Linguistic Relativity: The Arabic take on the controversial issue? Part II

Here is part two as promised- In the last post we discussed the author’s ideas on the relationship between language and thought, and we also discussed what linguists think about this issue (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). In this second and final post in reference to Badr’s excerpt, I take a close look at how he views the relationship between Arabic language and the Qur’an; and how he sees that relating to a speaker’s thoughts. Below is an excerpt (in bold)

Let us take a closer look at this idea of the importance of language. If it were wholly or even partly true, it would be most appropriate for us to consider the characteristics of the Arabic language, its impact on the Arabs and the reasons for the divine choice of this language as the means to reveal the Qur’an and convey the message of Islam to the whole of humanity. God says in the Qur’an: “We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and we will assuredly guard it” (15:9). This means that He guards Revelation and, consequently, also the Arabic language.

After the author maintains that language is connected to thought, he then applies that theory to the Qur’an and Arabic language (the language of the Qur’an). He believes that the choice of Arabic as a liturgical language is divine and has qualities that are unique only to it, therefore making it the most suitable language in which God chose to send His message to human beings.  Badr here quotes Chapter (Surah) 15 verse (ayah) 9, in which God (Allah) promises to “guard” the Qur’an and therefore its language- Arabic. I discussed this briefly (in the post Preservation of Arabic revisited- part 2 will be up soon- in that post I discuss the role of the hadith tradition and Qur’anic sciences in the preservation of Arabic) as one of the reasons/ motivations for the perfect preservation of Arabic. I said that maybe this verse made the scholars of Islam and the Arabic language more mindful in how they planned the future generations to understand the revelation of Allah and its language.

In this connection, the Egyptian scholar, `Abbas Mahmud al-`Aqqad, discusses some aspects of the Arabic language: its vocabulary, phonetic and phonemic aspects: “ The human speech system is a superb musical instrument which no ancient or modern nation has used as perfectly as the Arab nation, as they have used the entire phonetic range in the distribution of its alphabet. Therefore, it is these qualities of the Arabic language that made Arabic poetry a perfect art, independent of other arts” [`Abbas Muhammad al-`Aqqad, al-Lughah Al-Sha`irah (Cairo: Maktabat Gharib, n.d.)] According to al-`Aqqad, these qualities are not found in any other language, for “Arabic eloquence has taken the human speech organs to the highest point ever reached by man in expressing himself by letters and words.” [Ibid, p. 70.]

A high praise indeed for Arabic language, and phonetically he might be right. The Arabic language has many of the sounds that the human speech apparatus can produce. The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is a table which captures all the possible sounds made in human speech/language. We use it to transcribe (write down) speech and we can also show tone, pitch and intensity used whilst producing the sounds. Most linguistics students learn this skill and it is especially handy when it comes to research projects or documentation of languages and grammars.  If you look closely at the table, you can see that all the sections across are the places of emanation (what we call in Arabic/ Qur’anic sciences ‘Makahrij al Huroof’ – the points where letters emanate) like bilabial [both lips meeting to pronounce a letter] where p and b are made (say p – try it!). And the sections going down are the ways in which the sounds are produced (what we call in Arabic or Qur’anic Sciences ‘Sifaat al Huroof’- the characteristics of letters). Taking the same place of emanation as above, bilabial, we can see that the sound can have a nasal characteristic which is manifested in the letter m, or it can be fricative; which is not in English but some languages put so much air in the b sound that the lips do not completely seal and there is small vibration. The IPA   also captures clicks, rolls, taps and other strange phenomena of the human speech apparatus! Anyway I am sure you can read better and clearer notes than the ones I am putting up here (see sources). Here is the top part of the IPA the rest of it is quite complex as it deals with vowels and tones:

 Phonetically Arabic is the only language in the world that contains the sound of the letter ض /dhaad/ is according to the IPA:  [dˁ] emphatic voiced alveolar plosive, and is often referred to as Lughat ad-dhaad, the language of Daad.  So we see why the quoted author says that the Arabic language has used the “the entire phonetic range in the distribution of its alphabet”, meaning it has covered all the major areas of pronunciation.

It is most astonishing to see this robust language (Arabic) growing and reaching a stage of perfection in the midst of the desert, and in a nation of nomads. The language has superseded other languages by its wealth of vocabulary, precise meanings and perfect structure. This language was unknown to other nations. But when it came to be known, it appeared to us in such perfection that it hardly underwent any change ever since. Of the stages of life, that language had neither childhood nor old age. We hardly know anything about that language beyond its unmatched conquests and victories. We cannot find any similar language that appeared to scholars so complete, and without gradation, keeping a structure so pure and flawless. The spread of the Arabic language covered the largest areas and remotest countries. [Anwar al Jundi, Al-Fusha:Lughat a/-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar Al-Kitab Al-Lubnani, 1982), p.27]

Badr here sees Arabic as the most perfect of all languages, having a vocabulary and eloquence that is unmatched by any other language. He once again mentions the idea that Arabic language has not undergone any changes for over fourteen hundred years. He continues further to say that because of this the language maintains and retains the same values and views from its inception until today. In the same way that the Qur’an has retained its form, content and message; the Arabic language has maintained its structure, words and world view!  Powerful statements to make and I think it is high time that such statements were taken seriously and objective research was conducted. Does the mind of a Qur’an reader view the world differently from the mind of an avid Agatha Christie reader?  If the Qur’an contains a certain view of good and evil does that shape the mind of the Arabic reader/speaker to see good and evil in that way and only in that way? Or can they view good and evil in different ways based on the language the concept is represented in?  Badr supports the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the sense that a language shapes the thought of its speaker, and Arabic is a “vehicle of contemplation”; because Qura’nic Arabic speakers think in the Qur’anic world view. This sets three challenges: for someone to read the Qur’an over and to pull out all the possible world views and to then study all the linguistic aspects of Arabic and finally to show how the two non- arbitrarily relate to one another.  Overall I think that Badr has raised many important points and the onus is now with Arab linguists to substantiate or dispute the statements presented here. Cognitive linguistics is a fast moving field with ever-improving research methods and I am sure sooner rather than later this issue will have to be addressed- objectively and scientifically.



 IPA in general: