Its Place in the Middle East’s Culture and Politics
by Curtis F. Jones
“Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the Earth.” The Bible, Genesis, 11/9.
“Every vital development in language is a development of feeling, as well.” T.S. Eliot, Philip Massenger (1920).
Nothing is known and little is speculated about the languages used in the Middle East until their speakers started writing them down. The earliest known system is Sumerian pictographs, which have been dated from around 3500 B. C. Sumerian, long since extinct, was spoken by the people of the Tigris-Euphrates valley. It has no known affiliates; we don’t even know where the Sumerians came from.
By 3000 B.C., the cuneiform system of the Sumerians had a competitor—Egyptian hieroglyphics, whose basic concept may have profited from the Sumerian predecessor, but which were written in totally different characters and in an unrelated language. Early Egyptian was one of the many offshoots of the Semitic language family.
Around 2000 B.C., in Mesopotamia, the Sumerians were supplanted by the Amorites, best known for the lawgiver Hammurabi. They spoke Akkadian, another Semitic dialect.
By 1100 B.C. still another Semitic tongue, Aramaic, spoken by the Arameans, was on its way to becoming the dominant language in its native Syria and neighboring countries. In Mesopotamia it was the medium for the dissemination of the epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the earliest known account of an apocalyptic flood. In Palestine it was spoken by most Jews and is presumed to have been the native tongue of Jesus Christ. Native speakers of Aramaic still live in Syria today.
The decade from 334 to 323 B.C featured a momentous confluence of events that enabled a gifted soldier, Macedonia’s Alexander the Great, to sweep across southwest and central Asia. He was able to obliterate the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire, propagate a set of successor regimes across the area, and set in motion an efflorescence of Greek culture that survived almost a thousand years. By the time of Christ, the western segment of the Middle East was under Roman rule. Their Asian and African subjects spoke their innumerable tongues at home, but the Roman officials on assignment there were bilingual in Latin and Greek. Five hundred years later, when the empire split in two, Greek remained the established language of Byzantium.
The Rise of Arabic
In 634 A. D. the warriors of Islam burst out of the Arabian Peninsula and initiated the establishment, in less than a century, of a Muslim empire that extended from the Pyrenees to China. The Qur’an followed the sword. Expedited by the Caliphate’s encouragement of conversion and intermarriage, and by the nonracist tenor of Islamic doctrine, the cultural and linguistic unification of the empire proceeded rapidly. By 700, the traditional currency of the Byzantines in Anatolia and the Sasanians in Persia had been replaced by Islamic coins.
In 1071 the Seljuk Turks completed the conquest of Anatolia up to the walls of Constantinople. Most of the previous inhabitants abandoned Christianity for Islam and Turkish for Greek. As observant Muslims, the Seljuks and their Ottoman Turk successors retained Arabic script and Arabic as the language of education. Even under Arab rule the Persians had held on to their own language, but they wrote it in a form of Arabic script—and still do to this day.
Coping Linguistically in 2002
There are four major languages in the Middle East today: Turkish (now written in a Latin alphabet), Persian, Arabic, and English. This last has replaced French as the primary second language of the educated. Although Hebrew—a close relative of Arabic in the Semitic language family—is spoken only by the five million Jews of Israel, plus many of its one million Arab citizens and those Arab noncitizens who learned the language in Jewish prisons, its political and cultural influence is greatly enhanced by Israel’s full membership in the community of advanced societies. The other countries of the Middle East are largely mired in medieval habits of thought and autocratic systems of government.
In a universe of perpetual change, language is in constant flux. As the Caliphate fragmented, its successor states wandered off into their own parochial dialects, with consequences sometimes embarrassing, sometimes serious. The recent brief political union of Egypt and Syria (1958-61) was plagued by repeated incidents of miscommunication. Egyptian President Nasir evoked whispered Syrian ridicule when he tried to display a command of classical Arabic (which every educated Arab professes to speak) by addressing Syrian General Lu’ay al Atasi in brotherly fashion as “Luqay.” Substitution of the glottal stop (as in “oh-oh”) for the classical qaf is a feature of Egyptian, Syrian, and some other colloquial Arabic dialects. What Nasir did not know is that the name Lu’ay, rarely heard in Egypt, is the same in the classical.
In America, regional accents are the subject of amusement and diversion. Dr. Henry Lee Smith, before heading up the linguistic program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, conducted a radio program in which he demonstrated a remarkable ability to establish a person’s place of origin just from hearing him speak a few sentences. Many Arabic dialects, however, are mutually incomprehensible to native speakers. Usama bin Ladin made his notorious tape recording of November 9, 2001, in his own Saudi dialect. Two trained U.S. government translators, a Lebanese and an Egyptian, were unable to understand every word on the tape, even after four days of study.
This should not be too surprising. Biographies in the American media tend to overuse the term “bilingual.” But to master a language, most people have to be exposed to it in their childhood. Beginning at the age of ten with a new language is far too late for almost all of us. Otherwise a certain Arab official, fluent in English from years of study in the States, would not have in my experience misread “foregoing” as “forging,” and a distinguished American diplomat, who spent many of his early years in France, would not have been compelled to pronounce every English “r” in the distinctively French style. An Arab monarch, educated in the West, would not on an occasion have said ”exasperated” when he meant “exacerbated.” A bilingual educated command of a language is not at all common.
If Arabs from neighboring states have trouble understanding each other, imagine the challenge posed to the American Arabist, compelled to shift dialects with each Foreign Service transfer. Before World War II the Department of State bought in to the myth that all educated Arabs communicate in the classical. Therefore, it sent diplomats to European schools of “oriental languages” for Arabic training; the result was hardly more successful than if officers had been trained in Latin to do business in France, Spain, and Italy.
In 1946 the Department adopted a more realistic approach. Drawing on a postwar cadre of gifted linguists such as Dr. Smith and Dr. Charles Ferguson, the Department’s Foreign Service Institute set up training programs in a number of the “hard” languages—languages so complex and so unlike English that an American had no hope of capturing elemental fluency except after years of study. Arabic was on that list.
Over the postwar years, a number of FSI graduates acquired the ability to carry on effective conversation in one or more Arabic dialects, but rarely to perform high-level interpretation (a function normally assigned to trained professionals born in the Arab world and educated in English-language schools). The Americans acquired their semi-proficiency at the cost of long hours spent in all-Arabic milieus, giving rise to interlocutors’ amusement, and suffering occasional moments of acute embarrassment.
One example is the time this writer, trying to make courtly dinner party conversation, answered his charming Egyptian hostess’ request for advice on what to wear to a costume party by suggesting that she wear a cowboy costume. It became instantaneously apparent from her horrified expression that his Syrian dialect had betrayed him. The lady was sophisticated enough to recover, advise him to stay away from that word “costume” in Arabic, and take the conversation on to safer ground. “Libas,” he learned later, is the acceptable term in Syria, but in the hostess’s Egyptian dialect it means feminine undergarments never mentioned in polite society.
Potentially more importantly, when the writer was called on to interpret between a secretary of state and an Arab chief of state on a matter deemed too sensitive to be shared with a professional interpreter, he had trouble with the Arab leader’s strong regional accent. The result was he mistranslated an operative term. The secretary had the wit to realize we had gotten off the track and the patience to sit by until we got back on.
On one occasion, special facility in the local dialect may have saved an American diplomat from injury or worse. On his way to the embassy in Beirut, he ran into one of the anti-American demonstrations that flared up so often during the Lebanese civil war. He was accosted by an angry participant: “You’re an American!” The Foreign Service officer’s instantaneous denial was couched in flawless Beiruti colloquial: “Walaw, ana Lubnani“—roughly equivalent to “The hell you say, I’m Lebanese.” His reply worked in Lebanon; the idiom would have rung false in Egypt.
Beset by linguistic chauvinism, the European Union has dealt handily with its communications problem by holding many of its meetings in English, even if no native English speakers are present. The Arabs have a better option: transmogrifying classical Arabic into a modern, streamlined, universal tongue. Thanks to radio, satellite television, and the internet, this process is well underway. “Ibtikar,” the word for “defloration” in the classical, is now the standard term for “invention.” It is fitting that the Middle East, where the Phoenicians evolved an alphabet that may well be the progenitor of all modern writing systems, is now producing a metalanguage that will advance the cultural unity of some twenty nations.
A number of Arabic newspapers now circulate across the Arab world, notably al Hayat and al Sharq al Awsat, both printed in London. Television stations al Jazirah, which is aired in Qatar, and MEBC, broadcast from London, have multinational audiences and profound influence over Arab attitudes.
Israel is a case of so near and yet so far. The family relationship of Hebrew and Arabic is obvious to all. The two pronunciations of “Bethlehem,” to take a renowned example, are quite similar—although in the Arabic it means “house of meat” and in the Hebrew, “house of bread.” Like the Arabs, the Jews (most of whom used Arabic as their first language for 1500 years) have resuscitated an ancient language and retooled it for the electronic age. Geographically Israel lies close to the center of the Middle East. And yet in many crucial arenas—linguistic, economic, cultural, and political—it seems doomed to isolation pending the evolution of an Arab-Israeli settlement still so remote as to be virtually out of sight.
Language and Culture
Although language differences tend to push communities apart, often to the point of bloodshed, most if not all languages can be broken down into sets of phonemes—sounds that determine meaning. The system used to write them down may be more or less logical. For a hide bound example of the less logical, see English. Shaw, with his gift for trenchant analysis, underscored the absurdity of English spelling by suggesting that fish be spelled “ghoti”—gh as in enough, o as in women, and ti as in nation.
Spelling and pronunciation mutate, but the phonemes themselves need greater durability in the interest of mutual comprehension. Telling them apart is an essential skill acquired in childhood. As noted above, shifting from one system to another is often difficult and sometimes impossible. The Bible has given us the term shibboleth—catchword—from that ancient time when pretenders to membership in an alien tribe were tripped up by their inability to pronounce the “sh” sound in the Hebrew word for torrent. Allied military intelligence used the word “lalapaloosa” in World War II to trap Japanese who posed as Chinese. With most native Chinese, the “r” sound comes out as “l”, whereas most native Japanese are likely to hear the “1” sound as “r”.
