Phonology and Flirtation

Phonology: an inventory of sounds and their features; rules specifying how sounds interact with each other.

Flirtation: a short period of casual experimentation with or interest in a particular idea or activity.

Phlirtology: a short period of inventorying how strangers interact with each other.



Still sweating from my bike ride across campus, I pulled out a piece of notebook paper for the daily quiz. For the next five minutes, as the linguistics professor deliberately articulated difficult made-up words, we graduate students would agonize over his aspirations, transcribing every phone, phoneme, and intonation with the letters and diacritics of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Shhhvarkzookelinduh.” Pained, I watched the prof’s beard move up and down, willing his whiskers to spell out the sounds. Quickly, as he finished the word, I  jotted down a quick approximation of what I had heard.

Waiting a few beats, he pronounced the word again. “Shhhvarkzookelinduh.” Whereas the first articulation was about inducing panic, the second go-round allowed the panic to settle deep into the gut where, swirling uneasily, it morphed into a shape: question-markSquinting my eyes, I examined his mouth as he spoke. What were his lips doing? Was that vowel sound an “uh” or an “eu” or an “oo”? Scrawling on my paper, erasing frantically, scratching my scalp and tipping my head, I added a few more markings.

Damn. My instincts were still battling when he began his third and final pronunciation: “Shhhvarkzookelinduh.”

What the hell. It sounded totally different that time. Agitated, I wrote down four more possible interpretations of the word, considered how to synthesize them, flipped through a quick but thorough catalog of self-doubt, erased five times, tore a hole in the paper where it had become weak from overuse, tossed wild eyes around the room, and finally, sighing with a sibilant “sssss,” committed to my final verdict.

It wasn’t right. I knew it was wrong. But I didn’t have time to care. He was already halfway through his articulation of the next word on the quiz.

Too bad it wasn’t “fuck.” That word, burbling near my surface, was one I could have grafittied on the side of the classroom, blindfolded, blitzing fuck in letters two-feet high with the can of spray paint tucked into my backpack next to a granola bar and seven pounds of textbooks.

By the time Professor Adams reached the fifth and final word, I was sweating more than when I’d locked my bike to the rack in front of the ivy-covered brick building.

It got worse. Once we graded the quiz  (fuck), he announced our first big assignment of the semester: we each would need to find a subject to study — someone who spoke a language “exotic” to us — and, after engaging in a few weeks of field research, submit a paper explaining our process and findings about the phonology of that language.

Great. There I was, in militia-movement friendly Idaho a few months before the Ruby Ridge shooting. Somewhere in a panhandle of homogeneity, I was supposed to find someone exotic.

This was going to take some doing.




Haddou lived downstairs — the friend of a boyfriend of a friend of a friend. Easily, he agreed: he’d be happy to help a fellow graduate student with her project.

Every night after dinner, clutching my notebook to my chest, I’d walk down a flight of stairs in the residence hall, inhale shakily outside Haddou’s room, and knock. Settling into side-by-side chairs, we’d spend an hour or two engaged in the work of creating a phonetic dictionary of two hundred classical Arabic words and analyzing that index to unlock the patterns and behaviors of the language’s sounds. I’d give him a word in English; he’d tell me the Arabic translation; using the IPA, I’d transcribe what I heard.

Whereas Professor Adams limited his enunciations to three repetitions, Haddou was endlessly patient, happy to have me sit near his knee and stare at his lips as they rolled out difficult words — again and then again. Sometimes he’d smoke. Often, we’d chat about our lives.

One night, with a combination of humor and distress, he recounted an interaction from his day:

In the office, the lady asked me to check a box that would indicate my race. I checked “White.”

She looked at me and said, “You’re not white.”

“I’m not?” I asked her.

“No,” she told me. “Choose another race. One with brown skin.”

All my life, I think I am white, but when I come to America, I discover I am brown.

Through such exchanges, we relaxed.



I started to look forward to our nightly sessions. In working with a real person to study a real language, I was harnessing abstract ideas from the classroom and seeing them realized. Certainly, linguistics did not come naturally to me, but, with this project, some dormant part of my brain was awakening.

