All posts by Samantha Smith

When Arabic Tattoos Go Bad (or why you should talk to a translator first)

I have tattoos. I’m quite proud of them. I’m a big fan of tattoo culture, and I think more people should be as well. But today, as I was so innocently minding my own business, I came across something that firmly reminded me that some people just should not get tattoos.


bad arabic tattoo

Before I go further into what will be an awesome rant, let me preface this by saying that Chinese and Japanese are not the only languages that suffer from people’s tattoo-related abuse. Many people choose to have ridiculous things tattooed on their body because it looks pretty or because they think there’s some sagely meaning behind the words.

What you see above is a man’s arm with what he thinks is the Arabic for “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” What actually is on his arm is “Mem-Alif Lam-Alif Ya-Wa-Ta-Lam-Kalf Ya-jim-Ayn-Lam-Kaf Alif-Qaf-Wa-Ya,” or, for the ease of people who aren’t familiar with Arabic script, gibberish.

You see, Arabic is written in a script that connects. It works like cursive. What is written on that man’s arm is not words—it’s just letters. In actual Arabic, the phrase would look like this:

ما  لا يقتلك يجعلك أقوى

See the difference?

Even if the letters were properly connected in order to form words, this would still not be the world’s most fantastic tattoo as the font used is the computer-basic font for Arabic. It would be like getting an English tattoo in Times New Roman rather than in a unique or interesting font. Most non-Arabic speakers tend to get tattoos in this basic font because there is a general lack of knowledge about the beauty and versatility of Arabic script.

Now, there is nothing wrong with getting a tattoo done in Arabic (or Chinese, or Japanese, or any other language), even if you don’t speak or study the language. Arabic tattoos can be really stunning. They are absolutely gorgeous when they’re done correctly. It’s going to be on your body for forever. That’s a really long time. You should at least be able to be proud of it.

But please, please, please, if you do want a tattoo in a foreign language, verify that what you’re getting is correct! Consult a translator. I promise, you’ll be thankful you did.

Otherwise, this could happen to you:

picture taken from post on Tumblr
picture taken from post on Tumblr. OP claims it means “appreciate life.”

I don’t know who told this person that’s what that tattoo meant. It actually means, “I’m disgusting.”

For some samples of some gorgeous Arabic tattoos, check out Josh Berer is a calligrapher who designs absolutely breath-taking tattoos in Arabic. He’s also a translator, so you know you’re getting the real deal from him.

What’s in a Name? How we address our Professors

I am enrolled in Language and Culture with Prof. Donna Perry in the Anthropology Department here at Gettysburg College. This week our class focuses on the ethnography of communication. During class on Monday, December 1, we discussed different aspects of speech acts that ethnographies of communication examine.

While discussing the concept of participants within ethnography of communication, I was struck by an observation my professor made about how different participants in a conversation use honorifics to address each other. Professor Perry noted that here at Gettysburg, unlike the other college she previously taught at in Oregon, students tend to address her simply as, “Professor,” rather than by her name. That gave me pause—and then I realized that I, a student at Gettysburg College, do tend to address my professors simply as, “Professor,” rather than by their first names, or as “Dr. So-and-so,” or as “Professor So-and-so.”

I started thinking about why I address my professors this way. Then my relationship with my advisor came to mind. She and I are on first-name terms—I remember the exact moment that she told me I could refer to her by her first name. It was magical. Here was a woman whose opinion I respected so greatly, whose presence I found so engaging telling me that I could call her by name.

Even though I am allowed to call my advisor by her first name, I would never, ever, address her as such in front of a class of other students. In the classroom there is a certain level of decorum that must be maintained. Addressing a professor by their first name is too lax, but addressing a professor as, “Dr. So-and-so,” feels too formal for my taste.  A happy medium is needed.

I am on a first-name basis with many of my professors, and am very comfortable addressing them by their first names within their offices, but their offices are a very different setting compared to the classroom. I like to think that as a senior I’ve earned my voice and the right to make what I have to say heard, but I also recognize that professors here are much more educated than I am and have much more experience than I do. No matter how strong my professional, working, or personal friendships with my professors may be, I still defer to the power dynamic within classroom settings, and I adjust how I address my professors with respect to that power dynamic in mind.

Of course some faculty here at Gettysburg College do prefer to be addressed more formally, and addressing these professors by their first names is a major faux pas. Unless one has been invited by a professor to refer to them by their first name, it is hard to guess whether it’s okay to address an email to, “John,” or to, “Dr. Doe,” or to, “Mr. Doe.”

Each of these addressed convey different levels of formality or intimacy with the recipient. Even using Dr. can be problematic as, even though most faculty do have the highest degree in their fields, most people in academia seem to not use that title. This is why I like using, “Professor.” Professor is sort of neutral—it’s formal enough to be usable in any circumstance without sounding so formal that it is uncomfortable.

Addressing faculty as “Professor” is especially handy when addressing female faculty, especially since it can be hard to determine if they are married or if they kept their maiden names when they married. Even though English conventions allow the use of “Ms.” to refer to women of unknown marital status, most women I know don’t like being called “Ms.” Using, “Professor,” eliminates the guess work.

Then there are professors that it would just be weird to address them as “Dr. So-and-so.” My Arabic professor is one such individual. In Arab culture addressing someone as “Mr. So-and-so” or “Mrs. So-and-so” actually is perceived as cold and occasionally rather rude. This is why it always sounds strange to me when I hear other faculty call my professor “Dr. Ramadan.” Within the classroom and outside the class, I will always address my Arabic professor as Abdulkareem because it would be very strange to call him anything else.

I wonder if anyone else has ever stopped to consider how and why they are addressing their professors in particular ways. Any thoughts?

