happens to be male who I am not romantically involved with, I would still use sa7bi. In English, we typically use “my boyfriend” to mean romantic partner, and “my guy friend” to indicate a platonic relationship. However, if I said sa7bi, regardless of who I was actually referring to, the person I’m speaking with would probably assume I meant romantic boyfriend. Same goes for men who refer to their sa7ebti (female form of “my friend,” pronounced sa-HEB-tee).

Why the ambiguity? Why is there no way to clearly refer to a platonic friend of another gender? Basically, because much of the Arabic culture thinks that no such thing can exist. Obviously all men are horndogs and are incapable of being “just friends” with a woman. And obviously any woman who’s “just friends” with a guy is leading him on and a slut, because no respectable woman should hang out with men that she’s not married to or related to. (I don’t think that, I’m just trying to see things from their point of view… but still not seeing it.) And also, if I’m female referring to sa7ebti (or a male saying sa7bi), I obviously mean a platonic friend, since homosexuality is so taboo that it’s not talked about, and there certainly isn’t a word to describe it.

I find that “guy friend” is a good way for a woman to refer to a male friend. I can also use “girl friends” to refer to a group of female friends. If I say “girl friend” though, at least in some social circles, it can sometimes be ambiguous, too. If I say it, people who know I’m bisexual may wonder what the relationship is like. In other contexts the ambiguity does not exist, but our culture as a whole has become much more open and accepting of homosexuality. Granted, there is still a LOT of discrimination, but we’re progressing.

It’s interesting that when referring to both romantic and non-romantic female friends we use “girl” as the prefix. Whereas with a romantic male we use “boy” and non-romantic we use “guy.” Perhaps because women are still looked upon as more juvenile? Who knows.

No real point to this post. Just an interesting reflection on how language shapes a culture, and how culture shapes language. Since different-gendered, platonic relationships don’t exist in Arabic culture (at least not until recently), there’s no need to have a word to describe an impossible situation. This also makes me appreciate the English language for having gender-neutral nouns to avoid this mess. And also, sometimes I like ambiguity.