Not only was I learning some Arabic, I was learning the conventions of phonology. With practice and control of the IPA, I could capture any language — all language! For a person who had spent much of her undergraduate career skipping classes and sleeping late, it was unusual to have focus and determination about academics. Definitely, anchoring concepts to a live subject — coupling his daily downloaded anecdotes with objective book learning — was unlocking an interest inside of me. I could get into this stuff. It was lively, luscious, novel.



As Haddou and I gained ease with each other, I became a sounding board for his cross-cultural frustrations. One night, in a heightened state of emotion, he recounted a moment from one of his classes earlier in the day.

The boy across from me, he leans back. And he crosses his ankle over his knee.

How can he do this thing?

I am so insulted I cannot breathe. He is pointing the bottom of his foot directly at me — the lowest part of the body, the most unclean!

I lean over and say to him, “You must put your foot down. It is too rude.”

But this boy, this young boy who thinks he is something, tells me, a man, “I don’t have to do anything. I’m just crossing my legs. It’s a free country.”

I am so angry; I cannot stay near this bad attitude, this rudeness, so I pick up my bag and move to a new chair. How can he point his foot at me like that?

Even hours later, the insolence of an 18-year-old country boy from Idaho incensed Haddou. The scenario had been a scathing slight that scolding couldn’t save.



Despite difficulties in acculturation, Haddou was always kind, attentive, and accepting of me, eager to learn about my parents, my siblings, my friends, my boyfriend several states away. In return, I asked about his family, what his home city was like, what kinds of foods he ate, what he would do with his American graduate degree. We learned tidy pieces of each other, packaging each complicated facet of our lives within the strictures of his ten months of English and my small-but-growing inventory of Arabic.

His mother and sisters would cut off the outsides of the carrots when making couscous, paring down to the tender insides — because including only the choicest bits sent a message of love to the eater.

My parents shared a passion for classical music.

Few things brought him greater joy than fly fishing.

Few things brought me greater joy than a thick book.

If I cared to visit Morocco, I would be welcome with his family for up to three months — sheltered in the compound that was their hub.



At some point, it became apparent our friendship would endure beyond the project. Maybe we could go out to dinner sometime, he suggested. Perhaps I could proofread your papers for you, I countered. Possibly we could see a movie together, he wondered. Maybe a group of us could attend some performances at the jazz festival together, I supplied.

As I considered the months that would unfold after submitting my paper, it was reassuring to have a friend, a person, in this foreign place. Both of us were new to Idaho. Neither of us came in with allies.

Half my heart was in Colorado, where the man I’d been dating lived. Most of Haddou’s heart was in Morocco, where people kept their feet on the floor, and the carrots were always tender. But so long as we’d been fortunate enough to meet on these acres of land boundaried by straight lines drawn southwards from Canada, we would foster this connection. If I got sick and was stuck abed for five days, I knew Haddou would run to the drugstore for me. Similarly, if he found himself flummoxed by paperwork or manners, he had someone to whom he could turn.

We drew comfort from knowing the other was just a floor away, ready to provide company and perspective, to assist with the details of life.



One night, as I opened my notebook — hmmm, maybe twenty more words to record before we were done with the data gathering — and asked about his day, I could see he was nervous. Uh-oh. Now what had that callow boy with the waving foot done in class? Was I going to need to go knock a cowboy-hatted skull?

Clearing his throat, his eyes dilating a bit, Haddou began to speak. “I would like to ask your advice.”

“Sure. Of course. What’s up?”

“I am not sure how to handle a conversation I want to have — because I do not always understand how things are done in this country. I want to do the right thing and not make a problem.” He flicked his lighter and stared at the dancing flame.

Clicking into Hostess mode, I pressed, “So what do you need to say, and what is worrying you?”

He set down his lighter before answering. “There is someone, and I have something important to say to this person. There is someone I have been getting close to, and I think my feelings are becoming serious. I would like to tell her I am falling in love with her, but I’m not certain that is the right thing to do in this country. Should I tell her I love her, or should I wait until I am certain she feels the same way, too?”



