Tuesday, June 08, 2004

The Arab Mind Shaped By Language
This morning I opened my Salon newsletter and found this article reviewing the book The Arab Mind. It was first published in 1973, but it is coming up now because so many "neo-cons" have been citing it as evidence for their analyses of the so-called "Arab mind," following the Abu Ghraib scandal. Long story short, the author would never have passed any of my social science classes in college due to his extremely poor grasp of what constitutes sufficient research, apparently never having once taken an anthropology class of any kind, and let us not forget to mention that his grasp of linguistics is woefully undeveloped.

Though the article was supposed to focus more on his mis-portrayal of Arab culture as obsessed with sex, several paragraphs at various points were devoted to the book author's misconceptions about language:
...Having determined by fiat that his method is valid, Patai goes on to claim that because every noun in Arabic is either masculine or feminine, "there are no words for 'child,' 'baby,' 'infant,' 'toddler' and so on." Patai argues that because of this linguistic structure, there are no child-rearing practices in Arab culture, only boy-rearing or girl-rearing. Therefore Arabs imprint unusually sexist attitudes on their children from the day they are born.

It apparently did not occur to Patai that while nearly every noun in French, Italian and Spanish is masculine or feminine, there are words for "child," "baby" and so on in those languages. As common sense would suggest, there are words for "child" and toddler" in Arabic too. In both modern standard Arabic and Iraqi dialect, at least, "tofl" means child and "radhee" toddler, regardless of gender. And of course Arabs speak of children and toddlers in general, just as other speakers of gendered languages do.

Did Patai make a basic mistake, hardly credible in someone who had taught Arabic at the high school level? Or was he perhaps trying to mislead the reader?...

Patai is also on shaky ground discussing how Arabs talk about sex. He claims that "the very word for 'wife' (zawja) in Arabic is felt to be too indelicate to use, because of its sexual connotations (it is derived from the verb meaning to couple)." Yet my sedate Iraqi Arabic conversation book -- originally published in 1949 -- calmly uses "zawja" and the related adjectives "mitzawij" and "mitzawja" ("married"); the Quran also uses a variant of the word in distinguishing prohibited sex from sex within lawful marriage....

It is obvious by the time we reach Patai's fourth chapter, on the Arabic language, that no matter what he claims, Patai is not illuminating a culture he loves so much as building an indictment. Here the goal is to show that Arabs are irrational. Patai states that because of the structure of the Arabic language, "for the Arab mind it is of relatively little concern whether two past actions, events or situations recalled were simultaneous or whether one of them preceded the other. It is almost as if the past were one huge undifferentiated entity."

It is true that in classical Arabic, as in biblical Hebrew, the tenses do not correspond to those in the Indo-European language group. But in the Arabic dialects, there are prefixes to denote action currently going on and action in the future (in Iraqi, "d" for current action and "rah" for the future, and in formal Arabic, "sah" or "sofa" for the future). In formal Arabic, and the Quran, the prefix "f" is added to a series of verbs expressly to show a sequence in time (more or less, "and then this happened, and then this, and then that"). In both formal Arabic and Iraqi there is a structure approximating the Indo-European subjunctive ("if I were rich, I would buy a Ferrari"). The past is no more "one huge undifferentiated entity" than the Arab dialects or the Arabs themselves.

Whatever the merits of Patai's argument about Arabic's tense structure, if he is going to argue the inferiority of Arabic on this basis, he could just as well argue its superiority on the grounds that it is far more logical and complex than any of the modern European languages. It is also puzzling to think of the people who gave the world the zero, algebra and the foundations of astronomy as indifferent to calculating time....
Once again, I say "Argh!" Will the Sapir-Whorf urban myth never die? Language does not and cannot influence our thought this way. The "genders" of nouns have nothing to do with the genders of human beings. They are simply pieces of grammar. If only that grammatical structure had been called something else to begin with, we'd avoid so many confusions from linguistic ignorance. Being told that a language has no verb tenses, or not as many verb tenses as some other language, rarely means that the language has no way of expressing divisions and orderings of time. Chinese, for example, has no changes of the verbs themselves, (therefore, it has "no" tenses,) but manages to express the past, present, and future quite adequately with adverbials (tomorrow, yesterday, right now, etc.)

If you're going to use "linguistics" to support your arguments, either bother to learn something about the actual field, or consult someone who does know. Please. It hurts my brain less.

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