Diana Elena Lixandru
Course Instructor: Sevcenco Anca
III year Arabic- English
13 May 2008
Cultural Constraints and the Acquisition of Language
It is highly debated nowadays among linguists the question of the language seen as process proper to the human being, relying entirely upon recursion or as a product of cultural circumstances and factors.
It is the aim of this project to argue in favour of the substantial influence the culture has upon a language that 'grows 'it.
The structure of this paper is the following: 1. I will discuss the
To start with, Daniel Everett proposes, after years of study among the
Piraha subjects, a hypothesis that challenges the already known theory of
universal grammar put forward by Chomsky. In other words, not only that he
defies it, but he also offers the alternative: cultural factors can influence
language to such a length that the consequences of this process can be seen not
only at the level of vocabulary, but also at the level of grammar. Therefore,
But, even like that, one cannot disregard that the phenomenon
Truly, the immediacy of experience is a very good argument that helps
justify most of the peculiarities that present themselves in this language. For
example, the refusal to record in writing their culture: 'We don't write our
It is interesting to note that most of the criticism brought to his
article deals with one, two, at most, three issues of his argumentation. I have
not personally encountered any article that should literally neutralize
Indeed, maybe that the morpho-syntax structure
should need firmer arguments in order to be accepted as relevant and pertinent.
The case of Arabic Language
It is my belief that the example of Arabic is a pertinent argument with which I would like to argue in favour of the influence of the cultural circumstances upon the language.
To start with, the term Arab itself encompasses both a very strong cultural component and a linguistic component. When people, in general, refer to the Arab culture, few of them are aware of what 'Arab' means. Because it is common knowledge that an Arab is whoever speaks Arabic. If one takes into consideration this definition, one reaches the conclusion that the element that links hundreds of years of culture is a linguistic one.
In the history of the Arab culture, the science of language has emerged once with the need to clarify some possible errors or misunderstandings of the lecture of the Quran. As one knows, Arabic is a language based on a root system, where the writing of the consonants is compulsory, but the writing of the vowels is optional. Therefore, one pattern formed of a string of three consonants might mean at least two different things, depending on the writing of the vowels. This would lead, of course, to different interpretations. As the word of God is only one, the sacred one, no possible errors could exist and there could not be more than one revealed truth. Thus, the scholars proceeded and wrote down the vowels, on the one hand, and on the other, they developed the science of linguistics with the help of which they created fixed structures that were meant to norm the language: the morphological and syntactical rules, the rules of inflexion, the exceptions and others.
Before the revelation of the Quran,
it is said that there existed more than one dialect in the
As showed above, the language in this space plays a very important unifying role, not only linguistically speaking, but also culturally and politically. To have a grasp of that, the concept of qawmyya (nationalism) developed on linguistic foundation. To fight back the colonial powers and their attempt at the sovereignty and unity of the Arab world, the intellectuals appealed to language, claiming, that among all components that could link a great nation, the language is the feeblest element. They regarded language not as a simple channel of communication, but as the expression of their cultural identity. If there is a common geography, common history, common fate, then a common language surpasses all these, having the power to bring together what others try to bring apart.
So, to summarize what has been said, there are at least two angles of interpretation of language in this cultural space. As pointed, there is the mythical, or the religious point of view, for the believers. First of all language was given by God and the perfect sample of it is said to be the Quran. Also, one encounters the nationalistic aspect language draws upon itself.
But, it is important to highlight the fact that language does not equal religion. A Muslim is not necessarily an Arab, as well as an Arab is not necessarily a Muslim. And this is a fact that dates way back in the Arab history, when the Arabs conquered great part of the world and settled in places where they encountered populations of different religions. They allowed them to continue practicing the rituals specific to their own religions. In point of language, an interesting phenomenon developed which will be discussed later.
The Oral Tradition and the Myth of the Ideal Bedouin
Another argument is favour of the cultural influence upon language is the distinction that was made at the beginnings of history of the Arabs, namely, the difference between the sedentary populations and the nomads- the Bedouins. Not only that they were seen as very different, but two cultural backgrounds developed out of this distinction. I will tackle with language, the subject of this paper.
First of all, the Bedouins were the people of the desert. The sedentary were the people of the city. In order to better understand that there was at least a clear distinction between the two, if not a rivalry, it is important to make you familiar with a point of view which belongs to a XIV-th century homme de lettres, sociologist and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun. He talks in terms of 'social conflict' and dichotomy between desert and city. He claims that the 'generation' of the city loses its power the moment the group of warriors form the desert conquer it. This cycle repeats itself. Once the Bedouins become 'civilized', and, therefore, weaker, they, in their turn, are conquered by another 'generation' of warriors that come form the same milieu of the desert.
