30 January 2010

Emotional linguistics

In literary criticism it is very hard not to be emotional, because one of the main attractions of literature is its appeal to the emotions. While doing criticism, a critic can pretend to be schizophrenic and not be affected by the strength of the emotional appeal of a literary text, but it is a shame if the whole person is not involved in the act of criticism. Being passionate about a particular literary text is a common motivation to want to reread and reread that text in order to get at what exactly is going on inside the text. A critic has to really love a text in order to spend so much time with it.

Linguists go overboard, however, when they become emotional when discussing language. Such emotionalism mars an otherwise intelligent account of the language of the Qur'an by Ibn Warraq. Here are excerpts from the account:

"The Koran is putatively (in fact it is very difficult to decide exactly what the language of the Koran is) written in what we call Classical Arabic (CA), but modern Arab populations, leaving aside the problem of illiteracy in Arab countries, do not speak, read, or write, let alone think in Classical Arabic. We are confronted with the phenomenon of diglossia, that is to say, a situation where two varieties of the same language live side by side. The two variations are high and low. High Arabic is sometimes called Modern Literary Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic, and is learned through formal education in school like Latin or Sanskrit, and would be used in sermons, university lectures, news broadcasts and for mass media purposes. Low Arabic or Colloquial Arabic is a dialect which native speakers acquire as a mother tongue, and is used at home conversing with family and friends, and is also used in radio or television soap opera."

"You are asked aggressively, 'Do you know Arabic?' Then you are told triumphantly, 'You have to read the Koran in the original Arabic to understand it fully.' Non-Muslims, Western freethinkers and atheists are usually reduced to sullen silence with these Muslim tactics; they indeed become rather coy and self-defensive when it comes to criticism of Islam; they feebly complain 'Who am I to criticise Islam? I do not know any Arabic.' And yet they are quite happy to criticise Christianity. How many Western freethinkers and atheists know Hebrew? How many even know what the language of Esra chapter 4 verses 6-8 is? Or in what language the New Testament was written? Of course, Muslims are also free in their criticism of the Bible and Christianity without knowing a word of Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek."

Once religion gets into the picture, even linguists lose their objectivity. By looking at what happens to linguists when their emotions get the better of them, we literary critics can avoid the pitfalls of letting our strong emotions get in the way of helping readers unlock the meanings of a literary text.

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