Adonis Diaries

Archive for November 14th, 2010

My “Mother tongue”? Can formal Arabic become a universal language?

You hear frequently the question: “What is actually your mother tongue?”

You may be very conversant in many languages, and more often than not, you may write better in a language that is not your “mother tongue”, meaning you master the grammar, syntax, and technical terminology of the foreign language better than your “mother tongue”, and you feel more comfortable and readier to express your rational thoughts writing in this foreign language.

Does this mean that you are able to express your spirit and your culture in a foreign language?

This is the main role of slang:  You are using slangs in your “mother tongue” that connote deeper meaning and feeling than in any foreign language

Suppose that the other “foreign” party in the conversation is as versed in your mother tongue as you think you are, do you think that he may be able to express the same feeling as you feel?

Frequently, a slang word expresses a way of life that no longer exist because of the advance of modern life styles.

Does that mean we have got to be pragmatic and drop this word from our lexical, as if an expression must necessarily represent current real life?

Do I master my mother tongue?  Do I have one?

I was born in a French colony in Africa (Mali) and lived there to the age of 6 when I fell ill with a deadly disease and barely managed to survive.  Consequently, I must have learned to speak and write in French first, and most probably I was conversant in the Bambara dialect, since I was surrounded by Malian helpers and my closest “guardian angel” was a mute young man:  Thus, I might have learned sign language too.

Bambara is an oral language that was spoken by animist tribes in the current State of Mali with Capital Bamako.

Hampate Ba (see note) wrote that the Bambara tribes aided the French colonizers against the Moslem tribes in Senegal, until Islam became the main religion in Mali.

At age of 6, I was suddenly transferred to another continent and a totally different culture with, supposedly, a weather and climate better suitable to recurring tropical diseases.  I am left in a boarding school in the mountain and run by Christian Maronite monks.  The new formal language is Arabic, but the conversation is done in the Lebanese slang.

Six years later, I had totally forgotten French and barely learned formal Arabic.

I guess my lack of conversational skills could be due to this sudden shift in learning new languages with no proper transition.

My parents used to visit me one of every two summers; I used to spend summers with them as with strangers and never skipped an opportunity to run to my boarding school.

Another social and linguistic trauma was awaiting me.

My parents decided to close shop in Africa after Mali got its independence.  Now, my parents moved me to a French school in Beirut, run by Jesuits.

I had to repeat my year because my French was nil.  By the end of the year I was excellent in French writing and its grammar, but no better in conversing.

The next year, I was reading all the green and rose collections of French books, but none in Arabic.  The school taught us English three hours a week and I was very lousy:  A special teacher was hired to give me an edge in English at no avail or that’s how I felt.

I was good in writing formal Arabic and French but nil in any sort of conversation, excepting Lebanese slang.

Now, I can write in three languages Arabic, French and English, but I decided that English is my writing language:  I did higher education in the USA and lived there, on and off, for 20 years during my adulthood.

Obviously, I learned many US slang words and expressions and I know their meaning, but I would not dare confirm that I master the many slangs in the USA.

Anyway, I never acquired the correct tonality or the right emphasis on syllables:  Who can with 51 US States?  People recognize my French accent, though I don’t remember speaking French for more than 5 minutes at a time and with difficulty. Anyway, speaking in the US is a matter of sustained presence, since slangs keep changing, as their consumer products and services witness high turnover rate.

The Arab/Lebanese slang words and expressions are more natural to me:  I feel at home talking Lebanese, simply because I learned it a kid.  I never miss an occasion to reading Lebanese books that recount and describe the customs and traditions of the various Lebanese communities.

You would be surprised to realize that customs in the mountain regions are basically the same regardless of religion and history.

So, what is my mother tongue?

We all know that translating a slang is never even remotely accurate or capable of expressing the true cultural layers hidden under a slang word.  Unfortunately, we throw around slang words and expressions, simply because we overheard them frequently, but we are not versed in the true meaning of the word and its context that has a long history in our language and helped sustain our cultural way of life for centuries.

Confucius wrote: “First of all, a government should give priority to working on the correct usage of the terminology in the language.  If terminology is not widely correctly understood and uniform, discourse will be disorderly, orders are wrongly misinterpreted, and consequently, most orders stop being executed as intended.  If the forms and rituals are not conveniently stabilized then, social relationship are distorted and customs and rituals neglected, justice is not adequately rendered, and the kingdom is weakened.  Any new law must be enunciated in the clearest of terms and never proclaimed without thorough discussions, lest tyranny shows its ugly head”

A corollary to Confucius statement is that ancient and modern literature, written in a particular language, must be revised for the accurate meaning of words and expressions in their context.   A sustained massive education campaign to initiating newer generations to old manuscripts that reflect the spirit of the collective community must be taken most seriously.

Newer words and expressions disseminated as slang must be added to the language and their distinct meaning explained.

We have a problem with formal Arabic.

Moslem are taught the Koran and they memorize it; thus, they are far more familiar with the Arabic/Mecca language since they learn it as kids.

The other barrier is that formal Arabic words have religious undertone and you can barely find significant words that you can claim to be religiously neutral and expresses your opinions:  Usually, expressions relate to tribal, and nomadic traditional life-style.

Formal Arabic is inhibited by abstract notions that nomads could not appreciate: That is why you find Moslems giving preferences to Hadith (or what people overheard the messenger Muhammad having said) instead of the core religion principles and dogma of the Koran.

And, that is why formal Arabic never progressed to facing the challenges of universality standards in literature.   We cannot even expect the two dozens national Arabic slangs to keeping up with progress and changes since they all borrow words and expressions that are laden with religiously biased.

Consequently, “Arabs” who decided to write in foreign languages are sending the strong message that they do not want to be left out of universal civilization and fast transformations, especially the non-Moslems with positions and different life-styles.

It is difficult to freely express your honest opinion in Arabic, simply because the words are coined in Islamic culture and connote religious meaning, whether you like it or not.

The Lebanese who immigrated to Egypt at the turn of the 20th century did their best to enriching formal Arabic and selecting easier and nicer words.  The end result was just an advantage to Lebanese and Syrians writing in a pleasant language adapted to poetry, theater plays, and novels.

Note:  Amadou Hampate Ba (1900-1991) had said: “In the oral civilization of Africa, once an old wise man dies it is an entire library that closes.”  Hampate Ba spent his life documenting the stories, myths, and historical accounts of clans and tribes living in western Africa of Senegal, Mali, Burkina Fasso, and Ivory Coast.  He loved sitting around a bonfire at night listening to the “marabout and grios” telling their lively stories and taking notes.  He accumulated and  compiled vast numbers of documents that are still being regrouped and put in print.




November 2010

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