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Sacred semantics

Using English to separate 'Allah' from 'God' has become a dangerous practice.

April 06, 2008|Rabih Alameddine | Rabih Alameddine is the author of the novel "The Hakawati," due out this month.

All living languages are promiscuous. We promiscuous speakers shamelessly shoplift words, plucking bons mots and phrases from any tempting language. We wear these words when we wish to be more formal, more elegant, more mysterious, worldly, precise, vague. They flash on our fingers like gaudy rings, adorn our hair, warm our necks like rich foreign scarves. They become our favorite trousers, the shoes we cannot live without, our way of describing illness to our doctors, declaring love to our lovers, formulating policies, doing business. We believe we own them and are frequently astonished to discover their original roots in another language.

English, a mongrel from the start, greedily helps itself to foreign words more than any other. The Oxford English Dictionary lists more than 500,000 of them, whereas German has about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000, according to "The Story of English" by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil. Give us your tired, your poor, your fabulous words yearning to be free. We'll take them.

English has always had a special fondness for other European languages, a neighborly soft spot -- perhaps because Britain has been invaded by speakers of those languages from the onset of its recorded history.

But not so much fondness for the languages of non-neighbors. Despite huge increases in immigration from Africa and Asia in the last 50 years, English has resisted adopting words from these continents, except for the names of certain foods. Think of Mandarin words that have come into the language. How about from Tagalog? ("Kowtow," "shanghai" and "typhoon" from Mandarin; "boondocks" and "yo-yo" from Tagalog.)

So whenever I come across an Arabic word mired in English text, I am momentarily shocked out of the narrative. Of course, English has pilfered numerous bits of Arabic -- "artichoke," "zero," "genie," "henna," "saffron," "harem," "tariff" -- but the appropriation was so long ago that few English speakers know the words' origin. These dictionary entries were probably introduced by the Moors into Spanish first, and then by the Spaniards into English.

What has Arabic done for us lately?

If we take away the familiar food pilferages ("hummus," "falafel"), words recently adopted from Arabic are all troublesome: "hijab," "intifada," "fatwa" and "jihad." For an English speaker, the first suggest humiliation, the last three violence.

In Arabic, the word "hijab" means any type of veil or cover. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "the head scarf worn by Muslim women, sometimes including a veil that covers the face except for the eyes." In Arabic, "intifada" denotes rebellion, a throwing off of shackles. Merriam-Webster's definition is an armed uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "Fatwa" isn't simply a religious decree; it's an Islamic religious decree. Even though a fatwa could be an exhortation by, say, a Moroccan cleric to raise literacy for women, in English, it is used almost exclusively in reference to the ignominious Salman Rushdie affair, in which former Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the death of the novelist because of Rushdie's alleged blasphemy in his novel, "The Satanic Verses."

And "jihad" comes from the word "excel," juhd or ijtihad in Arabic. It means a holy war or righteous struggle. Some schools in the Middle East, religious and secular, will hold jihads -- or special intense programs to get students to accomplish something -- to improve math scores and raise reading levels. Although most English usage I've come across refers only to an Islamic holy war, I have begun to see "jihad" as a synonym for crusade (originally a Christian holy war, broadened now) and a vigorous fight against something. In other words, jihad, this English word, might one day encompass its full Arabic meaning.

English has yet to incorporate these words fully, and history suggests it might never do so. The language is filled with words that are culture specific: "sahib," "coolie," "effendi," "bey." The word "emir" simply means prince in Arabic, but in English it is a prince or ruler of an Islamic state. When my sister in Beirut tells her daughter a bedtime story, the emir kisses the sleeping princess awake. No mother in the U.S. or Britain would let an emir anywhere near a princess' lips. No princess will ever sing "Someday My Emir Will Come."

That in some ways is how it should be. Language, after all, is organic. You can't force words into existence. You can't force new meanings into words. And some words can't or won't or shouldn't be laundered or neutered. Language develops naturally.

I bring all this up, however, to get to the word whose connotation I would love to see changed -- "Allah."

Allah means God.

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