Try this Arabic Tongue Twister on for Size

مشمشنا مش مشمشكم ومشمشكم مش مشمشنا, لما مشمش مشمشكم ما كان مشمش مشمشنا

[mishmishna mish mishmishkum wa mishmishkum mish mishmishna, lamma mashamash mishmishkum, ma kun mashmash mishmishna]

It means:

Our apricots are not the same as your apricots, and your apricots are not the same as our apricots. When your apricots were ripe, our apricots were not ripe yet.

Of course, I think it sounds better in Arabic.

The Young Ancestors Revive Tewa

Did you know throughout North America there are over 25 million speakers of approximately 800 indigenous languages?[i] Of those 800 plus languages, only about ten are considered secure. The remaining 790 or so are considered threatened or endangered. The level of endangerment a language faces is based on several factors, including the size of the population that speaks that language, the number of individuals who link their ethnic identity to that language, the use of second languages or use of a particular language as a second language, the attitude towards the language within the community, the age range of speakers, as well as several other levels of use (for information on the classification of endangered languages, see  If steps are not taken to revitalize these languages, many can and will be lost within a generation or two.


This semester, I am taking Language and Culture with Prof. Donna Perry in the Anthropology Department here at Gettysburg College. The last few classes examined the death of languages. I apologize if my post seems overly general—I want to focus specifically on one example of a native group fighting to revitalize their language, but first, I need to discuss in brief what has led to the death of so many languages in North America.


Many indigenous people have been forced to give up their mother tongues because of assimilation policies that the United States and other governments have enacted. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States government passed legislation that required Native Americans to move from their traditional lands onto parcels of land set aside—reservations. The treaties signed between the US government and many indigenous nations (notably the 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek and the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie among others) also required that Native Americans send their children to government–run boarding schools.[ii] These policies, designed to integrate the indigenous population to the settlers’ culture, resulted in the genocide of entire populations.


At these boarding schools, children were forbidden from speaking their native languages. Through pain and humiliation, they were forced to use English: any use of a native tongue resulted in a beating. Many people who were forced into the boarding schools, bit-by-bit, forgot their language. When they had children, they elected not to teach their children their native languages because of the associated stigma. They loved their children and did not want their children to experience the pain they had gone through.


Many of the last speakers of the incredibly endangered languages native to North America are elderly. Often less than ten fluent speakers remain for many of the endangered languages. Most adults and middle-aged people are not able to use their native language to communicate, and are thus unable to transfer the language to a younger generation.


But not all hope is lost.


The Indigenous Language Institute (ILI) is committed to reviving endangered languages while speakers are still alive in order to pass on their knowledge by using tools and training to help indigenous groups revive their languages within their own communities.[iii] Their work is urgent, and many of the 800 languages present in North America may disappear within 10 years if the Institute’s work is not successful.


One group of indigenous people working with the ILI is the Pueblo Nation. In 2009 the Santa Fe Prep School announced the creation of a Self-Study Curriculum wherein a group of teens from Tewa Pueblos would study Tewa alongside a mentor.[iv] Their experiences are documented in the film The Young Ancestors. In this documentary five teenagers describe their efforts to learn the language of their ancestors. Jeremy Montoya describes how his fluency has increased, and how he is now able to understand the elders’ prayers at Tewa ceremonies.[v] For Jeremy Montoya and the other teens involved in this project, learning their traditional language is important because without their language, their traditions and ceremonies lose meaning. To learn more about their struggle and their triumphs, watch The Young Ancestors, available through Musselman Library right here on campus.


[i] Native Languages of the Americas
2013 Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and promoting American Indian languages. Accessed 29 September 2014.

[ii] William T. Hagan Norman
2011 Assimilation Policy. The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Accessed 29 September 2014.

[iii] Indigenous Language Institute
2009 Indigenous Language Institute. Accessed 29 September 2014.

[iv] Camino Verite Films
The Young Ancestors Synopsis. Accessed 29 September 2014.

[v] Aimee Barry Broustra, Dir.
The Young Ancestors. Camino Verite Films. Santa Fe, NM.

LRC Student Staff Member: Samantha K. Smith

The new semester has begun, and we are featuring profiles of our multilingual and multitalented student staff members.

Hello! So I’m Samantha K. Smith, and I’m (gasp!) a senior. I’m a Religious Studies major with a minor in Middle East and Islamic Studies. As part of my course work I’ve been studying Arabic with Abdulkareem Said Ramadan. I love the language, and for fun this past summer I started reading the Harry Potter series in translation. Anytime I can make it through a page without reaching for my Hans Wehr I do a little happy dance.

I gained my appreciation for studying a foreign language at my mother’s hands. Growing up, she would read to me, and my favorite was always The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s work continues to inspire me. He was a linguist by training and invented full languages that helped shape the world he created. To honor my love of his work, I’m knitting a scarf with the text from the One Ring of Power.

Previously I’ve received a Mellon Grant and conducted research on America veterans’ experiences serving abroad in the Middle East. Currently on campus I also work in the History and Classics Office, am involved in ALLies club, and am president of Gettysburg College Mock Trial. I guess you could say that I keep myself busy. I live in the Middle East and Islamic Studies Spark House on campus. Keep an eye out for events this semester the house puts on. Next semester we’ll be hosting a Poetry Night that will feature students reading poems in Arabic with a catered dinner. I read last year, and I can’t wait to participate again.

This summer I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to Israel. I have a funny story about how I accidentally propositioned a man in the Arabic market in Jerusalem’s Old City. Stop by and ask me about it sometime.

This semester I’ll be keeping up with America’s Next Top Model, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, and the Black and Gold. Geaux Saints!