Is Arabic more than just a language?

by Hervé Pugi.

Five times a day, the Adhan resounds in the entire Muslim world. Across the globe, it is in Arabic that the muezzin announces the immutable call to prayer. For the worshippers, Arabic is a sacred language but between the words of the Koran pronounced in the mosques and the language in the streets of the Middle East and North Africa, there is a large linguistic gap between dialect and classical Arabic. Pierre Larcher, Arabic linguistics professor at the University of Aix-Marseille and professor-researcher at the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World (IREMAM), provides us with an update on this topic.

Scribouille: Arabic, in its literal form, is, according to its most fervent defenders, a supposedly “pure” language. However, doesn’t an original purity rule out the expression of modernity?

Pierre Larcher (P. L.): The Arabic, which we call “literal”, “literary” or “classical” is called al-lugha al-Fusha in Arabic, meaning roughly “the most punished manner of speaking”. Originally, the term Fasih, of which Fusha is the feminine elative (i.e. the equivalent of our comparative/superlative), does not qualify the language as “pure”, but the speaker as “eloquent”. Over time, the Fasaha (the quality of Fasih) has come to designate grammatical correctness. This is a reminder that initially, there is never a pure language but a more or less extensive collection of data, which itself is more or less heterogeneous, and from which grammarians extract, or better, abstract, grammar. What we call “classical” language is the result of this construction. It is also true that where Arabic is concerned, the classical form is taken for the “original” form to be preserved whereas dialects are seen as « corruptions ». This conservative attitude has never prevented Arabic, as it is actually written, from breaking away from the literary norm, or from evolving…

Scribouille: The emergence of written Arabic, in its codified form, appears closely linked to two phenomena: the emergence (and expansion) of Islam and the preponderance of the Koran in Muslim society. In fact, could one say that by virtue of its purpose to convey the divine message, Arabic is much more than a language; it’s an identity in its own right?

P.L.: No one can deny that the Koran is and remains the text of reference. But, we must keep several things in mind. First of all, Arabic existed before the Koran, both as a language (several centuries before Islam) and a script (at least a century before Islam). Next, the Koran existed before grammar. It is documented either in the form of epigraphs (inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem) or on fragments of papyrus from the second half of the seventh century but, it was not until the end of the eighth century, with Sibawayh’s Kitab, that the very first, complete book on Arabic grammar was written. The codification of the language is only half connected to the establishment of the Koranic corpus. The other half is connected to the decision of the Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Malik, to make it the language of the Imperial Chancellery. It is this codification that makes it a language of reference, both religious and political and thus, a vehicle of highbrow culture. From the moment it is codified, it is no longer, if indeed it ever was, the language of anyone! This means that one can only speak about Arabic as an identity, either national (Arabic, the language of the “Arab nation”), or religious (Arabic, the language of the Koran and Islam) in relation to an identity that is more unreal than real, a product of ideology or theology… Again, in reality, classical Arabic is the mother tongue of no one and the majority of Muslims around the world, not being Arabic speakers, are only familiar with the Arabic words that have become part of their languages for religious reasons.

Scribouille: If we accept the sacredness of Arabic, the question is: can we reform the language of the Koran? Which leads to a second question: is not clinging to the original language a form of fundamentalism among many others?

P.L.: For a linguist, there is no sacred language, only texts that a certain fraction of humanity consider as such. But a linguist willingly concedes that if a language becomes the vehicle of such a text, it will undergo a sanctification process. Arabic is not a unique case. This happened with Hebrew or Sanskrit. It is not I who will deny the existence of a linguistic fundamentalism: any reform proposal immediately meets with protest. But, it is important to see that it feeds on myths, not realities. Thus, the language of the Koran is identified, peremptorily, with al-lugha al-Fusha. However, medieval philologists recognized that the Koranic ductus (rasm) without diacritics or vowels, which is the actual text of the Koran, did possess characteristics, some of which a linguist today would call pre-classical and others, positively unconventional. It is not the language of the Koran that needs to be reformed but rather our theological-ideological-mythological perceptions of it…

Scribouille: In fact, there is a dichotomy between so-called « classical » Arabic and what is known as « dialectal » Arabic. Do you think it’s right to link literal practise to political powers and the religion of the doctors of law when local dialect plays a role in everyone’s lives and a more popular Islam?

P.L.: The linguistic duality you are talking about can be summarized in a technical term, taken by Arabic linguistics from modern Greek, which is that of diglossia. The association of these two forms is particularly prevalent in the Maghreb, where there is a protest movement in favour of Darija (« everyday » language), which is called Ammiyya (« vulgar » language) in the Mashreq. Nowhere has this claim been brought into practise. That does not prevent, on the one hand, the expansion of written dialect and on the other hand, the emergence of an infinitely variable and heterogeneous Arabic, as a result of the increase in mass education, meaning that a greater number than ever of Arabic speakers has access to standard Arabic. For me, it is this Arabic, more than diglossia, which is the linguistic reality of today. This Arabic, I grant you, is not easy to describe, let alone teach.

Scribouille: In line with the previous question, could reforming Arabic – by switching from centrality and eloquence to useful and innovative speech – lead to the elimination of other safeguards, other than that of linguistic practise?

P.L.: If Arab states take the decision to promote the vernacular (i.e. the « dialects ») to the rank of lingua franca, by making it the language of schools, authority and its administration, media, literature (all the fields in which dialects are already present, in varying proportions, but informally, unofficially), it would be an unprecedented revolution! It would put an end to what is known as Arabic schizoglossia (linguistic schizophrenia); it would also put an end to the myth of Arabic as the “language of the Arab nation”: the relationship between dialects, which would become national languages, would be the same as that between Romance, Slavic or Scandinavian languages. And, last but not least, it would minimize the influence of clerics. I would add two things. If such a revolution were to occur, it would start at the bottom, with public pressure overcoming the resistance of the political powers and the guards of the Temple. At the same time, we should ask ourselves why the revolution has not occurred. In my opinion and as suggested, this is due to the fact that Arabic speakers have already responded in their own way, by establishing a kind of continuum between the two poles of diglossia.

Scribouille: In conclusion, doesn’t the debate about the classicism or modernism of a language come down to questioning whether it is correctly understood ?

P.L.: There is the language and there is the text. Koranic Arabic is one thing, classical Arabic another and thirdly, there is modern Arabic. ‘’Rehistoricizing’’ Arabic would obviously be a decisive breakthrough, rather than making it a kind of eternal essence, in the manner of Arab constitutions which, without qualifying it otherwise, declare it the « official language ». One would teach an Arabic language that is more in line with reality, that is to say, taking a larger part in evolution and variation. ‘’Rehistoricizing’’ the language would certainly help historicize the reading of the text. That said, the representations we have of language, if they count, are not really the cause; they are as much the effect. They merely suggest that this world is waiting for the emergence of truly critical thinking, which is the prelude to a de-dogmatization process. But on that, a linguist has nothing to say…


Translation from French : Susan Allen Maurin

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