Wednesday, November 15, 2006


For your weekly dose of linguisticky reporting, look no further than this article in The Australian. The author, a sociologist by the name of Dr. Abe Ata of the Australian Catholic University, doesn't hold back and delivers his first crippling punch in the title:

A language in need of change
Arabic needs to get with the times

I'm getting the pop-corn, this is gonna be good. If the guy actually whips out conjugation tables, I'm digging out the 1999 slivovica I have stashed somewhere for special occasions.

Arab social scientists say that Arabic is more than a secular tongue; it is the language of Islam as chosen by God to speak to his creation

I, for one, find the concept of "secular language" quite fascinating. I can't wait for the assembled hords of social scientists to analyze Greek, Hebrew or Hindi in the same manner.

It also influences how a person views the world and expresses reality.

So Ibn Khaldun hearts Sapir-Whorf, too. Who would have thunk it?

Fouad Ajami, a US-based Lebanese Muslim academic, says the intellectual output of Arabs for the past 800 years has been "dead stuff written in a dead language".

800? Damn. He could have gone with 200-300 and maybe - just maybe - could have had the teeniest-weeniest fraction of a point. You know, something about diglossia and the use of the actual living language in both literature and education. But eight centuries, that's just cutting in too deep, because...
Pardon me, I must have slipped into debate mode there for a second. How silly of me, to actually attempt a meaningful discussion based on facts with these people.
In any case, it gets better:

"This shallow, pompous, and stilted Arabic language, a language that has become an aim in and of itself (rather than a means of communication), has provided both ablution and excuses for the Arabs, allowing them both to ward off their impotence and run away from it," [Ajami] concludes.

Take it from Ajami, he knows a lot about ablution and excuses, let alone running away from things. And I'm not even going to comment on the "impotence" bit. Nor will I say anything about projection, this is getting too Freudian already.
Instead, let us turn back to the good doctor who has a few more things to say:

Hence, it is argued, that in contrast to English, the Arabic language - its rhythms, its metaphors and its nuances - has become an instrument of entertainment rather than a medium for transmitting thoughts and information.

Well waddyaknow, rhythms. Metaphors, too. And even nuances. Instrument of entertainment rather than a medium for communication.
Seriously, does this guy speak Arabic or even know what a language is?

All the same, Hilali made me realise that language is largely an understanding between members of a community that they share the meanings assigned to certain symbols.

That would be a heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeell NO on both counts since he apparently realized this just now.
And while I am glad that Dr. Ata has broadened his horizons, I cannot help but to think that the same knowledge (and more) could have been gained from a linguistics or semiotics textbook or even a general encyclopaedia of which I'm sure the ACU library has plenty.
So to what use will Dr. Ata put this new-found knowledge? Will he attempt to foster the understanding between the Arab world and the Western world by translating important works of Western thought into Arabic? Or will he go the other way and teach us about Arabic civilization?

It could also be recommended that they command an Arabic adapted to the ways of a new world: more concrete, with fewer flourishes, subtle but not evasive, shaped to a different sensibility.

To recap, يا اخوان العرب : You are to
- make your language more concrete (no more of that numerals valency nonsense),
- remove all flourishes at once (I nominate all those fancy conjuctions like اذ أنّ and the الا clauses),
- you are to make your language more subtle ( ... whatever the frack that means),
- and shape it to a different sensibility (i.e. remove all references to all things non-western.)

In other words, forget Arabic, start speaking English.

And speaking of Fouad Ajami: together with Bernard "The World Will End on Tuesday" Lewis, he is about to receive the National Humanities Medal which "honors individuals and organizations whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities".
Nice to see that some things don't change. Like the fact that no matter how much time passes, Ecclesiastes 9:11 is still a pretty good description of how things work in this world. Its academic and political portion especially.


Anonymous said...

I think Ajami is just trying to expressing his -- subconscious -- discontent with the gap between written and spoken Arabic. It would help greatly if he became aware of this, instead of just mumbling something he clearly doesn't understand himself.

bulbul said...


I'm sure he is expressing something, though I'm not so sure it's his discontent with fusha/MSA. If it is, he is doing a very very poor job of expressing it, but somehow I doubt it. The whole "800 years of dead stuff" would point to a much deeper conflict...

delmo said...

mabrouk, ya bulbul! hope u r still alive, survived d hypertension??? i'm glad u care about MY health so well, i know it's good to have one's blood pressure raised from time to time ;D just don't do this too often, please...

Anonymous said...

Maybe Ajami is expressing his Pakistani-American frustration with Sarabic cultural domination in Islam - TS - why is that such a big deal; just get a new religion. His ancestors were Hindu back in the day anyway.

His rant sounds very nineteenth century.

What langugae isn't used for entertainment. Shakespeare and most rap are basically rhythmic noise anyway. Crippling disability for Englsih, isn;t it?

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