This week I came across a post by Ian Bogost in the Atlantic called, “Shaka, When the Walls Fell“. The subject matter, of all things, was an episode of Star Trek, but more generally, language, figurative language, and meaning. If, like me, you are not a Trekkie, Bogost has your back. He recounts the episode nearly play-by-play while leading you gently in to the deep waters of language and meaning. I suggest reading the piece, so I won’t give a grand redux here. Rather, here are some main points and questions that I have been thinking about since:
Bogost offers a subtle and powerful critique of the way metaphor is typically depicted. The characters on the Enterprise are trying to talk to another species, the Tamarians, who communicate purely through short verbal referents to historical, cultural occurrences. Some call it metaphor, some images, and Bogost suggests: “Troi and Picard can’t help but interpret Tamarian through their (and our) cultural obsession with mimicry: Metaphorical language operates not by signification, but as poetry, by transforming the real in a symbolic mirror.”
He doesn’t go here (and in fact goes a completely different direction), but he has me wondering when (or if ever) words, whether figurative or as referent or sign, are ever real, or if they are always merely mirrors. I want to veer to the other end of that proposition. There are times that I feel words like weights inside me. They dangle before dropping from my thoughts. My eyes tighten in response and recast my vision and memory. This isn’t always. But there are times when words, especially those operating as metaphor, couldn’t feel more “real” (whatever that is).
The following is a Guest Post from my good friend and a great scholar, Janine Jones, a doctoral student in modern Middle East intellectual history at The University of Texas at Austin. It stems from conversations we have had sharing the interests that cross our disciplines—language, literacies, equity, education.
Among linguists, Arabic is commonly classified as a diglossic language*. In other words, written Arabic, the language of novels and newspapers, is distinct from the dialects spoken on the streets. The formalized, proper Arabic that constitutes the official language of print throughout the Arabic-speaking world is only spoken aloud in certain contexts: by news anchors like the hosts of Al Jazeera; by politicians giving formal speeches; by lecturers in university; and in other formal contexts.
This formal Arabic, called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or fuṣḥā, is rooted in the grammar and vocabulary of the Qur’an, and, like many written languages, is standardized through orthographic and grammatical conventions. MSA is taught in schools and requires a certain amount of training since it is spoken so little and differs so much from the language of everyday conversation. In fact, MSA is so distinct from Arabic dialects that some researchers have even suggested Arabic speakers process it in the brain as a second language.
To put this into perspective, a rough analogy would be if American English speakers only read books and heard the news in a Chaucerian-style Middle English, while still speaking current American English in our homes and day-to-day interactions. Imagine this as your nightly news:
Arabic dialects—of which Egyptian Arabic or Masry is the most widely spoken–are quite different from MSA as languages. They are fluid and changing, and have lacked orthographic, lexical, and grammatical standardization because they are quite literally never written down. That is, with the exception of a handful of avant-garde novels published at the end of the twentieth century, they have not been written down with any degree of consistency until nowwith the rise of social media platforms.
As Facebook, text messages, IMing and blogs have proliferated throughout the Arabic-speaking world, colloquial Arabic has begun a rapid transition to a written language. In 2008, a new Wikipediawas launched in Masry. The 2011 Egyptian uprisings, called in some corners the “Facebook Revolution” were facilitated through the use of social media and written and organized in Egyptian Arabic, as much as in MSA.
And, as more and more people gain access to the Internet, social media platforms are shifting communication across political and social barriers. Many Palestinian families, who have been unable to visit ancestral homes or see relatives because of the political imbroglio with Israel, are finally able to communicate regularly.Unmarried young men and women who previously would not be able to communicate outside of properly chaperoned outings are chatting online, leading to new questions about the parameters and extent of religious and cultural sanction for various uses of social media.
These types of political and social democratization receive a lot of press. Rarely, though, do we have such stark, clear examples of social media as democratizing mechanism at the level of language. And it is the language democratization that is further collapsing class-based barriers to communication that come part and parcel with diglossic languages*.
Janine is happy to entertain your questions or comments below. And as always, I’d love to have you join us in this conversation.
* Diglossic languages like Arabic are typically maintained through social hierarchies; usually there’s a “high” language (in this case MSA) that is culturally prestigious, and a “low” language of the common people. In Arabic, MSA is held in high esteem specifically because it is held to be modeled on Qur’anic grammar, though it is worth noting here that MSA is grammatically simpler than the language of the Qur’an, called Classical Arabic. Since Muslims believe that the Qur’an contains the literal words of God—that He actually spoke the Arabic language—there are many cultural and religious reasons to wish to keep the language static. But, of course, as any linguist would tell you, languages do change by nature. Still, there is nothing like L’Académie française or the Real Academía Española for Arabic. It’s the limited, educated, and upper crust nature of MSA, and its relationship to religious textual tradition, that keeps its progression relatively stagnant.