I have finally found some time to write-up this post that I have been thinking about for a while now since being shown a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium discussing something I had never given much thought to. Something that he calls “naming rights” the idea of who has the right to name something, in their language and more importantly to name it first? Why do they have that right? And how does language fit into all of that? It is a loaded idea both politically and linguistically but it is something that illustrates the ubiquitous and ever-important nature that language carries more than just simple communicative messages (like the ball is green for example). By simply naming something in one language and not in another and by virtue of people using that same name to refer to it regardless of their language is an indicator of how human civilisation works and is built and again more importantly how language is an indicator of the power of knowledge and discovery. As DeGrasse says, “if you get there first you get to name it first” and others have to accommodate themselves, he gives two simple examples: first, the internet and that it was the Americans who exploited its use first and so they get to have the default web address of .com but all other countries are forced to use other endings such as, .co.uk/ .ae/ .fr/ .au/ and so on. Secondly, he says that because the British were the first to make the postage stamp we until today are the only country who do not have to say where the stamp originates from, whereas all others must indicate country of origin. That’s naming rights, it’s about getting there first and doing it well so that it stands the test of time, and no one can take that away from its original creators.
DeGrasse mentions in the clip that almost 2/3 of all star names are in fact in Arabic! The numbers we use today (in English and most languages) are referred to as “Arabic numerals” and there is whole host of English words that originated from Arabicto not only English but many other world languages! How? and Why? That is the question. DeGrasse points out important reasons of why not only Arab scholars but more importantly why Arabic language was once a language of inquiry, reasoning, genius and innovation and also offers his explanation of why it no longer is.
At the beginning of the video he correctly reminds the audience that there are many cultures in the world that excelled and superseded other nations in one subject or another, but that there comes a time when they reach a peak and then sometimes it drops off and other times they manage to hang on. But what he is interested in is what allows for that to take place? Of course I will not transcribe the whole video but I think the reasons are important to dwell over. He points out that between 800AD and 1100 AD Baghdad was the centre of knowledge and learning because it opened its doors up to all people, Christians, Jews, doubters (atheists/agnostics) and everybody was allowed to excel regardless of their background and this according to him is what made that time so unique, fertile and we still feel the effects of that success today. For example the discovery of the zero, algebra, algorithm, establishment of advanced hospitals (where some were diseases specific something unprecedented at the time) and many other contributions (see http://www.1001inventions.com/ or videos on that here).
Why am I talking about this on Arabizi? Simple really because many Arab scholars of today are not sure how to get Arabic language to be one of advancement, education, knowledge or simply to be one of practical use by its speakers. Which is something I discuss a lot here on Arabizi, is it diglossia, it is the English language, is it the dialects, or is it poor education that has put the Arabic language in this situation? In that 300 year period in Baghdad they questioned everything with a curious mind and welcomed everyone –perhaps that is the solution? Use both English and Arabic in education (which some Gulf universities are implementing right now which is exciting) that way Arabic can be used academically and use English because it is undoubtedly the language of knowledge today, allow people regardless of their background to have access to all the appropriate facilities and maybe, just maybe we might see something changing in the current path that the Arabic language is taking. It will never be like Baghdad because we live in different times and different political and social environments but Arabic still has the ability to be a language of real inquiry and research in its own right. Naming rights are only for those languages whose speakers have excelled and benefitted humans in knowledge that’s it…you offer something your language is not only used but preserved…… what do you think? I will not spoil it by telling you what caused this so-called “golden-age” to end you’ll have to watch the video for that I’m afraid…but it was disastrous, completely uncalled for and detrimental to the Arabic and Islamic societies the world over and I dare say it has impeded and disabled these societies from looking at the pursuit of knowledge (for the benefit of human beings and even religious knowledge [which has its own crazy issues]) the way they once did in great Baghdad…….enjoy
If you have any comments to add please do so, it is controversial and some people may not like what he is saying but being open- minded is the first step to solving so-called problems right? I’ll be posting next in September (guest post on humour and Arabic I have a treat in store for you)….Ramadhan (month of fasting) is round the corner please feel free to read my Ramadhan and Arabizi post here in the archives since its relevant right now…..thanks for reading.