Can as a modal verb

Discussion in 'العربية (Arabic)' started by dementedfaith, Feb 28, 2012.

  1. dementedfaith New Member

    English - United States
    So I have to do a linguistics project and we had to choose a real life language problem. At a UN conference a man from Morocco said, "How these people can help developing countries?" instead of "How can these people help developing countries?"

    My professor said that that is one way of looking at what he said, but he might have also meant to say, "How can these people in developing countries be helped?" She's trying to make my life more difficult, but either way, I need to analyze these two sentences.

    So first, is there even a modal verb like "can" in English, in Arabic? If so, do other modals exist in the language? A friend of mine said that "can" is implied in the way that the words are formed in Arabic, I don't know how valid this is or isn't. Another friend, who is a native speaker of Arabic, said that the man thought in Arabic and simply translated word for word into English to get "How these people can help developing countries?"

    If possible, can someone actually think of how to say that in Arabic, write it out, and say if what he was saying in English is a direct translation from Arabic? I would greatly appreciate it.

    My professor also said that it would be great if I could include the translations of both possibilities (the two italicized questions) in my paper. I would love to have them, and if anyone can provide them I'd be very grateful. However is there any sort of Romanization for pronunciation of Arabic like Pinyin exists for Mandarin? If there is, can you also provide that, just so I can pronounce what I have no idea I'm saying?

    Again, thank you very much for all of your help, I really really really appreciate it!
  2. rayloom

    rayloom Senior Member

    Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
    Arabic (Hijazi Arabic)
    Arabic uses a verb يمكن which has the meaning of "can".
    A possible translation into Arabic:
    كيف يمكن لهؤلاء الناس أن يساعدوا (مساعدة) الدول النامية؟
    يمكن "can" occuring after كيف "How" in Arabic.

    But to expand (and complicate) your question :D
    The Moroccan guy might speak English as a third language, and he might actually be translating to English from French (because it's usually easier that way). I usually before I speak French, translate from English in my head.
    In French, one would say:
    Comment est-ce que les gens peuvent aider les pays en développement?
    Comment les gens peuvent-ils aider les pays en développement?
    Here "les gens" occurs between "comment" (how) and "peuvent" (can).

    (corrections and suggestions to my French (or English and Arabic) are welcome) :)
  3. dementedfaith New Member

    English - United States
    I actually didn't think of that! For whatever reason I just assumed that he was translating from Arabic to English. I speak French and after having you write it out it actually makes a lot of sense. I can't read the Arabic that you wrote out so I have no idea where 'can' actually is -- the characters all look so similar.

    But THANK you so much for your help and insight! I appreciate it very much!
  4. Tracer

    Tracer Senior Member

    Wadi Jinn
    American English
    Just to further expand a little:

    1. "Modality" and modal verbs are pretty much specific to Germanic languages (although not exclusively so). They don't exist in Arabic (or French) in the same sense that they do in English. However, anything you might say in English using a modal verb (like this sentence) can easily be expressed in Arabic.....just in another way. (a characteristic of modal verbs in English is that they're invariably followed by the "base" verb (the infinitive minus the "to"). No other language I'm familiar with does this.

    2. Looking at Rayloom's first sentence above, you see the word يمكن (read from right to left, by the way) and it is pronounced YIMKIN (stress on the 1st syllable). It means "(he) can" but it is not a "modal" verb in's just another verb.

    3. When the Moroccan said: "How these people can help developing countries?" he undoubtedly meant: "How can these people help developing countries?" If he had wanted to say: "How can these people in developing countries be helped?" he most likely would have said:
    "How these people in developing countries can be helped" or similar, because that would be closer to what it would be in Arabic and would follow the 1st (incorrect) pattern of the 1st example. It's also common for non-native speakers to "double" the English modal, something like:
    "How can these people in developing countries can be helped?"

    4. Comparative linguistics is a treacherous field because it usually leads nowhere. The fact is, no two languages, no matter who close, will ever say anything in exactly the same way. (I found German surprisingly difficult, not because it's very different from English but because it's very close to English). Your question is a good example of this: although English type "modals" do not exist in Arabic, any modal sentence in English can easily be translated into Arabic so that you get comparable (if not exact) meanings.
    That is also why translation (a real translation, I mean) is almost an exercise in futility: to render something into understandable, idiomatic and correct English from Arabic, you very often have to veer very far from the original Arabic.

    Finally, the Arabic word يمكن which you now know means "he can" very often really means "It's possible" or "maybe" as in:
    "Do you want to go to the movies tonight?" Answer: "YIMKIN"....."maybe". You can't do that in English !
    Last edited: Feb 29, 2012
  5. إسكندراني

    إسكندراني Senior Member

    أرض الأنجل
    عربي (مصر)ـ | en (gb)
    Tracer, I think you're confusing the formal-Arabic يُمكن and colloquial يِمكن (which I've never heard from Moroccans).

    A lot of Arabs I know make mistakes very similar to 'How these people can help developing countries?' because they take a normal sentence and put 'how' on the start (this is usually how they think in Arabic; removing كيف leaves a proper sentence). I don't think French is the cause of his mistake...
  6. cherine

    cherine Moderator

    Alexandria, Egypt
    Arabic (Egypt).

    I agree with Rayloom and it was my first -and only- thought when I read the first post. The Moroccan man was obviously -at least to me and Rayloom :)- translating from French "comment ces gens peuvent-ils aider les pays en voie de développement?"

    The Arabic verb "yumkin" (=can) could also be a source of this English sentence, but I really believe that the French structure is the source, not the Arabic one.

    And to answer the teacher's suggestion, I'd say that there's no way the Arabic, French or English sentence could mean anything else but "how can these people help developpng countries?"
  7. dementedfaith New Member

    English - United States
    I cannot thank you all enough for all of your help! You've actually made my assignment so much easier :)شكرا
  8. cherine

    cherine Moderator

    Alexandria, Egypt
    Arabic (Egypt).
    You're most welcome. :)

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