The air in the room thickened; dust motes hung in front of my eyes as though suspended in aspic. I could hear my pleura inflating. The room was too quiet, the lights too bright. Why was it so hot?

Quicker than an unrounded vowel before a nasal stop, my brain tizzied from pert to flustered.

It took me one flushed second to parse this new data, to slide from “Oh, he likes someone! Isn’t that sweet?!” to “Who does he think he loves?” to…









Then: an extended aspiration. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. 

It appeared, while I’d been using my alveolar ridge to become softer than salad, Haddou’s dipthong had been rising.



He wanted to know if he should tell me he was falling in love with me. In my lifetime, there had been no precedent for this problem.

The voice in my head rhotacized “Arrrrrrrrrrgh” as I scrambled to compose a response.

  1. A very nice man to whom I’d become close was interested in changing the tenor of our relationship
  2. I had a boyfriend to whom I’d recently declared my love
  3. My boyfriend’s response to my declaration had been — would, for five more years, always be — “I don’t think I love you”
  4. I had learned early on that there was value in cleaving to a nonreciprocal commitment of the heart

Clearly, I would need to save Haddou from #4 while chasing it myself, chasing it hard, for years to come. It was all I knew how to do.

Gathering myself, I inhaled slowly, pulling motes into pleura, and looked him in the eyes. Smiling gently, I suggested, “In the United States, it is best to wait until you are certain the other person feels the same way. It can be embarrassing or difficult if one person proclaims love while the other does not. I think you should not say anything.”



A mixture of regret and understanding flickered on his face. Then, pulling his shoulders back, he ruefully acknowledged, “That is good for me to know. Thank you for your help. I would not want to create a situation of embarrassment.”

With that, we drew closer, shoulder to shoulder, and stared at a blank page in my notebook.

“We should begin,” he said, softly, softer than salad.

“Yes, we should,” I agreed. “Only twenty more words, and then we can be done. After that, I will leave you alone and start writing my paper.”

Cheek. Earth. Freedom. Hands. Hope. Husband. In-law. Moon. Mother. Shower. Strength. Wedding. Wife. Dance. Laugh. Learn. Smell. Touch. Sad.



We remained friends. Even the following year, when he lived in an apartment, and I lived in a remodeled hotel, we continued to see each other. He took me out to dinner, asked about my boyfriend, laughed at my apologies for Americans’ rudeness. I took him to see A River Runs Through It, felt my heart fill when he, like a little boy, clapped his hands with joy in the movie theater at the sight of a beautiful trout emerging from a sparkling river. When I asked his help in carrying a donated exercise bicycle to my room, he cautioned me, “Do not use this too much. You are already perfect and should not change.”

When Thanksgiving time rolled around, I invited Haddou and another friend to share the meal with me and my parents, who were driving the ten hours to Moscow. Since my former hotel room only had a couple of stove top burners, we asked Haddou if we could cook the turkey in his apartment’s oven.

But of course.

Every few hours, my mom and I would pop over to check on the bird. Every few hours, my mom would ask the nice Moroccan man a few questions about himself. As I basted the turkey, I heard her query: “And what about family? Do you have a wife and children?”

She heard his answer, but she didn’t feel the weight of the pause that filled the room before he spoke.

“Yes, Madam. Yes. I have a wife back home.” Torn, he tipped.



After that year, Haddou returned home to Morocco, to his wife, to continue his career, to have children.

I moved to Colorado, to be nearer to the boyfriend who didn’t love me, and began teaching composition at the university.

After graduate school, I never again used the IPA, never applied phonology to any practical purpose, never transcribed difficult words with a shaking hand.


The lessons endured.








3 responses to “Phonology and Flirtation”

  1. jenny_o Avatar

    Oh, Jocelyn … one of your best, in my opinion.

  2. Green Girl in Wisconsin Avatar
    Green Girl in Wisconsin

    As always, you leave me breathless when you capture the awkward and the wonderful balanced just so.

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