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When the sociolinguistic bumps into the political

Oct 25,2018 - Last updated at Oct 25,2018

Western understanding of Arabic has, in part, suffered from the same stereotyping as its speakers have, and some Western Arabists look at it merely as a strange and unusual language emblematic of the Arab mentality, psychology, society, history, religion and ethos. Extended, hardline contact with the Arabs during the Middle Ages unavoidably forced such unfavourable representations of the language and the people who speak it.

Marked by deleteriousness, such attitudes towards Arabic have borne the full burden of the orientalist tradition that dates back to Ramon Lull (1235-1315?), the founder of a school that advocated learning Arabic as the best means for possible conversation with the “enemy”, and he trusted that a chair for Arabic should be created at the leading European Universities of his day. Earlier, in 1141, Peter the Venerable, had already determined to translate the Koran to know what it offers.

In "Parataxis in Arabic: Modification as a Model for Persuasion", Barbara Johnstone, for example, examines the linguistic strategies the Arab uses for persuasion that are constrained by "psychological and historical factors", in her view, claiming: "Arabic persuasive discourse is rhetorically effective through paratactic repetition, and almost entirely paratactic." Evaluated against English, Arabic is thus presented as having "very little of the subordination which is so highly valued in English persuasive writing", ignoring a most basic rule of thumb: that languages are arbitrary, and Arabic is no exception to this rule.

Even if characterised by paratactic juxtaposition to ensure persuasion, is there not an obvious repetitive set of items in cases like the following in English:  "To say this is to say so and so," and "while he says this he also says so and so?"  Languages are arbitrary, and they function on this basis.

In "The Influence of the Arabic Language on the Psychology of the Arabs”, E.  Shouby, on the other hand, suggests that Arabic is characterised by "General Vagueness of Thought", "Overemphasis on Linguistic Signs", and it "overemphasises the significance of words as such, paying less regard to their meaning than is usually the case in Western literatures and languages".

Shouby’s argument provokes interest and opens new vistas for research into the influence that Arabic exerts upon the psychology of the Arabs. A thorough examination of his essay shows his polemical, impassioned purpose in proving that Arabic is "ill-suited to the material and concrete aspects of modern life. Not even the greatest scholar could give literary Arabic names to all the contraptions and devices found in a modern household, let alone the thousand and one things that are to be seen in the office, in the factory, under the hood of a car, in the laboratory, or in any other creation of modern civilisations”.

Shouby's argument lamentably shows no notion of how any language functions, for languages (English included) borrow from each other, and that borrowing or coining new words is commonly a legitimate, common practice.

As a final word, such views are, in a way, intellectually discreditable and lacking, simply because they turn Arabic into a "myth", more or less, created by a historically controversial orientalist tradition!

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