What does ya'ni mean? Arabic's most versatile word

In this week’s Saeed’s Guide, we look at a term that has truly transcended its original meaning

This week, our resident cultural expert Saeed Saeed explores the ubiquitous term ya’ni.
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It is one of the most malleable words in the Arabic language.

From the streets to the boardroom, used in jest and in the middle of anguished exchanges, ya’ni is fit for all occasions.

But what does it actually mean?

Well, the answer is right in front of you: it literally translates to “mean”.

Ya’ni, do you know what I mean?

Bear with me.

Somehow, over the years, ya’ni transcended its function to become a chameleon. Not only is it now a word with a multitude of meanings, but it has become its very own adjective to describe an emotional state.

So, let’s break it down: here are four ways ya’ni can be used in conversation.

1. As the Arabic version of ‘um’

This is the main reason it peppers so many Arabic conversations. Ya’ni is a crutch used to buy you a few seconds to consider, ya’ni, what you are really trying to say. For many people, particularly fast talkers like me, ya’ni is a subconscious part of our speech.

Like the verbal equivalent of the colour beige, it’s everywhere, but we don’t notice it.

2. As an elaborator

This is when the word enters the boardroom.

When used as an elaborator, ya'ni is the Arabic equivalent of "for example" (or meaning). Chief executives appreciate this use of ya'ni because it helps them cut to the chase and get to the heart of the matter.

If someone is being long-winded, a pointed ya’ni at them will remind them to get to the point.

3. With other Arabic words

Ya’ni can also get you teary eyed with the help of a few more Arabic letters.

Because it translates to "mean", the word can be spun off to be used in passionate exchanges.

For example: ya’neely stands for “means to me”, while ya’neek means “interest you”, as in “how does this interest you?”

Spoken with venom, the latter can also be a cutting remark.

4. As its own mood

Yanni perfroming at du Forum, Abu Dhabi on February 14, 2019. Courtesy Flash Entertainment
Yanni is not to be confused with ya’ni. Flash Entertainment

On an emotional scale of one (you hate your life) to 10 (OMG, this is awesome!) are you a solid five? Then congratulations, your mood is ya’ni.

Not only that, ya’ni can be handy in surmising many unfulfilling states of mind, feelings or reactions. When your partner asks how your day was? Instead of saying “meh, it’s hump day”, just say ya’ni.

If a movie is only half decent, it is ya’ni. If a pizza is average, it is ya’ni.

A bland piano composition by Yanni is definitely ya’ni.

Put this all together, and you can see that ya’ni can be used as the Arabic version of “meh”.

Why Ya’ni is your friend

And there you have it: from helping you to get your point across or be in touch with your feelings to offering a way to express a deep pit of ambivalence, ya’ni is at your service and will never let you down.