From the primitive sounds and onomatopoeias of our prehistoric ancestors to the profusion of messages conveyed by media channels, online networks and satellite televisions, language has always been, and remains, by far the most important tool of communication.
Language brings people and nations together while channeling thoughts and ideas to fuel progress on all levels. Many theorists have even posited language as the source of human intelligence, suggesting that we do not speak because we are intelligent, but that we became intelligent precisely because of our ability to speak.
Either way, it is clear that languages all over the world are meant to accompany the progress of civilization and intelligent thinking, continuously evolving and changing in order to keep up with the times and remain a driver of progress and a vector of ideas.
Despite that, we still see language authorities spending much time and energy trying to ward off change through fighting influences and “infiltrations,” or what they deem as “contaminations” by other languages.
A pertinent example would be France, which has resorted to many ways to protect the “exception culturelle Française” against the perceived pervasion of English words. This went from forcing advertisers to include the translations of all English words on billboards and creating new French terms aimed at expressing concepts that originated in English, to overtly criticizing French politicians who dared to express themselves in English. Needless to say, these attempts have so far proven to be futile, as any Frenchman would most probably call his BlackBerry a ‘smartphone’ and not an ‘ordiphone’, be a fan of ‘culture mainstream’ and watch ‘live shows’ thanks to his ‘premium’ TV subscription. Although this situation is likely driving the old sages of L’Académie Française crazy, one cannot escape reality.
When it comes to the Arabic language, the issue is much more complex but needs to be addressed if the language is to remain future-proof and help advance Arab civilization and its global role.
Being the language of the holy Koran, one can understand people’s reticence of and even outright opposition to touching the Arabic language. Much more than a language, Arabic has always been one of the most important elements binding the Arab world together in this immense geographic area, stretching from the Gulf to the Maghreb.
Its religious significance has rendered it an inherent part of the Arab identity — perhaps one of the few identity elements on which Arab nations still agree, reinforcing the chauvinistic attitudes aimed at “protecting” it against perceived threats from other languages. Yet, one can also argue that when God chose the Arabic language, he did not choose only Arabs to be Muslims, with hundreds of millions of non-Arabic speaking Muslims around the world. Shouldn’t the language of Islam be as open as Islam itself?
Why are we working so hard to petrify it and close it off to natural change? Why should words like ‘shayyick’ (to check), ‘etdawwash’ (take a shower), ‘gawgil’ (to “Google”) or the familiar ‘rimote’ be so frowned upon by purists and considered a threat to the very core of Arab identity and culture?
Going back to the example of other languages, we cannot but think that if the French or the English had “protected” their languages centuries ago, they would still be speaking Olde English and Vieux François.
As for the Arab world, one wonders about the prudence of erecting such barriers, especially when the ‘Golden Age’ of the Arabs coincided with our highest level of linguistic exchange with neighboring states and empires. Back then, Arabs integrated a myriad of Greek, Latin, Persian and Turkish words such as ‘astrolabe’, ‘burtuqal’, ‘jughrafya’, ‘sirwal’ and ‘baqdounis’, and reciprocally enriched other languages with words that are still used to this day, such as ‘alcohol’, ‘alchemy’, ‘algorithm’ and ‘gazelle’. This never once affected the sanctity of the Koran or the integrity of the Arabic language.
Unfortunately, this tradition of dynamic cross-fertilization and openness is clearly having a hard time nowadays, as seen in the schizophrenic linguistic behavior: on one hand, people regularly make use of foreign words such as ‘computer’, ‘email’, ‘cornflakes’ and ‘zen’ in their everyday life, while on the other, language authorities and institutions are investing tremendous resources and energy to literally create new Arabic words matching these new concepts. It is hard to believe that such efforts will succeed in our region when they are obviously failing in other parts of the world, including in such a linguistically chauvinist country as France. One cannot take the same actions and expect different results.
Missing the point
Instead of focusing on reinventing the wheel by trying to come up with purely Arabic words for innovated concepts and ideas, shouldn’t we instead focus those resources on trying to create new concepts and generate new ideas ourselves? The belief that preventing the use of foreign words constitutes a rampart for the Arab identity is an illusion, and only serves to deflect attention from the real problem, which obviously lies elsewhere.
Arab identity was less endangered by the fact that it did not have a homegrown word to describe ‘penicillin’ than by the fact that it did not invent it in the first place.
Besides the fact that the obstinate desire to reject the influence and assimilation of foreign languages and cultures constitutes the prelude for the establishment of a closed, static and self-centered civilization, such a sectarian attitude can lead to an unhealthy dichotomy between everyday language practices, which are spontaneously open to other influences, and a “theoretical” language that only exists in books and is therefore bound to fall victim to the lack of usage, much like what happened to the Latin language.
The flourishing of a civilization stems from its ability to efficiently and intelligently follow the course of time by continuously and spontaneously enriching itself with new elements while being able, in turn, to shed its light on other nations and societies. This give-and-take scheme also applies to languages, especially Arabic, which fortunately happens to be spoken in a key geopolitical area where numerous economic, social, cultural and political currents converge.
The rising potential and influence of Arab media and communication channels can become key to such a success, as they will help further anchor the Arabic language in this era, and could help slowly revive a modern Golden Age whereby this region would once again become an incubator of knowledge, creativity and ideas that it can communicate to the rest of the world.