LINGUIST List 6.534

Sun 09 Apr 1995

Disc: Language and Religion

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  1. benji wald, lg & religion

Message 1: lg & religion

Date: Fri, 07 Apr 95 22:41 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: lg & religion

I read Dr. Abdussalam's summary of language and religion with interest. I
miss ed his original inquiry. Otherwise, I would have responded
to him in person an d let him summarise. However, what the
question brings to my mind about BORROWING I think of
sufficient interest to post to the list in general.

First, with regard to the notion of classifying languages according to
religion , at least for languages of Islamic populations, there
are some interesting observations to be made. Among them is
that Arabic has influenced a great many languages of various
types and genetic families specifically by the loan of
conjunctions and adverbs. Words like amma "but" (sometimes
"or"), (wa)lakin "but, however" etc., and one of my favorites a discourse
marker bass "enough, that's it, so, then (in a logical sense)"
Bass is actually a loan from Persian (I t hink) but then spread
widely through Arabic. Middle Eastern Arabic sometimes uses
xalaas "enough, finished!" in some contexts where bass is used in other
dia lects and more generally in the languages of other Muslims.
(in Somali it sound s more like biss). There is no equivalent
in European (Christian?) languages, so I can't translate exactly
how it works in discourse with a single word, but from its use
in Swahili (form is basi), I recognise quite well how it is used
i n other languages where it has been borrowed.

The original question reminded me of the following personal experience,
related to the above point. Once, fresh from East Africa, I
arrived on a particular store-front street in Brussels, Belgium which
has both Turkish and Arabic (North African) shops. As I moved
from one shop to another and listened to conversations in them,
the SAME Arabic loans, regardless of language, came to my ears.
In fact, they were so salient that I felt I could understand
the general topics of conversation through the Arabic cues and the
situational context, not too difficult for me for Arabic, since
I have heard it a lot in various places, but also for Turkish
(although despite some familiarity with Turkish vocabulary and
grammatical structure I may be deluding myself about how much I
understood). Of course, greetings were Arabic "salaam aleykum", "
marahaba" etc., and the words mentioned above, among various loans
among nouns and verbs.

Muslim greetings are general to Muslims regardless of language
used. Nothing comparable exists in the Christian world -- which suggests
the latter is not as cohesive (in some sense that I cannot
fully specify -- something to do with acknowlegment of a
cultural link/"brotherhood" on the basis of religion across
what may be otherwise very distinct peoples.) Although there
have been deep schisms into sects in the history of Islam, I
wonder if its relative symbolic linguistic cohesion compared
to Christianity may not be a consequence of the initial split
among Christians between the Eastern/Byzantine and
Western/Roman empires, where there was also the initial administrative
linguistic division between Greek in the East and Latin in the West.)

Similarly, I was once trying to remember the Wolof greetings I had heard
in Dakar, Senegal but couldn't. Then I went to a Senegalese
store in New York and realised why. They use the same Arabic greetings,
not distinct Wolof greetings (that is, as the most general and
common greeting). Swahili, as a lingua franca and standardised
language, is perhaps even more widely spoken by non-Muslims
than Muslims, so that when you are taught the standard language
you will learn standard Swahili greetings like "habari (gani)?",
literally "what's the news?", and even habari is one of those
pan-Islamic Arabic l oans, xabar (news/something worth
reporting, cf. Turkish-influenced Greek "ti khabari-o") But
among the Swahilis of the coast it is usual for Muslims to
greet each other with "salaam aleykum" and respond "w-aleykum
salaam". Not only that, but the greetings are so much a part
of the culture that there are specific intonation patterns and
other aspects of delivery that are expected in giving the
greetings. That also applies to other languages. For example,
once at a bus-stop in Mombasa I was joking with a Somali girl and her
mother. They had been talking about me, wondering who/what I
was. I was chewing qat, a favorite Somali recreation. I
laughed and they realised I understood. We started talking, in
Swahili, and then some Somali men passed by and we all
exchanged Arabic greetings. The men moved on. Later at some
point, the girl asked me what my religion was. I didn't want
to tell her, so I joked with her about why she didn't assume I
was Muslim. She said I hadn't done the Arabic greeting like a
Muslim -- I realised that, it was half-hearted because I didn't know the
people and was reserved, but I didn't know she would interpret it as follows.
She said, a Muslim gives the greeting from the stomach, I had only given
it fr om the throat. I understood what she meant in terms of delivery.

