Each culture has the language that it needs. Culture creates language and shapes it into a vehicle of expression and badge of identity, and this is nowhere clearer that in vocabulary and turns of phrase. The consciousness of a people, their historical experiences, their social norms - all this will find adequate expression in the devices of their language. So Shakespeare, as far as his work as an expression of the genius of the English-speaking world, can only be expressed in English, just as French is the only adequate vehicle for the 19th century philosophes, emerging as they did from a French-speaking background. Similarly, only Hebrew can do justice to the Old Testament. And in the context of this article, only the “Islamic languages” (what I call the languages of predominantly Islamic cultures, e.g. Arabic, Persian, Urdu) can adequately express the Weltanschauung, the whole sphere of concepts, of the enormously complex cultural and geo-historical phenomenon known as Islamic civilization. For it is only these languages that possess the vocabulary and phrases necessary to express the core concepts of their cultures.
But why is it so? And why do languages have a close affinity to their culture? The answer, of course, is of historical proportions. Some cultures emerged on the world scene in conjunction with their languages, as did Islam with Arabic in the beginning of the 7th century. The Qur’an can only be properly understood through Arabic, and therefore all Islamic peoples will be influenced by Islamic concepts, which are necessarily expressed in the Arabic language. Some of these peoples have identities based mainly on the Islamic religion and their national languages which express this Islamic identity. Case in point: Pakistan, which was founded on the basis of a shared Islamic identity and for which Urdu (thoroughly Persianized and Arabized, and culturally Islamized) provides a focal point of unity. The cultural influence of a language can extend beyond religious terms and become so pervasive that a whole swathe of countries can share a large treasury of common words and proper names. Travel anywhere from Morocco, to Turkey, to Iran, to Pakistan, and even to Indonesia, and you will understood if use words like kitab (book), insan (human being), aql (mind, reason), and ajnabi (foreigner.) And if your name is Shawqi (let alone commoner names like Muhammad, Ali, Ahmad etc), you might be Egyptian, Iranian, Turkish, Pakistani, or Bengali.
One of the most visual examples of this cultural, religious and linguistic shared heritage is the Arabic script. In addition to its expected use by the Arabic language itself, it is also employed by two large Islamic languages, Persian and Urdu. This results in the fact that speakers of these three languages can easily read the other languages, and can immediately recognize many common words. Turkish left the fold of the Arabic script in the 30s of the last century (despite still boasting some of the best Arabic script calligraphers in the Islamic World), and Malay chose the Latin alphabet in its bid for literacy and simplification. Despite this, some Muslims (like the embattled Uyghurs of China) still insist on the Arabic alphabet as an integral part of their identity. And even where Arabic script is no longer or was never used, Muslims learn it in order to read the Qur’an, and it adorns many a national symbol and coat of arms (in a similar rôle to Latin in European countries).
The next step in the chain of the this concept (namely the relationship between language and culture) is the realization that when a culture requires a new vocabulary, it will acquire it, either by borrowing, inventing new words, or by finding new uses for old words. When the Persians become Muslims, they borrowed most Islamic terms from Arabic but held on to some of their own ancient terms and put them to new use (an example would namaz, prayer, an old Persian word. And aramgah, shrine, literally “place of tranquility.” This contrasts with Turkish mezar, borrowed from Arabic.) A modern example, this time technological, is the Arabic word for blog, mudawwana: a brand-new neologism (if such an expression be permissible: neologism itself means new word) which derives from diwan, a Persian-derived word for “office, scriptorium, venue, gathering place.” This word wound its way into English and other European languages as divan (the example that immediately comes to my mind is the East-West Divan Orchestra, a combined Jewish-Arabic orchestra set up by the late marhum Edward Said.) This is an example of how Arabic, or rather Arabic-speaking culture, despite its relatively miniscule share of cyberspace, has managed to arabize internet terminology.
In this age of globalization, English is the international language par excellence, and there is little disputing this. It may not a universal language, it might not be spoken by all as a second language, but it is certainly the first choice of foreign language among a very large proportion of people: those who can afford to devote the finances and time necessarily to acquire a foreign language. Go to Japan, for example, and you will find a nation of mostly monolinguals, but when someone does speak a foreign language, it is likely to be English. The same applies to diverse countries in the world, including Turkey, China, Russia, and the Arab countries. The Islamic world seems to communicate increasingly and exclusively through English. So much so that English is one of the official and de facto working language of the Organization of the Islamic Conference is English and not Arabic, as would befit an Islamic institution. Indeed, most international Islamic gatherings are conducted in English, and whenever a polyglot group of Muslims meet, they are mostly likely to hold their events in English. During the holy season of hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage, the main language of communication (and of almost all street signs) is again English. Large Islamic countries have English as their main foreign language, like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Egypt. English has already become the principal vehicle of the spread of Islam, and the most lively Islamic websites and forums are in English. Important English-speaking Islamic minorities have grown in the US and the UK. All this points to English taking a central role in the Islamic faith in our age, just as Greek assumed an important rôle in early Christianity, where the New Testament was mostly written in Koiné Greek. From the background of modern cultural intercourse, in technology, literature, even music, we are witnessing a compelling phenomenon, namely the emergence of a new culture: an International English-speaking Islamic culture.
Can English become more Islamic in a cultural sense? English for Islamic Purposes (EIP) already contains numerous Islamic terms derived from Arabic and other Islamic languages. We read about salat, zakat, jihad, Allah, hajj and many more Islamic concepts. While EIP has ascended as the vehicle of the Islamic faith par excellence, it has gone through increased Islamization and Orientalization in spirit and vocabulary. All this poses an interesting question: why not go all the way, take the next logical step, and Islamize English even further?
Such a process is not novel or surprising from a historical point of view. Whenever a language was used for the expression of a new culture, it gained something of the spirit, and vocabulary, of the antecedent languages of that culture. Example: Persian, after it was heavily influenced by Arabic-mediated Islamic culture, went forth and spread Arabic words to languages further afield: Ottoman Turkish, and later Urdu was inundated with Perso-Arabic terms. Scores of other Islamic languages were affected: Chechen, Azeri, Uzbek, Kazakh, Crimean Tatar, Turkmen, and even a language as far flung as Uyghur (spoken in the outpost of Asian Islam, on the border with China, and presently threatened with marginalization) has hundreds of Persian and Arabic borrowings and is still written in Arabic script. The speakers of these languages, when they became Muslims, also saw their languages become part of the Islamic sprachsbund: the linguistic impact of Arabic combined with the cultural touch of Persian.
I propose adding English, through conscious effort, to this Islamic sprachsbund. The resultant type of English would be called Sharqi English. Sharqi means Eastern or Oriental in Arabic and is understood by the speakers of many Islamic languages. This Sharqi English would not in any way compete with standard English, but would simply serve as a vehicle of modern Islamic culture, within the context of Islamic self-expression and debate. English is to be Islamized, or Easternized, based on the following principles:
- Sharqi English will be a purely cultural tool and will be used as a vehicle of the modern culture of the Islamic world.
- Sharqi English will be identical to Standard English (as commonly used in English-speaking countries), in terms of basic vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.
- Sharqi English will be written in a modified Arabic script, which will adequately represent the sounds of Standard English in addition to Arabic. Where it is not possible to use Arabic script, Standard spelling will be retained but Sharqi terms will be transcribed according to a standardized system.
- All French, Latin, and Greek words will be replaced with Arabic, Persian, or Turkish words; or any word that has gained currency in the most of the languages of the Islamic world. Native Germanic English words will be more likely to be retained. Words common to most Islamic languages will be used in Sharqi English, even if they are to replace a native Germanic word.
I will add more details about Sharqi English in the future. For now, I will give a brief example of Sharqi English in the form of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood
اۈل اِنسانز آر بۈرن فري اَند مُساوي اِن كرامه اَند حُقوق. ذئي هَڤ عَقل اند ضَمير از اه وديعه اَند شُد سُلوك توۈردز وًن انًذر اِن اه روح اُڤ برًذرهُد.
Sharqi English Romanization
All insaanz are born free and musaawi in karaama and huquuq. They have aql and dhamiir as a wadii’a and should suluuk towards one another in a ruuh of brotherhood.
I will add more examples in further blogs.