LINGUIST List 4.617

Thu 19 Aug 1993

Disc: Egyptian Linguistics

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  1. , More on Egyptian linguistics

Message 1: More on Egyptian linguistics

Date: Thu, 19 Aug 93 14:54:45 -0More on Egyptian linguistics
From: <>
Subject: More on Egyptian linguistics

A few days ago, I asked if anyone had more information about the
New York Times report of an Egyptian student denied a Ph.D.
because of a dissertation that was critical of Islam. Dilworth Parkinson,
who is knowledgable about Egyptian linguistics, sent me the following
message, and agreed to allow me to repost it to LINGUIST:

(As you see, the version of the story that I read was not quite


You're right. This has been *the* hot topic in the Egyptian press this
summer. I was there only a week in July and the newspapers were full of
articles and commentaries about the man. He is not a Ph.D. cadidate in
Linguistics who was denied his degree (unless that is another case I don't
know about), but rather an assistant professor who was denied promotion
even though he was recommended for it on the departmental level. His field
is Arabic Linguistics and he teaches in the Arabic Department at Cairo
University. The problem is that his research deals with the history of
rhetoric in Islam. Since he deals with changes and fundamentalists view
Islam as unchanging, they have interpreted his approach, which they term
secularist, as an attack on Islam. The man still has his job, and can
apply for promotion again, but will have a better chance if he omits from
his file the articles related to the offending research.

On a more frightening level, a fundamentalist lawyer, apparently hell-bent
on ruining this person's life, has filed for divorce between this professor
and his wife (a professor in the French department) on the grounds that
Islamic law does not allow a Muslim woman to be married to an apostate.
The couple found out about this case in the press. The case is on hold,
pending a ruling from the Azhar on whether the man is in fact an apostate
or not.

On a personal level, since I have been involved with linguistics in Egypt
and about Egyptian Arabic my whole professional career, I can tell you that
it is a very sensitive subject, and almost any topic has the potential of
being taken as sinister. Any study of the dialect can be taken as an
attack on Islam (i.e. as undermining Classical Arabic and giving prestige
to a degenerate form), and any study of Modern Standard Arabic (as opposed
to Classical) can also be sensitive. I tested Egyptian's ability with
Modern Standard Arabic and gave a lecture in Cairo about the results in
1990 and found to my amazement that an extremely twisted version of what I
said appeared in every paper in the country, and that for at least a month
thereafter Egyptian scholars responded mostly hostilely to the supposed
points I had made in the lecture. The title of one article will give you
the flavor of the articles: American Scholar Concludes: The Arabic Language
has become Strange to its Own People.

Egyptians care passionately about their language and every political
ideology available has as one of its primary issues some stand about
language. So while it does seem that a relatively "boring" subject like
linguistics should have the ability to be so controversial (it is difficult
to imagine any linguistics dissertation or article raising much interest
with the general public here), in Egypt, the potential is clearly always

Dilworth B. Parkinson <>

Aaron Broadwell | `To anyone who find that grammar is a
SUNY-Albany | worthless finicking with trifles, I
Albany, NY 12222 | would reply that life consists of little | things; the important matter is to see
 them largely' -- Otto Jesperson, 1925
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