More Flexibility with Foreign Words Might Help Arabic Flourish

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Foreign words have entered into the Arabic language throughout its history, but especially in the past century with its rapid developments in science, technology and global culture. Arabic academies have tried to regulate how new terms come into the language, by Arabizing them according to traditional rules of morphology and grammar, or by translating them into newly authorized words in Arabic. But this puts an enormous burden on linguists, translators and the academies themselves.

While preserving and protecting the Arabic language is important to Arab culture, I believe that allowing Arabic to embrace some foreign terms does not weaken the language and serves it better than creating a host of new words that never become accepted into common use.

No language can live in isolation from others, and each language must borrow words it needs through interaction with other cultures. Cultural exchange is considered a fundamental factor in social development, for it works to provide society with a body of knowledge and sciences that contribute to its development.

It is taken for granted that the culturally and scientifically strongest nations are the ones that affect weaker ones and their languages. The Islamic civilization did not start from scratch, but it built on the two most important civilizations of those times, namely the Persian and Greco-Roman civilizations, and the cross-fertilization between these two cultures through translation and Arabization was an important basis upon which the Arabs built the Islamic Arab civilization.

This cross-fertilizing “interculturalism” resulted in borrowing many foreign vocabularies into Arabic. Linguists coined two terms in Arabic studies to differentiate between two ways that loanwords are absorbed into the language, namely through Arabization and through direct borrowing of “intruder” words.

Arabized words are foreign words that have been subjected to the methods Arabs use in constructing their vocabularies, while intruder words entered Arabic without change, for it suited the taste of Arabs in composing words. There are examples of such intruder expressions in the Qur’an. Some were of Persian origin, like: ibrīq (jug), sundus (a fine silk), istabraq (brocade). Others were of Hindi origin, like zanjabil (ginger), kafur (camphor) and misk (musk); and of Greek origin, like qistas (retaliation in kind), Firdaws (Paradise), qalam (pen), and qintar (kantar, a weight measure).

Arabized words are foreign words that have been subjected to the methods Arabs use in constructing their vocabularies, while intruder words entered Arabic without change, for it suited the taste of Arabs in composing words.

However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, many foreign words entered into Arabic, especially those loaned from Turkish, French and English. The Arabic Language Academies and modern scientific institutions tried to confront the cultural invasion, sought to Arabize these words, and coined new words, especially for modern inventions, believing that Arabic was able to keep pace with the times.

Modern scholars have differentiated between the Arabized and translated words. Arabized terms are those that have undergone some formal changes to suit the Arabic language forms, such as computer, camera, radio and television, while the translated terms are the Arabic words coined to describe the previous terms, namely: hasoob (computer), alet tasweer (camera), madhiae (radio), and al-ra’i (television).

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Later, however, linguists warned of a danger in keeping these extraneous or Arabized terms, for if they were left in their foreign forms, Arabic would become a mixture of several languages, and if they were Arabized, it would violate the morphological and phonemic rules, which are one of the most important features that distinguish the language from others and maintain it.

To solve this dilemma, scholars tried to put in place equivalent words from classical Arabic, believing this would protect the language from loss and fragmentation on the one hand, and enrich and expand its wealth on the other. It would also allow the language to keep pace with the rapidly changing modern world.

The Arabic Language Academies in Egypt and Damascus in particular were able to coin many of these new words, some of which were accepted and widely spread, because they have synonyms in Arabic, were easy to use and close to the words’ foreign meaning, as in mas’ad (elevator), hatif (telephone), and barid electroni (email). Meanwhile, some derivatives of new coinages became more popular that the new words themselves. The word madhiae (radio), for example, went popular in forms like mudhie (broadcaster) and idha’a (broadcasting/ broadcast station), while the foreign form radio remained the most commonly used word to describe the instrument in Arabic.

The Arabic Language Academies in Egypt and Damascus, in particular, have coined many new words, some of which were accepted and widely spread.

In contrast to these common terms, some of the newly coined terms and nomenclatures were not accepted into everyday speech, and the Arabized words remained confined to the papers on which they were written, as was the case with nasookh (fax), al-ra’i (television) and al-shabika (Internet). In these cases, people preferred using the English words.

Preserving the purity of Arabic and protecting its grammatical and morphological rules undoubtedly requires the concerted efforts of specialists in different fields of language, so that the newly coined Arabic term comes out close to the meaning of the original term, even if it is not identical, in order to be able to compete with the original term.

Yet the key problem is that not every translator is capable of understanding all the sciences, and whenever the linguists and Arabic language academies try to find an Arabic synonym for these terms through livable and usable derivations, they will not be able to achieve what they aim for without cooperation among the academies to review the terminologies they coin, accepting what they agree upon and amending what faces a major disagreement. Then, they can print the standard terms to be in the hands of scholars and translators.

If we are not able to do that at the present time, then I do not think using some extraneous vocabularies detracts from our language, especially for terms whose connotation becomes common and difficult to be replaced by others, or for terms that were derived from proper nouns, scientific names of some chemical elements and compounds, or names of foreign units and measures. This might be better than filling Arabic with vocabularies nobody would use.

For our language to prove its existence and position in the various fields of scientific research, I think Arabic language academies and scholars need to be more flexible in accepting changes to some of its morphological rules, in order to allow its development and help it meet the requirements of our current era, in a way that helps it spread more widely, and also facilitates teaching it to native speakers first and non-native speakers second.

Issam El-Koussa is a professor with a Ph.D. in Arabic grammar and morphology at Al-Baath University in Homs, Syria. He is also a former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities there.


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