Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Best Language

I overheard some university teachers complaining because the UAE ministry of higher education (and their bosses) require them to teach in English. It would be so much easier if they could teach in Arabic.

Their students are currently about 30% Arabic speakers, 30% Farsi speakers, and 30% Urdu speakers. Early Caliphs told the Farsi speakers and the Urdu speakers that they should all learn Arabic, and they all agreed, but they never did. Have I ever heard of such a thing in the West? Never. (I carefully covered my ears when my history teacher was going over the history of the Papacy and the Catholic Church, and the equally short lifespans of early Popes and early Caliphs, all of whom were miraculously preserved from the ailments associated with old age.)

I once 'borrowed' a book on English by Bill Bryson (full of errors, I might add, but then Bryson, asked how one gets into the writing business, eplained that non-fiction doesn't have to be true, it just has to be something people will pay to read, or, in the case of this tome, that someone's aunt will buy for her nephew, who, not liking the book, will then lend it out). The book explained that English is the world's best, most advanced language. Upon reading this, I tossed the book across the room, feeling that this was one of Bryson's more egregious errors.

All languages do what they have to do, and seem to do it well enough. One serious polyglot, who knows Polish, German, French, Dutch, and English (and she's not even German) said it was easier for her to express herself in German than in any other language, because German was the strongest, most powerful language. Of course, English stole all the good German words Englishmen needed, good words like schadenfreud and ausgeschictenliesermachtenbefallengesuntschlagenhosen. But still, this lady said, she'd rather say it in real German. And she's not even German, it was her third or fourth language.

So I had to ask these Arab teachers, 'Why?' I got two answers. First, that Arabic is the most precise language, because it has 105 words for lion. I wondered if that was true, and found several Orientalist sources that said Arabic has 500 words for lion. (Apparently, the Orientalist didn't understand enough Arabic to know whether his source was saying '105' or '500.')

English has lots of words for types of boat, and types of sword, though 'ship,' and 'sailboat' are about it for me and ocean-going craft. I have no idea what sloops, ketches, and yawls do with their ports and haulyarks. Similarly with swords, I can't go much beyond cutlass and two-handed broadsword (which I found, enchanted to +5, in a computer game, once). I'm completely foiled about other words that might serve for types of sword.

But we have, for lions, only lion, lioness, and cub. So English is clearly deficient. I tried to point out that, if one lives somewhere that doesn't have any lions, one doesn't really need a language that has 105 words for it. I asked if Arabic had any other features that made it the best language.

'It is the language of the Holy Koran!'

Of course, I can't argue with that. Saying, 'Well, English is the language of the King James Version,' doesn't have quite the same cachet, especially here. So I let it go at that.

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