Monday, October 13, 2008


There is this guy in Maadi--probably more than one guy, actually--who pushes a cart around yelling "Biikyeh!" His cart is full of junk so we could only assume that he was a collector of stuff...or that he was selling something. Really we had no idea what he did.

I aksed Andrew what "biikyeh" meant and he had no idea. He only knew that it wasn't an Arabic word. He had looked up every possible word and there was no biikyeh to be found.

We tried to forget about it, but being the burgeoning linguist that I am I found it rather difficult. Especially because I would hear the Biikyeh Guy everyday, pushing his sqeaky old cart down the street and yelling "Biikyeh!" several times a day. I began to be a little obsessive about it, looking for clues everywhere.

When we went to Dahshur with Emad, Andrew was asking him all of these language questions, so I asked Andrew to ask him what biikyeh meant.

"Oh, I don't know," said Emad, "But you should. It's an Italian word."

Andrew gave him a look that said, "Uh, no. No, it's not."

Emad gave Andrew a look that said, "Didn't you just tell me you lived in Italy for 2 years? What are you, an idiot?"

Well, apparently.

There was silence in the taxi for a while. Then Emad continued, "The full phrase is roba biikyeh, but we just say biikyeh for short."

"Roba means stuff," said Andrew, "But biikyeh doesn't mean anything."

"It means, in English, secondhand." Emad said, impatiently.

And that was the end of that conversation. We had made some progress, but we still didn't know exactly what it meant because Andrew was positive that biikyeh wasn't a word in Italian. Which it isn't.

So it isn't a word in Italian. And it isn't a word in Arabic. And it wasn't a word in any language I could think of.

I forced it to the back of my mind again, until last night when I was doing the dishes.

Karen had brought us some American plastic spoons and spatula/flippers. We'd asked for them because they sell teflon pans here, but the only plastic spoons we could find melted at even the lowest temperature creating these horrible melty-plastic smells and we didn't want to use metal spoons on the non-stick pan.

I was washing the dishes when I came across one such melty-plastic spoon that we'd used to stir our soup that evening.

"I don't know why I'm even washing this," I commented to Andrew, "We should give it to the Biikyeh guy because it's old... Oh, oh, oh! I figured it out!"

Have you ever had a thought that is so brilliant it shocks you? This was one of those thoughts. I was so excited to have figured this out [before Andrew] that I dropped the spoon and started hopping around the kitchen.

"Figured what out?" Andrew asked.

If you know more than one language fairly fluently you sometimes have the problem of pulling up the right word in the wrong language. At least, I have that problem. My poor brain is one, big, muddled mess of words. When I think a word I have two or three counterparts flying at me and I'm never sure, really, which one is going to come out. I've been known to use three or four languages in the same sentence completely accidentally, which makes for some interesting syntax.

Last night when I said "old" I also heard "stari," and "vecchia" in my brain.

"Vecchia!" I exclaimed, "Roba vecchia! Old stuff!"

So it was an Italian word all along. It just hadn't been preserved very well in Arabic.

Now I'll be able to sleep at night, knowing that my linguistic's degree is good for something.


  1. It's that weird v/b thing, isn't it... :) Any linguist can tell you about it - great consonant shift is still happening, eh! :) :) You are living with linguistic history in the making every day. How fun!!

  2. When I was taking Japanese senior year of high school, I would always come out of class thinking in Spanish. When I was in Paris and London this last Christmas, I was thinking in a weird combination of English, French, and Spanish. So, in a way, I know your pain.

  3. I love linguistic epiphanies like that. Good job on that one!