Will Arabic Be the Language of the Future?
An esoteric view on the Arabic language and its "future"
By language of the future, I do not intend to mean a universal language in which both humans and machines will use to interact in a world of increasing proliferation of artificial intelligence. Nor do I aim to suggest that Arabic would be the lingua franca of the 22nd century. To put forward a claim of this sort would require me to delve into the rather dreary details of demographic predictions and politico-economic arrangements of the world. I am more interested in some esoteric aspects of the Arabic language itself.
Before speaking of the future, one must know about the past and present.
Many millennia ago, a group of people thought of themselves as Arbaae, Surahaae and fusahaae (eloquent, speakers of truth and lovers of poetry) and started referring to anyone with these skills as Mu’rib (one who speaks distinctly and who can express herself freely). As nomadic tribes that traveled throughout the Arabian Peninsula, the Mu’rib were very proud to share and speak this language with others. By the 7th Century A.D., the Arabic language had spread across the Middle East and neighboring areas as many people had begun to convert to Islam.
Currently, Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world with over 30 colloquial varieties, and there is no agreement on whether it is a heavenly or mundane language. Some believers think Arabic is the language of God himself, or the closest surviving descendent of Jesus’ mother tongue, or even better, the only language spoken in heaven. Non-believers can also make the unwavering argument that the Arabic language best suits their poetic, philosophical or secular literary pursuits.
At the Middlebury Interactive Languages Summer Academy, a four–week immersive summer language experience for teens, our students have the unique opportunity to be part of a growing community of young adults who enter college with a significant foundation in Arabic. This means that interest in Arabic studies continues to improve in college settings and, eventually, will encourage undergraduates to move from the stage of covering the basics to that of engaging with some of the most fascinating traditions in the world.
Arabic has a reputation for being difficult, and to many, learning a new set of letters and sounds can be daunting. The good news is that, with regard to its script, Arabic is one of the few, if not the only language in the world in which there is a complete sound-script compatibility. That is to say, that any given sound (or phoneme) is consistently and exclusively scripted via one letter. Morphologically, all words are derived from mostly a trilateral root. The root is a sequence of letters, which carry a meaning, or set of meanings, allowing the reader to derive verbs, adjectives, nouns, verbal nouns and place-names using consistent scales and patterns. This means that the novice learner of Arabic is less dependent on a dictionary.
So what does this mean for the future of the Arabic language? Interestingly enough the Germanic-Latin concept of “future” is inexistent in Arabic. Etymologically, the noun mustaqbal (i.e., future) is carved out of the trilateral root (q-b-l) denoting not only an adverb of time and place (as in “prior”), but also the action of embracing, committing or applying oneself, encountering or facing a reality. So when one says mustabqbal, she not only refers to “that which is yet to be” as in the etymology of the word “future,” but also “that which is sought, anticipated and embraced.” The Arabic formulation, therefore, gives agency to the speaker, as she becomes an important part of (her engagement with) the future.
Looking into “language,” its equivalent “lughah” is a rather pejorative epithet in classical Arabic. Its root (l-gh-w) denote the use of vain words and idle talk, to talk frivolously or to commit verbal errors but to speak nonetheless. At the Arabic Academy, we intentionally use the qualifier lughah in our Akadimiyyat al-Lughah al-Arabiyya: our purpose is to have our students live fully immersed in language, speak without concern for committing errors and even compose songs that might not be necessarily eloquent but rhyme and are fun to recite. The goal is to get Arabic students excited about the mustaqbal, their linguistic mustaqbal; a commitment which they need to anticipate, confront and finally embrace. This mustaqbal is extends beyond the walls of the Language Academy though, as it requires more than hard work and discipline; its rewards are extensive.
For this, Arabic has a more laudatory term to describe “language” than lughah; it is lisaan (tongue). It is true that in Modern Standard Arabic, the word “lughah” became to mean “the language with all its rules”(grammatical, morphological, syntactic and so on). Lisaan, on the other hand, connotes immaculacy, perspicuity and clearness of speech and eloquence. It denotes the intuition, affinity and disposition to contemplate, understand, feel and empathize. This is what a ninth-century luminary meant when he said, “He who learns Arabic raqqa tab’uh translating to his disposition is refined, becomes mild-mannered and good-natured.”
Our hope at the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy is that, by learning about Arabic culture and by acquiring the lisaan, our Arabic students will begin to explore new dimensions about themselves and the world around them. A seventeen-year old high student need not worry about saving the Middle East from itself or fix this or that regional conflict. But we all need to contemplate, understand, feel and empathize. That is where the future begins.
Photo courtesy of Geb Carroll