What a title?! I am sure it is making some people upset and others, skeptical and still others inquisitive. I promised at the end of Noura Al Noman’s interview in the last post that I would post a translation of an article I read last month, and so here it is. The translation is based on an article which appeared in the Sunday section of the online newspaper Emaratalyoum. I felt that many of the points raised were important in understanding or at least identifying some possible reasons why the Arabic language is somewhat stagnated amongst its native speakers. Another reason I wanted to translate the article is because of its authenticity in the sense that it is written by a native speaker living in a country where Arabic is the language of everyday use…it gives a different dimension to something written by someone a thousand miles away.
The quirky, witty, ironic, provocative, bold, often-smirky, well-written and self-assured style of the Arabic was so attractive I felt compelled to translate it into English and share it with readers on this site. I must thank in advance the original author Mohammed Al Mazrouqi for giving me permission to translate it into English, I also found out that he is writing a book on the situation of the Arabic language which is very exciting for any sociolinguist. The translation is broad as opposed to narrow and the title I use above is not the original, rather it is a statement taken from the second part of the article. Below I translate part 2 but summarize part 1,
In summary of part 1: Al Mazrouqi addresses the aspect of Arabization and the Arabic academies or rather the failure of such bodies in being coherent in their efforts to bring Arabic vocabulary “up-to-date”. He takes us through what has now become a joke among Arabic speakers, the story of how the academy worked so hard to arabize the English word “sandwich” into Arabic. Their substitute was comical, but to make matters worse it became known that they did not in fact invent the word (or concept) it had already been introduced by a poet earlier on! So what were they doing one wonders? Such jokes and ridicule render these academies useless and non-functioning, I personally think that a body like this needs to be descriptive rather than prescriptive because language is a natural occurrence not dictated. The writer makes an interesting often-ignored point, that in fact the Quran contains many foreign words (non-Arabic from Hebrew, Hindi, Persian), mainly nouns, which were not arabized in order to qualify being a part of this sacred text, but rather used as part of the text until this day (his choice of the Quran is understandable since it is considered a representation of the (most) perfect form of Arabic, the logic is therefore simple, if the most revered Arabic text did not arabize, why do less important texts need to?). These words subsequently became Arabic words, something many Arabs are unaware of, it is only when studying Arabic grammar (or Lisan al Arab) or Tajweed (sciences of reciting the Quran, the student is required to know all non-Arabic words in the Quran before an exam…seriously) that one becomes aware of this fact. The point? The point (as far as I understood it) is that if the word is widespread it can be used (simply by taking the English/any other language’s word and using Arabic letters to transliterate it) without causing confusion, so why Arabize it when the original (in its non-Arabic form) can superbly describe/account for the intended meaning? His point makes me think that the whole “sandwich” escapade was a waste of time, and most of us use “san-da-wich” to mean “sandwich” anyway…wasted time on an unimportant aspect of reviving Arabic? Perhaps or maybe not who knows? But one thing is definite these academies are not making much of an impact on the way the Arabic language is evolving today right now in the age of computers, social networking and the domination of the English language the world over. There has to be some type of reconciliation between the “desired language” and the “real (used) language”, the work they are doing is commendable but it needs to be effective. See here from Mourad Diouri’s site a list of Arabic academies.
Translation: Part 2 (Arabiologia)–
Despite the fact that [usually] I am not someone who likes to unburden people of their sorrows and sadness, this time however I will be that person [and make someone happy] in order to annoy the pessimists [because] each time a discussion about the predicament the Arabic language faces is brought up, I find myself compelled to say that [and that is how I begin this article], “be reassured masters of our language, the beautiful Arabic language is not in danger!”
A language scholar may stand up and point his stick or finger at me accusing me of being an enemy of the Arabic language, I would [simply] smile and reiterate to him that, “I do not think that the Arabic language is in danger or under threat of becoming extinct because there are so many channels through which it is maintained, suffice to say it is the official [standard] language of the fastest growing religion in the world (i.e. Islam).
All that it boils down to is the fact that in its native countries it [Arabic] faces ferocious competition from the much simpler English language; and this issue is not exclusive to Arabic alone. For example, French is facing similar challenges, not only on a global level [i.e. in French speaking countries around the world] but locally within France itself.
We can go on endlessly criticising the English language and praising our own, but that will not change in the slightest, the fact that – Arabic is regressing before the English language! Unlike the English language, Arabic has not undergone at least since the fall of the Ottoman empire any serious scientific (systematic) or academic attempts at rejuvenating or developing it so that it is equipped to deal with modern developments.
The [somewhat] backwardness of the Arabic language books used in schools are a testament to this. I would not be exaggerating if I said that the second worst and most complicated subject for students in school is Arabic language class (with the assumption that there will always be another subject to take first place).
