Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Does a People Make a Language, or Does a Language Make a People?

Many years ago, when I was learning German, one thing struck me more than anything else about the language I was then trying to learn. It was this: How precise one has to be when speaking the language. In German, you can’t get away with saying ‘who’ when you mean ‘whom’. It just won’t do. They mean two different things, and you’ve got to get your head around the difference.

Similarly, there are so many words for ‘the’ in German. It can be ‘der’, ‘die’, or ‘das’. It all depends on the gender of the noun. But to complicate matters still further, what is a ‘der’ in one case (nominative masculine singular) can turn into a ‘den’ in another (accusative masculine singular), a ‘dem’ in another case (dative masculine singular) and a ‘des’ in yet another case (genitive masculine singular), and so on. I’ll spare you the grief of the plural forms!

Then you have a similar problem when it comes to ‘a’ in German. That, too, depends on the case in point. It can at various times be ‘ein’, ‘einer’, ‘einen’, ‘einem’, ‘eines’, and so on. Add to all this the fact that adjectives have to be declined, and the fact that there are three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Believe me, it can be mind-boggling to the uninitiated.

But then, if you are like I am, you eventually get your ‘Eureka moment’, and from that moment on, it all becomes very clear, crystal clear in fact, and from that moment on too, it all starts to make perfect sense.

Where is this all leading, you may be asking yourself? Well, to cut the whole thing short, it leads to the following. The Germans are a pretty clever people. Hardly anyone can touch them when it comes to engineering. Who can manufacture a fine car like the Germans? Think of the elegance of a Mercedes or a Porsche. And then add to that elegance the downright precision of the car's construction, to say nothing of the performance of its engine. Such beautiful cars embody perfection and precision.

I therefore have to ask myself why the Germans are such fine engineers. One cannot help but think that there’s a link there between the precision of the language and the precision of the engineering.

English is not anywhere near as precise as German. It doesn’t really matter too much if you use ‘who’ when you should be using ‘whom’. Indeed, many an English-speaker goes through life without ever learning the difference! But he still gets by. And as for cases, I don’t think that the average English-speaker would recognise a case if one smacked him in the teeth!

But then, who in the English-speaking world can manufacture a sports car like the Germans? Who could make a car like the Mercedes Roadster, or a Porsche Boxster? Could it be that a people who have to be so precise when speaking are more likely to become precision engineers? In short, does precision in language lead to precision in engineering? And do those precision engineers become so because their language is so precise; or is the reverse true? In other words, do precise people develop a precise way of speaking, or does a precise way of speaking make a precise people?

It’s a very interesting question, and it is a question I have long pondered. The question, of course, is an easy one to pose; it is rather more difficult to answer that self-same question, however.

Which leads me to Arabic…

Now one thing has to be said. Arabic is a fine and elegant language. Calligraphically, it is art indeed. In fact, so beautiful is it when written that the Arabs have used calligraphy as art all over the centuries, especially since Muhammad, the prophet of most Arabs, forbade the depiction of the human form. So, instead of the statue of David (Michelangelo), you get the profession of faith, al-shahada (pronounced ash-shahada), ashadw an la illah ila allah, wa ashadw an Muhammadan rasul ullah (only demonstrating!), written, of course, in beautiful Arabic calligraphy. A Westerner prefers and appreciates the statue of David; an Arab, of course, the profession of faith.

So there is no doubt about the fact that Arabic can be a very elegant language, especially in its written form. Indeed, it can be as elegant as some Arabs can be in their snow-white dishdashas, or thobes. But although Arabic has influenced many other languages, especially due to the Arabs’ conquests in pursuit of their expansion of Islam, or Dar ul Islam. For example, there are said to be an estimated four thousand Arabic loanwords in Spanish alone; and Arabic has lent many words to other languages, too, since Arabic was a ”major vehicle of culture” in the Middle Ages.

One feature of Arabic, however, is very fascinating to me: It is written backwards.

Now this brings me right back to where I started. The Germans are precision engineers, maybe as a result of having such precision in the German language. Arabic is the language of a people whose one main characteristic is looking backwards. Indeed, it is the aim of Muslims to take us all back to a bygone age – back 1400 years to the time of their prophet.

So my next question is this: Can a people whose language is written backwards move forwards? That means to say: Is it necessary for a people to write facing the future to be progressive, or can a people be progressive in spite of the fact that their language is written in the direction of the past? Moreover, have the Arabs made the language, or has the language made the Arabs?

©Mark Alexander

All Rights Reserved


Anonymous said...

Sorry dont get it. Isnt chinese written down ward. They seem to be doing OK

Mark said...

It's just food for thought. But I have to say that I believe there's a link between the character of a people and the nature and structure of a language. German is a fantastic case in point.

What may seem to be rather silly on the surface may not be so silly after all, especially upon deep reflection.

FMFF said...

What about Hebrew? Israelis are great in engineering too, though not in car manufacturing.

Mark said...

It's interesting to note that Atatürk changed the alphabet for Turkey in the name of progress.

Dominic said...

erm, and Hebrew is also written backwards...

Anonymous said...

Well both Jews and Arabs look backwards to their past a lot. In order to imagine their promised future?
Nothing wrong with that, if you can become adept in looking back and forth like the Jews then you must be at an advantage.
Trouble comes when you can only look backwards to an imagined past, and pretend that nothing has changed.
Time moves only forwards in our Universe, doesn't it.
Oh, I forgot Hollywood, where time moves every which way, the n we all get confused!
I think you are on to something Mark, though it does require reflection to see it.
The Chnese may write downwards, but more importantly, their alphabet is pictographic, so more acurately, they write in pictures.
Is that why the Chinese have managed to copy and emulate all technology to the point of having caught up with hundreds of years of Western progress in only a few generations?
The ancient Egyotians wrote in pictograms also, so perhaps the Chines can learn of the eventual progress and collapse of their dynasties through Egyptian history.

Emerson Twain said...

And so we to understand that time proceeds from left to right just like on a mathematical x-y axis? Sorry, Mark, your analogy does not hold. The depiction of mathematics is simply a conventional way of describing something, and not the thing itself. If I write 9=4+5 and read it five plus four equals nine, does that not mean the same as 5+4=9? I think you are confusing grammar with syntax, among other things. There are a lot of better reasons to consider arab thought wth loathing and contempt, inshallah.