In September 2000 I was a young seaman serving in the United States Navy. While at my training command in Florida the Navy offered me the chance to become a linguist and attend the military’s language school, the Defense Language Institute, or DLI. I gladly accepted the offer, and returned to California where I would attend one of the military’s hardest academic programs.
Basically, being a linguist is learning a foreign language quickly, and afterwards, trying to interpret phrases you speak or hear to mean something intelligible, such as “Where is the library?” or “Yes I would enjoy some tea and cakes” and “Is there a bathroom in this bar that does NOT have a glory hole?”
At DLI I entered the Arabic language program. Like all languages taught at the language school, this program would be intensive. When I began the course for the Arabic program, I didn’t know a single word of the language. But that didn’t matter. The learning environment there consisted of small classrooms and a team of professional teachers from countries like Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. And they would basically throw us into fire, so-to-speak.
It makes me wonder if the Elven language program at DLI recruited their teachers directly from Rivendell and Lothlorien.
I still vividly remember that first day of class, the very first hour where one of our teachers strode into the room. His baritone voice greeted us only in Arabic. The teacher spoke to each one of us in the room, but not a word of English emerged from him. I remember looking around the room at my fellow classmates, some Air Force, some Army, some Marines, and all shared my look of confusion and horror.
What the fuck did we just get ourselves into?
Eventually the teacher reverted to English, and explained everything he was saying. By the end of that first hour, we could all say “Hello” and “How are you?” and “I’m fine” and “My name is…” and “What’s your name?” in Arabic. Remember what I said about “throwing us into the fire”? We attended class five days a week, seven hours a day, plus homework. Like I said, it’s an intensive program.
Learning and studying the language every day didn’t stop us from having a little fun, sometimes at the teacher’s expense. After all most of us were either just out of high school or college. Much of our fun and amusement with Arabic vocabulary came when we learned about foods, restaurants, and shopping. The first words to send us into snickering, giggle fits was “sugar cake.”
What’s so funny about “sugar cake”? Well, that’s because those words sound a little different in Arabic. Both “sugar” and “cake” are cognates in Arabic. A cognate is a word that is similar sounding in both languages. When our teacher for that hour, a woman from Egypt, told us how to say them, we all about died laughing.
The word for sugar in Arabic is pronounced like “sooker”. The word for cake in Arabic is pronounced a lot like “kock”.
To be clear, these words were not listed together on our sheet of vocabulary. But leave it to several members of the world’s finest military to pay extraordinary attention to detail, as we were trained, and connect the dots.
“Professor?” asked one of the Airmen in the class, his face completely serious while his mischievous plot was betrayed behind his eyes. “How do you say ‘sugar cake’ in Arabic?”
“Kock sooker,” she replied.
Our military discipline may have waned at that point as we erupted into gales of naughty mirth.
“Why are you laughing?” asked the teacher. “I don’t understand.”
She honestly had no idea. This made it all the more hilarious, especially after we only told her that “kock” just sounded funny to us. Of course we didn’t really tell her why.
“I don’t know why you laugh at kock,” she stated.
We laughed more.
“What is so funny about kock?!”
We completely lost it at that point, leaving our teacher completely perplexed.
The double entendre behind “sugar cake” wasn’t the only combination of words that we identified as having dirty potential. Mind you, we were among some of the finest minds the military had found to attend its prestigious language school. You have to have some decently high scores on both the ASVAB and the DLAB to get in, and if you do get in, the Defense Language Institute has a high washout rate. Trust me, our talents did not go to waste in that school. We expertly used our analytical talents in order to put “kock sooker” together.
America! Fuck Yeah!
The next set of words we came across that made us guffaw, much to our teacher’s confusion, involved roosters and markets.
The word for rooster in Arabic is pronounced like “deek”. The word for market in Arabic is pronounced like “sook”.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. But it gets better. Much better. Or worse depending on how you look at it. Take the word, “which”, for instance. In Arabic, it is pronounced like “eye”. And that same aforementioned, enterprising Airman knew this. We all did. But it didn’t stop him from asking a teacher a new, and completely straight-faced, vocabulary question.
“Professor?” the Airman inquired. “If someone asked me to get a rooster from a market, but I didn’t know which market, how would I ask ‘which rooster market’?”
“That’s simple,” the teacher said. “You would say, ‘Eye sook deek’?”
This teacher looked just as confused as the lady teacher from Egypt for the next five minutes while his students, all of us, couldn’t keep our laughter to ourselves.
You can’t blame us for trying to inject a little humor and fun into an otherwise intense academic program. A few immature dick jokes here and there can be stress relieving. Despite the fast pace of the school, and the dick jokes, about two thirds of my original classmates I started with went on to graduate, including me.
Learning Arabic at the Defense Language Institute and becoming a linguist in the Navy was a major part of my life, and I’m proud that I did it. It also meant that if I was ever in an Arabic speaking country, I can confidently ask someone where to find a rooster market.