LINGUIST List 6.594

Sat 22 Apr 1995

Disc: Language and Religion

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  1. benji wald, Re: 6.551 Language and Religion

Message 1: Re: 6.551 Language and Religion

Date: Mon, 17 Apr 95 21:28 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.551 Language and Religion

Tan and Gibson are among many who singled out for comment the
particular passage they quote from my earlier message on the difference
between Christianity and Islam with respect to greetings. I particularly
appreciate Tan's comments, whose fuller meaning had not occurred to me
when I wrote the last message, but then I had to think more when Stavros
Macrakis also made some comments to me about that point. Here's an
excerpt from what occurred to me, and which I wrote first for Stavros:

Arabic's privileged position in the Islamic world has been mainly religious
and cultural stuff connected with Islam and Arabic civilisation.
True, Arabic rep laced earlier languages in part of the Muslim
empire, but so did Latin replace other languages in the Roman
(later RC) empire. The strength of specifically Qur'anic Arabic
in formulaic sayings, among non-Arabic speakers as well as Arabic
 speakers, has outlived the strength of "Vulgate Latin" equivalents
in the West, assuming (reasonably, I think) that the latter
survived vernacularisation of Romance for a while. To me it is
different that addio in Greek comes transpar ently from Italian,
while Quranic Arabic greetings are preserved among Muslims
regardless of a different possible immediate source. ....

 Roman cohesion, absolutely. However, the common everyday use of Arabic
greeti ngs goes well beyond that degree of cohesion. My
speculation still stands that the original lack of linguistic
cohesion in the officially Christian world cre ated precedent
for further lack of cohesion. I should also mention that
Christ ianity had spread to many areas before the Empires
officially adopted them. At first, the ceremonies were
vernacularised. For example, when Chistianity spre ad to the
Copts through the Greek Christians of Lower Egypt, the ceremonies
wer e adopted to Coptic rather than being associated with Greek.
I hasten to add t hat a great many Greek words came into Coptic
by that means, e.g., "body" and " soul". Although Coptic
already had words for "soul" and certainly "body", the Christian
concepts embodied in the Greek loans contrasted with the implications
 of the older Coptic words associated with the older Egyptian religion,
repudia ted by the Christian Copts. Similar things can be said
for Ethiopian Christian ity. In sum, Greek was not pushed or
perceived as THE holy language, but for M uslims Arabic was, and
no schism within Islam ever challenged this. Roman Catholicism and
its rituali sation of Latin is a different matter, more similar
to the Muslim view, but sti ll not as extreme -- but Protestant
vernacularisation seems to have been a "red iscovery" of the
Eastern Orthodox principle that people should have access to
w hat they are reciting, cf. Wulfila's third century translation
of the NT into G othic, an idea which would have been anathema
to the Western church, as it gath ered strength. (Could the
Orthodox attitude be a vestige of the pre-Imperial Greek
tradition of "democracy" transformed into linguistic laissez-faire?
among other differences between the ways the Romans and Greeks
handled or were able to handle their empires. In any case, the
difference between Roman and Greek C atholic attitudes
toward language reflect more general difference in Roman and
Greek policies, or at least outcomes, in their empires.)

In the final analysis, the intimate association between Islam and
Arabic rests on the belief that Islam was revealed to Muhammad
in ARABIC. In contrast, the Christian leaders realised that
Christ's words were in Aramaic, even though the gospels were
first widely spread in Greek. Greek, then, could NOT be THE holy
 language. Latin, for all the ritualisation and attempt at centralisation
of C hristian doctrine, could not be claimed as THE holy
language on such high autho rity either. Of course, the Latin NT was
TRANSLATED from the Greek, but the Western Church said translation stops
HERE: we'll control access from now on. (Contrast the religious duty of
every Muslim to learn Arabic and every Jew to learn Hebrew in order
to receive the word, while, as far as I know, Latin remained the language
of those privileged to convey the word of God to Roman Catholics, and
Catholics were not required to know it for their salvation. I think I
am right about this. I also don't know if Sanskrit is more like Arabic/
Hebrew or Latin. I suspect it is like Latin, not a necessary language
for Hindus if you can recite your prayers and in other religious ways
do what you're told by those who know. Modern Roman Catholicism has
changed. I'm talking about the old days.)

There's the heart of the linguistic difference between Christianity
and Islam. Makes sense, right?

AFTERTHOUGHT: For that matter, Christianity seems to have long assumed
that HEBREW was THE holy language, reflected in the long-held Christian
belief that Hebrew was the "original" language, i.e., of Adam and
Eve, and thus God-given before the "curse" of the Tower of
Babel. Even Christ didn't speak to the multitudes in it, of
course, but also of course he knew it. In fact, I don't think that
the OT ever claims that Adam and Eve spoke Hebrew, or that Hebrew was
any less a product of the Tower of Babel than any other
language. The Tower story does not say what language was
previously spoken. That in itself seems significant, since
a chauvinist could have been tempted to insert "Hebrew"
instead of "ONE language" (that everybody spoke before the
Tower). I don't think the Jews claimed that Hebrew was the
original language. According to the OT, they became a nati on
much later, and Hebrew was THEIR language. Christian belief in
Hebrew as the original language seems to be a distortion of the
Jewish belief that Hebrew is THE holy language. I don't know if
this Christian assumption was canonised in any particular
Church, or whether it was only a widespread deduction by Christian
scholars. The Jewish belief that Hebrew is the holy language has
nothing to do with it being the "original" language, but,
similar to Islam, that it was the language in which God
revealed himself to the founders of the religion. ....

I'm glad I didn't try to respond before reading your message more
carefully, be cause it stimulated my thinking, esp. about the
issue of whether or not there is a "THE holy language" for
Christians (or Buddhists, despite Gautama) as there is for
Muslims (and Jews and Hindus). Incidentally, I never really thought
ab out these things before. My main interest with respect to
the topic is in th e effect of the adoption of Arabic rhetorical
styles on the discourse and ultim ately the syntax of African
and Asian languages in the Muslim sphere of influen ce.

This is the current me again now. So among the questions which occurred
to me in the above line of thought is:

1. What is the origin of the "Christian" belief in Hebrew as the original
2. How did the Roman Church justify Latin as the language of scripture?
3. What have been the various Jewish position on the original language,
 and/or why it is not named in the Bible (logic says one of the post-
 Babel languages could have been the pre-Babel language, since nobody
 else would understand it anyway)?
4. Probably some other stuff embedded rightly or wrongly in the above
 message, but I can't think of what they are at the moment?
Maybe I should add that the schisms I mentioned in Islam in the previous
message were predominantly caused by Arabic speakers, and did not
challenge the belief that Arabic was THE holy language. I can only
think of Bahai as a possible exception, though it is my impression that
Bahai is not construed of as a form of Islam by most Muslims, but may be
analogous to what Unitarianism is among "Christians".
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