Thursday, August 09, 2007

"The inadequacy of traditional Islamic languages"

A Pakistani physicist weighs in on the state of science in the Islamic world in Physics Today, a magazine I used to subscribe to during the very brief period when I was doing physics at university. The article's quality is variable; he makes some good points (like the alarming publication and patent statistics, and the way that authoritarian attitudes inhibit hypothesis forming), but also some poor ones (his Bourguiba-esque suggestion that fasting and prayer are incompatible with hard work, for example, is laughable.) Anyway, he throws in an observation on language worth discussing:
Second, the inadequacy of traditional Islamic languages—Arabic, Persian, Urdu—is an important contributory reason. About 80% of the world's scientific literature appears first in English, and few traditional languages in the developing world have adequately adapted to new linguistic demands.
In what sense can a language be inadequate for a purpose? What I take him to be referring to is the inadequacy of technical terminology. Specialists in any field have to learn a set of fairly complicated ideas to which they can refer concisely and unambiguously (phoneme, wh-movement, coronal, theta-role; integration, isomorphism, standard deviation...) Such terms often do not refer to anything normally noticed by people, and therefore have no equivalent in any language until one is created or borrowed. Various specialists or committees have undertaken to create such terms (in Arabic, at least, they generally eschew the idea of borrowing them.) But in many cases a chaos of alternative terms is spread. For "linguistics" alone, different Arabic dictionaries will suggest اللسانيات، الألسنيات، اللغويات، علم اللغة, and even other terms. I have three dictionaries of linguistic terminology in Arabic sitting on my shelf; randomly looking up "retroflex", for example, I find ارتدادي، التوائي، انقلابي all given as translations.

One might expect that the efforts of specialists to communicate with each other would end this problem, with the community of linguists (say) rapidly converging on a single term and abandoning the rest, just as such synonyms for "retroflex" as "cerebral" or "cacuminal" have largely disappeared in English. But there we have a vicious circle. At present, to be a good specialist in many fields, you need to have studied them in some Western language, and to be following a literature on them that's largely in a Western language, and to be communicating with colleagues who mostly speak that same language. In fact, given how little on average is spent on research in the Islamic world, in many such fields the odds are high that you won't even be able to find employment without going to or staying in the West, further reducing your opportunities to talk about, or teach, the subject in your own language - and if you do stay in your own country, you may find that specialist terminology dictionaries, especially those printed in other countries, are hard to find. So if ambiguities or misunderstandings come up, the easy thing to do is to switch to English or French or the like; the ideological incentive to use your own language is not supplemented by any significant material or practical incentive. And thus the language gets slowly pressured out of another domain. It's not inevitable, but to change it you'd have to create more incentives and more opportunities for people to stay and to teach in their own countries.

Of course, for Arabic in particular but to a lesser extent for Urdu and Persian, there is a second factor to be considered: diglossia, the wide gap between the language spoken in everyday conversation and the one considered suitable for writing or teaching in. This in itself has some negative implications for teaching science, although the obstacles it sets up to participation by the masses are far less than those that use of an unrelated foreign language like English or French does. But that is another topic for another time.


Paul D. said...

This misconception that "my language is inadequate for science" seems unfortunately widespread in the so-called Third World. A Tagalog-speaking acquaintance once told me the same thing, explaining that Tagalog didn't have enough physics terms or some such nonsense. Well, guess what: English and French and German used to lack these words as well. We created them as we needed them.

In fact, was it not a major revolution in European science when people began using their own languages for research and publishing instead of Latin? Requiring the use of a second or third language for research or experimentation is simply one more barrier that holds many cultures back, in my opinion.

Look at Japan for a modern example. When they industrialized, they created all the modern words they needed, and now they're arguably the most technologically advanced society on earth. No Japanese person has to spend thousands of hours becoming fluent in English in order to study linguistics or mathematics or physics or chemistry. On the other hand, the technological and scientific level of, say, Filipino or Pakistani society could hardly be worse if they started studying the sciences in their own languages, making those fields accessible to everyone.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Well said Paul. 2000 years ago no language had a word for "electron", or "quark", or "vacuum"; and a key to doing good science is valuing the content of an utterance over its form.

John Cowan said...

IMAO there are real advantages to using a single language for science, though it's surely better if it's nobody's language, as Latin was.

In a parallel universe not too far from here, the scientific community adopted Latino sine flexione of Giuseppe Peano (of Peano's postulates for arithmetic), and science continued to be done in a single language, fairly continuous with the Latin of older work, but with many fewer difficult features than either Latin itself, the Romance languages, or English.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

There are two mutually opposed interests at work:
* You want to read and be read by as many other scientists' work as possible => international language
* You want as many interested non-scientists as possible to be able to read and comment on scientists' work. (Otherwise, you start to run out of new scientists, for one thing.) => use of local languages.

Science needs to be done in national languages for the same reason newspapers need to: it's relevant to more people than are ever likely to master a single international language. In Algeria, for example, public opinion on plenty of basic issues of substantial political and economic significance (earthquakes, water tables, global warming, jellyfish growth, fish stock decline, desertification, demographics, diglossia, Tamazight education...) has to be informed by scientific research and theories - and the public's observations on these issues can itself usefully inform the scientists' work. This minimally means making such work accessible in a form that someone who doesn't feel comfortable reading French can understand.

Anton Sherwood said...

Icelandic (I hear) also avoids borrowings; what other languages do?

I'd love to have a book comparing neologisms for the same thing in several languages.

I wonder what fraction of English neologisms these days is derived from Latin and Greek, and how that fraction has varied over time.

Arabic serves the role of Latin/Greek for other languages spoken by Moslems; for Japanese, Chinese — which literary languages have no such "mentor"?

Anonymous said...

What is diglossia in Persian and Urdu like? Or are you talking about the many languages spoken in Iran and Pakistan?

which literary languages have no such "mentor"?

Other than Arabic and Chinese? :-] -- Chinese avoids borrowings to a large extent, if only because it would have to make up characters to write them. A major exception are the round-trip words, and they prove the rule: they are words that were composed from Chinese morphemes in Japan and then brought back to China (with the Chinese pronunciation of the characters, of course), such as "economy", "telephone", and also "world" in the modern meaning.

Rich said...

Until now I hadn't heard of diglossia (and spell check hasn't either), but I did notice that patience is the default translation of various Arabic words. Until I started pick up a few Arabic words, I didn't know the difference between forbearance (hilm) and patience (sabr).