May 23, 2012

“This is not to say that what has come to be called modern standard (ie modern classical) Arabic is exactly the same as that of the Quran, 14 centuries ago. It isn’t the same: although the Quran remains a much-studied text, its language (as in the example of the classical speaker I gave above) is an antique, even stilted and for daily life unusable, and compared to the modern prose used everywhere today resembles a very “high” sounding prose-poetry. The modern classical is the result mainly of a fascinating modernisation of the language that begins during the last decades of the 19th century — the period of the Nahda, or renaissance — carried out mainly by a group of men in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt (a striking number of them Christian) who set themselves the collective task of bringing Arabic as a language into the modern world by modifying and somewhat simplifying its syntax, through the process of Arabising (isti’rab) the 7th century original, that is introducing such words as “train” and “company” and “democracy” and “socialism” that couldn’t have existed during the classical period, and by excavating the language’s immense resources through the technical grammatical process of al-qiyas, or analogy (a subject brilliantly discussed by Stekevych who demonstrates in minute detail how Arabic’s grammatical laws of derivation were mobilised by the Nahda reformers to absorb new words and concepts into the system without in any way upsetting it); thereby, in a sense, these men forced on classical Arabic a whole new vocabulary, which is roughly 60 per cent of today’s classical standard language.”

-Edward Said


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