The reverse example is that of sounds that speakers easily pronounce without recognizing them as hidden phonemes. One such is the doubled consonant. In English it occurs rarely and almost insignificantly, as in the words “bookkeeper” and “eighteen,” and the pair “cooly-coolly.” In the Arabic phonemic system, doubling a consonant is a device central to the language and universally applicable. Because “akal” means “he ate,” “akkal “has to denote causation: “he fed”.
Since the Middle East was a cradle of civilization and the birthplace of our alphabet, it is not surprising that by 500 B.C. common soldiers were literate enough to write their own names. The subsequent onset of the Hellenic era was distinguished by the founding around 300 B.C. by the Ptolemies of the great library in Alexandria, Egypt. It dominated Middle Eastern scholarship until its destruction in the civil war that ravaged the area six centuries later, in the time of the Roman emperor Aurelian.
Although the Roman army was an assimilationist institution that melded recruits from all over the empire and conferred Roman citizenship on many of its veterans, Islam may be the first civilization that deserves to be called universal. That quality is foreshadowed in the Qur’an, whose narrative contains many allusions reminiscent of Jewish and Christian traditions. Western views of Arabic literature display the human animal’s customary diversity of opinion. On the critical side, an American diplomat who studied classical Arabic in Europe complained in later life that, after years of study, he found he had the key to an empty room. On the laudatory side is the British scholar, Bernard Lewis, who has an inclination to patronize Arab politics but ascribes immense richness to Arab literature. During the Dark Ages that afflicted Europe from 500 to 1000 A.D., Islamic literature served as an invaluable conveyor belt for the far-seeing speculations of the ancient Greek philosophers.
By 1100, however, Islam was drifting into its own era of obscurantism. The thesis that the Qur’an is a one-time creation was overwhelmed by the doctrine that it is the timeless, immutable word of God. Like those Christian theologians who perceive inerrancy in the Bible, Muslims proclaimed the inerrancy of the Qur’an, and carried the argument to the point of stifling intellectual inquiry.
While European intellectual horizons were being broadened by the Renaissance (Machiavelli’s The Prince, 1513, was the first European book in a thousand years with no quotes from the Bible or references to the renowned texts of antiquity), the crystallization of the precepts of the Qur’an and related Islamic lore into a sacrosanct body of Islamic law had the effect (pace historian William McNeill) of holding Muslim society back. According to French scholar Fernand Braudel, Islam has not had its reformation, its enlightenment, or its industrial revolution—let alone its electronic age. Scientific American has noted that ASCII, the lingua franca of the internet, is transmitted only in a Latin alphabet. Technology is a crucial component of power; for the past 200 years, technological backwardness has subjected the people of the Middle East to domination and exploitation by the nations of the West.
Language and culture clearly are inter linked. Arabic provides a pointed example of Arab society’s ingrained discrimination between males and females. The masculine noun “ghazi“means “warlord”—a prestigious occupation in that culture. Converted to the feminine “ghaziyah,” the term assumes an appropriately subservient woman’s role—”dancing girl.” The dichotomy points up the inextricable linkage of language and thought pattern and the impossibility of devising a precise one-to-one translation from one language to another. Translation is further complicated by linguistic inconsistencies and ambiguities. English contains a number of words that can not be defined except in a specific context. For example, in isolation, “fast” implies either rapid motion or the absence thereof. Arabic has its own contradictions.
Language and Politics
In a communalistic society like the ones that still prevail in ail the countries of the Middle East, political allegiance is largely governed by ethnicity—race, religion, language, and culture. After millennia of miscegenation, race in the Middle East is an imponderable. Even Solomon, ruler 3000 years ago of a people
who have always ascribed acute importance to their separateness, was the son of Bathsheba. She, the wife of Uriah the Hittite before she married King David, may well have been a Hittite (Indo-European) herself.
Religious affiliation, on the other hand, is usually apparent from dress or habits of worship—unless political expedience leads an individual to practice tacivvah and hide his beliefs, a course taken by many Persian Shiites in the time of Sunni domination.
Language remains as the most difficult affiliation to counterfeit, and it carries the greatest political weight. In World War I the Arabic-speakers joined the West against their Turkish coreligionists, and in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, Iraq’s Arab Shiites died by the hundreds of thousands in combat with the Shiites of Iran.
Given the overwhelming body of historical evidence that language differences can be a determinant of life and death, it must follow that sharing a language is a force for comity. British-Canadian-American relations are a case in point. They began in conflict—six and a half years of a hard-fought revolutionary war (1775 to 1781), followed by the unpleasantness of 1812, the bloodless “Aroostook War” of 1838-39, and other disagreements that could have led to strife. But those relations have evolved into a deep and abiding unity of commercial intercourse, cultural tradition, and political purpose. And having a common language has helped.
Surely the evolution of a universal form of Arabic will help attenuate the endemic inter-Arab discord and promote the spirit of commonality on which the well-being of any region of the world depends.
The author, a retired senior Foreign Service officer with long experience in the Middle East, is a member of the American Diplomacy Publishers board of directors and a frequent contributor to this journal.