Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sacred Phonology

The artistically fruitful intersection between geometry and mysticism has a fairly well-established label: "sacred geometry". Phonology and mysticism have historically intersected in a similar, but perhaps less familiar, way.

The notion of "place of articulation" predates modern linguistics by millennia, as is obvious from the order of the Indic alphabets. In the Arabic context, while it was first developed by early linguists such as al-Farahidi and Sibawayh, it is probably most commonly studied in the context of Qur'anic recitation, where it provides a cross-check on the pronunciation of consonants. The number of places of articulation used is rather larger than in the Western tradition, allowing a more linear ordering of the consonants, as follows: chest (long vowels ā ī ū), lower throat (glottal ʔ h), mid throat (pharyngeal/epiglottal ʕ ħ), high throat (uvular fricatives x ɣ), back tongue (uvular stop q), velar (k), mid-tongue (palatal/postalveolar j š y), back lateral (ḍ), front lateral (l), apico-alveolar (n), front tongue (r), apico-dental (ṭ d t), sibilants (ṣ s z), interdentals (ð̣ θ ð), labiodentals (f), bilabials (b m w). (I have used odd terminology for some positions in an attempt to reflect divisions not usually made by Western linguists.)

This ordering of consonants by place of articulation, familiar to any religious specialist of the period, gave Ibn Arabi a structure onto which he could map his vision of the cosmic order (see Appendix II of the link). The throat is the seat of the intellective world, ie universal underlying principles; the back of the mouth is the higher realm of imagination; the mouth proper is the celestial spheres, followed in front by the elemental globes; finally, the "progeny", or classes of beings, are at the gap between the teeth and lips. In short, the more contingent something is, the higher up the vocal tract - just as sounds originate at its bottom with air expelled from the lungs, are shaped as they pass through the vocal tract, to finally emerge from the mouth.

The metaphor is reasonably effective as it stands; but its one-dimensionality is somewhat unsatisfactory. Most consonants reflect combinations of articulatory gestures, rather than being elementary movements. For instance, the difference between d and n, for instance, lies not primarily (if at all) in the place of articulation, but rather in whether or not air is allowed to flow out of the nose, and the difference between t and d lies in how the vocal chords are held. Wouldn't it be nicer to have a symbolism for consonants that allowed for compositionality? What would Ibn Arabi have done with Element Theory, for instance?