Islamic symbolism through Arabic is a well-known feature of many languages.
The supposed difference between "Hindi" and "Urdu" are
well-known examples. In the 1960s, when I studied Hindi with a Hindu
teacher I was told that kitaab is the Urdu word for "book" (an
Arabic loan) but the " correct" Hindi word is pustak (from
Sanskrit). This reflected an attempt in the aftermath of
Hindu-Muslim antagonism in Northern India to polarise the
difference between the various forms of Hind(ustan)i. I have
noticed since that kitaab has remained the usual Hindi word for
"book" among Hindus, so that the purification/polarisation
attempts of an earlier period have not succeeded, and I don't
think the attempt is still being pressed to the same degree. I don't
 know, but would be interested in hearing if Arabic loans play
any role in differentiating Serbian as spoken by Serbs and
Bosnian Muslims -- possibly not in terms o f distinct "dialects"
but as stylistic devices allowing Muslims to symbolise their common
religion, as in the case of Arabic greetings. I haven't seen any
references on that, but I haven't looked. If so, as in Greek,
the Arabic words would have come through Turkish, although in
Greece religious conversion to Islam was negligible compared to

The interesting but not surprising feature of Arabic loans is
that among the various Muslim languages, speakers remain conscious of
many if not most of the Arabic loans, so that they can transfer from one
langua ge to another as a distinct component of the vocabulary
of the donor language, even though it is often not Arabic
directly. Very often this is because of their cultural
content, and, of course, recognition is aided by the religious
stud y of Quranic Arabic among Muslims of all language backgrounds.
However, examples like the durable Hindi kitaab "book" show
that innovative concepts is not the only reason. After all,
literacy and books were well established in India before Islam.
Thus, an issue remains of the religious symbolic status of loans
expressing ordinary concepts. I can imagine, for example, that among
Muslim Hindi/Urdu speakers kitaab is A book, and pustak is a
fancy Sanskrit word for the same and/or for some Hindu religious
writings, but that only kitaab could also be THE book, meaning the Qur'an.
It could not be legitimately called a pustak for cultural
reasons; I'm only guessi ng about this.

Meanwhile, on the other side of cultural loans, it is interesting that
Swahili uses a Bantu word chuo specifically for Arabic/Quranic
school. In most languag es darasa, from Arabic, would be the
word. In Swahili darasa means "class (whe re lessons are
taught)" or even "classroom" in general. Actually, when kids go
 to Quranic class they usually refer to it as "darasa", but out of
context dara sa has no religious connotations, while chuo always
has the religious connotati on of Islam -- skuli (from English in
Kenya) and shule (from German in Tanzania) refer to secular primary school.
chuo probably originally meant the pre-Islamic educational
system associated with acculturation of a set of youngsters,
maybe associated with instruction prior to initiation into an
official age-set (rika), and then was transferred to Isla mic
education when the Swahili people became Muslims.

Apart from the above, I can guess that Dr. Abdussalaam's original
inquiry might also have been motivated by religious divisions in
particular Arabic communiti es with regard to the dialects of
its speakers. Thus, Chaim Blanc (1948?) described the division
of Arabic in Baghdad at the time into a Muslim, Christian and
Jewish dialect. The Christian and Jewish dialects were similar but very
distinct from the Muslim dialect in terms of phonology, some morphology
and lexicon. His explanation was that the Jewish-Christian
varieties were the pre-Islamic varieties of Arabic spoken
there, and that the Muslim variety had been imp orted from
elsewhere after Islam became politically dominant in the area.
Presumably, locals who became Muslims adopted the dialect which
originally came from another (more southern?) area and was
associated with the change in political power. The historical
differences were maintained due to the communal cultural
differences among the different religious populations. As I recall,
Baghdad was earlier an Akkadian and eventually Aramaic
(Mandaic/Chaldean etc) area, and I don't know how the original
"Jewish-Christian" dialect of Arabic was established there. Benji
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