So, even nowadays, the Bedouins are
considered to own a very pure, correct language, the language of famous
pre-Islamic poetry, which, along with the language of the Quran shape what is
called the 'Classical' language. (Classical, not only in
terms of history, but also in terms of a canon). And it is in this type
of language that the influence of the milieu is seen. Because of the stress
this culture of the desert put on the oral tradition, many written proofs do
not exist. But, even though maybe it is not the case here of influence on a
grammatical level, as in
Also, the Bedouins were considered to be people prone to meditation. The desert itself was the ideal place for thinking, solitude, discovering oneself. These were the circumstances in which their poetry was born and for which they are famous. Their language was a very lyric one, very melodic, similar to the soft curves of the dunes in the desert. It is impossible to disregard the influence of both natural and cultural environments in this case.
So, special poetry contests were organized in places, where the people were challenging each other by reciting poetry that was seen as a virtue. Though he is not the only one, Henri Lammens talks about the myth of the Bedouin. By no means was the latter looked upon as a barbarian or lacking manners. On the contrary, he was the expression of many qualities like hospitality, generosity, courage. He was very subtle and refined in language. The Bedouin, considered a master, was surrounded by many rawi, who were his disciples, the future poets, the ones who passed the oral literary tradition on.
As already mentioned, there was a very rich oral tradition, the only means of the descendants to get acquainted with the art of their ancestors. In terms of language, the same Ibn Khaldoun makes a very interesting observation: the language between craft (written form) and habit (oral form). He claims that the best way to learn is by memorizing after constant repetition. In citing Ibn Khaldun, Miriam Cook refers to words as 'veils': 'concealing, yet revealing links between thought and understanding' (Cook, 180). She continues saying: 'Language, according to Ibn Khaldun, begins as a habit, that is, it is the repeated correct usage of words and expressions in particular ways which are deemed most effective for communicating ideas' (Cook, 182). So, it is obvious the link that is made between language and the situation of its usage. The concept of 'habit' itself is relevant. The original word in Arabic is malakah. Its entries in the dictionary are: 'trait of character, natural disposition, aptitude, gift, faculty, talent' (Wehr, 1082). So, the ability to communicate appears to be a natural disposition of man, who possesses it (also, the root of this word malakah is the verb malaka which means to possess, be the owner of). And man himself, is the expression of the cultural background and space he was brought in.
The Linguistic Situation in the Arab Space Nowadays
The current linguistic situation of the Arab world nowadays is very ambiguous. It is the case of the standard Arabic, which is the language of the media, the literary production, the conferences, the official level, and the dialects, the common, day-to-day manner of speech between the people, the language of the streets. Though it was coined by analysts as diglossia, triglossia, quadroglossia or multiglossia, this situation is very relevant in terms of linguistic conflict as the expression of cultural conflict, among others.
I will present the situation of
When the Arabs conquered this part
of the world, they came across a local population, namely the Berbers, that had their own language and culture. This is
the first level. The second one is the Arabic of the vanquishers. Later on,
this area was a colonial
The encounter between these
languages was not a happy one. When they met, they clashed. Each group cared
about its language, as much as each group cared about its culture. If it were
only about a linguistic conflict, it would not have lasted that long and at
least one side would have made some concessions for the sake of the
communication process. But, the outcome nowadays is that, according to the
statistics, 40% of the population in
That is the reason for which this situation was called linguistic conflict. But if only language was taken into account, maybe things would have worked out easier. But the one who assumes that a conquered entity (Berbers) should give up its language in favour of a nation that defines itself through language (Arabs) and that a third party (French) should renounce one of its instruments of colonization is a naïve person. And this happens because language is not to be looked at in a 'technical' way exclusively.
As I tried to prove using the two cases (
I would not go that far as to affirm, as
If one learns a foreign language, he does it by using the experience of his life and culture. It is my belief that there is no such zero point from which one can start acquiring a language from scrap, in a total independent way of what he truly represents.
Anghelescu, Nadia. Limbaj si Cultura in Civilizatia Araba. Bucuresti: Editura Stiintifica si Enciclopedica, 1986
Cooke, Miriam. 'Ibn Khaldun and Language: From Linguistic Habit to Philological Craft' Journal of Asian and African Studies XVIII (1983): 179- 188
Everett, Daniel L. 'Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Piraha.' Current Anthropology Volume 46. Number 4 (2005): 621- 646.
Lammens, Henri. Islamul. Bucuresti: Corint, 2003
Wehr, Hans. Arabic-
English Dictionary. Urbana,