It is true that a share of the blame for the students’ weakness in Arabic [language proficiency] lies on the current environment and on the students themselves, but a larger portion of the blame lies on these education curricula that wish [as if] to mummify [force down] the Arabic language onto iron templates [students] similar to [the process] used to bind the feet of small girls (in China) so as to stop their feet from growing larger in size. In the same way that a Chinese woman came to lose her balance as she grew up [her body grew in height and weight], whilst her feet remained the same small size that they were when they were forced into the template [iron shoes]. This too is exactly what happens with regards to the Arabic language and its grammar [a creative comparison by the author to equate the inappropriateness of forcing too many complex and often useless rules on young children which later become useless and ill-fitting when it comes to using language effectively].
Arabic syntax presents something of a challenge due to its complex and difficult rules, and is something that cannot be fathomed except by those specialised in it. For instance, the Iraqi writer, Khalid Al Qashteeni, who spent most of his 70 years striving to perfect the Arabic language says that despite all of that he can still never complete an essay without making a mistake somewhere.
For that reason we cannot rely [completely] on school curricula, if we believe that they were designed with the purpose of ensuring that students become [highly] competent in writing and speaking Arabic [this is because] in truth they have failed miserably due to their incongruent artificial over-complicating of the [simple] essence and nature of the Arabic language.
What we are calling for is, [first] the simplification of the Arabic language in the school curricula by taking out many of the difficult syntactic and grammatical rules; and its subject [components] that have become purely academic. Second, to ignore those who lament over the Arabic language at every opportunity afforded to them [in his original expression he likens their lamenting to a tent pitched for giving condolences where mourners gather to share their grief over the dead!]. Finally, and for the third time “the Arabic language is NOT in danger!”.
The passion with which the argument and point of view is presented with can be seen through this highly exciting and somewhat sophisticated style the author employs in his writing and order of paragraphs. The use of metaphors, wild comparisons (that often offends certain people) and open criticism of the things he sees as obstacles to the Arabic language’s further development, are stated with a candid and confident style…you see why I had to translate it (if you can read the Arabic you’ll see what I mean)?
The issues he raises here (based on his opinions and experience) are ones we have discussed here on Arabizi in the past the academies, the education curriculum, and the current environment of the dominance of English language.
I feel like his focus on the curriculum is right, it is not the English language, the internet, or some outside conspiracy that is the reason behind the regression of Arabic and the over-taking of English language- it is the Arabic language education policies. It the often archaic, non-practical way the children are taught, his depiction is almost painful, illegal, useless like the squeezing of Chinese girls’ feet into iron shoes! This I know will offend many language teachers because they work so hard to teach young children the ‘correct Arabic language’ in the face of better English language teaching and resources. So they too find it so tough, and I think there needs to be some revision in how they teach, and like Al Mazrouqi suggests above, what they teach the unnecessary content needs to be taken out and the more practical and pragmatic aspects need to be taught well. I would say too that the language planners need to look closely at the literature on language teaching and acquisition and the research on effective second language teaching, to improve their teaching.
The claim that the Arabic language has not been modernised since at least the fall of the Ottoman empire is a huge one, and one that would make many upset. But perhaps it’s true, and the reason the Arabic language is in its current state? I highlighted it, and used it in my title because for me that was a learning, something I have never really considered before. However outrageous it may be, however unfounded we may feel it is, it calls for serious investigation into the matter, and perhaps within that finding, may lie the answer of how to get out of the current mess? Who knows?
Al Mazrouqi maintains that the Arabic language is not in danger because it is the official language of Islam and there are many millions of Muslims who would claim it because of its religious connection to the Quran. When I first read this I was not convinced and disagreed that such a claim can be used to argue the non-demise of the Arabic language, given the current situation. And his reasoning would have been one that language preservation experts would have challenged and perhaps ridiculed. However, after having read it a few times now I think I agree with it in a different way, and I have arrived at a certain conclusion. If we agree that, the Arabic language may not be in decline the only other logical conclusion is that- the Arabs are sure on their way to losing Arabic as a language of everyday use. With that they will lose the essence and original meaning of important words and significant linguistic themes specific to Arabic language. The Arabs are the key to understanding texts, old poems, stories and historical documents, if they lose their ability to competently speak Arabic and understand it, then Arabic will be to its speakers what Latin is to English speakers! Language thrives and remains ‘in use’ for its speakers when it is spoken well and used in all arenas of life, in addition to being developed and used with confidence by its speakers.
Comments, suggestions and additions are welcome as always….wishing you all a productive week, London this week will be immersed in books and reading as I am sure many of us book lovers will be at the book fair over the next three days. I am working on the interview with the second author just in case you think I forgot, and as soon as that is ready I will put it up- thanks for reading. Just to point out, the picture above is of the Arabic academy in Old Damascus….I thought it was suitable.