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The International Writers Magazine:Language Barriers

Marwan Asmar

Compared with English, Arabic is an easy read if it is written well. When you look at English, the perception of the language, written and oral, took centuries of development from archaic structures associated with the old English of Geoffrey Chaucer, passing to Shakespeare and Christopher Marlow to George Elliot, Charles Dickens, Virginia Wolfe as well as many others and not mentioning the new contemporaries.

With Arabic it’s different. Although there may have been stages of development through out the centuries, it seems the clarity of the Arabic language was a one-time affair, represented in the Holy Koran brought down from the skies through Angel Gabriel to Prophet Mohammad in the 7th century and passed on to the Muslim community.

The Koran represented a basis for the Arabic language as it is spoken and written today. Unlike English back in the 7th century Arabic was written in a clear, transparent, effective tone that involved action, and designed from every member of the social community, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, a source of knowledge and speech and continued to be so as it passed down through the centuries.

With English it was different. First if all, the language itself was derivative from other linguistic structures like Germanic, Latin, French, many of which have said this is what made it stronger; Secondly English was helped by the issue of economic development as new inventions, processes and way of doing things required the development of new words, terminologies and syntax which evolved from the 17th century onwards.

Today some have been known to criticize Arabic for failing to be innovative, or developing to meet the needs of modernization and even globalization, with its inability to produce new words and terminologies to pace with the development going on in the region and the world.

However, one of the points that has to be clarified is that as these inventions came from the western countries and as communicated in English, the language proved more flexible in coming up with new words and terms, as opposed to the Arabic language that adopted a reactive approach with linguists from the region acting haphazardly in their word formations rather than following a methodical pattern.

In the process as well, we tend to get used to hearing the words and terminologies in say the English language and when we hear their equivalents in other languages such as Arabic, as there is a sense of word creation even in translations, it becomes odd and foreign simply because our ears have got used to the English pronunciation.
But this is a different view related to globalization, how much are we as Arabs integrated into the international system, how much we take from it, what do we take, what do we buy, our consumer habits and trends and indeed, how much do we produce and contribute to world society.

While this in turn becomes related to our language, its use, how much we mix words, English-Arabic, Arabic-English, the fact of the matter is that the language itself, spoken by about 300 million people in 22 Arab countries and about a billion in Muslim countries who read the Koran in Arabic, says a great deal.

Arabic is a cogent force, its simple, attractive and gets the point across in as a logical manner as possible. It’s easy to read and to understand. It’s structure is less complex as say French and German which are grammatically more demanding than the English language.

However, just like any other language, writing in Arabic has to be learnt, it’s a professional skill; that’s why today there is an endless beating about the bush were getting the idea across is deliberately pumped and inflated and there is much hankering because of political considerations relating to ruler, government, state, security apparatuses and so on.
These considerations are over-riding and smack directly with the professionalism of writing and the way the writing of Arabic should be as passed on and continued through out the holy Koran which is sometimes used as a source of criticism by western writers and pedagogics who claim the Arabic language lacks the basis for producing new words as do the other languages.

But when Arabic is spoken and written as part of the social community there is a sense of modernist continuum as expressed in its words, expressions, figures of speech and syntax found in the structure of the language.
Nowhere is this more emphasized than it is in the Koran. Written in the 7th century, the Koran is timeless in its spiritual message, a modernist document in its approach with words, phrases and expressions that apply as much today as when it was handed down, memorized and collectively written.

Words and expression apply as much then as they apply today. The word "car" for instance is used in one of its Suras (chapters) to signify a caravan route whereas its use today implies a vehicle, and striking the reader as if you are reading a modern document about social relations, economy, authority, and kinship.

The style of language appears to be modernist as well and not with case as it is say with the Bible that is written in old English, not as old as the language used by Chaucer, but is hard to fathom just the same.

That has proved problematic for the Koran. When translated into English translators often use the kind of language that is employed by the Bible, which does not reflect the actual modernist style of the Koran for the lucidness of the holy document becomes lost and replaced by an archaic and medieval structure once found in the language, although English has moved on tremendously.

© Marwan Asmar May 2008>

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