The future of Arabic

Further to yesterday's discussion about the future of the Arabic language, Benjamin Geer writes:

"Arabs often switch to English when discussing technical subjects simply because they've studied those subjects only in English, or because Arabic equivalents for many technical terms either haven't been coined or haven't become well-known. And the reasons for this are social, not linguistic.

"Medieval Arab scientists had no trouble coining all the technical terms they needed in astronomy, mathematics, optics, medicine, etc., and many of those terms have entered the English language as a result: algebra, alkaline, algorithm, almanac, zenith, nadir, azimuth, and so on. (Is the meaning of those words obvious, or did you have to learn what they meant?) 

"The difference is that today, the dominant language of science is English. Standardisation and dissemination of new technical terms in any language don't happen without an active community of scientists who publish research in that language, a well-developed publishing industry that makes current scientific knowledge accessible to laypeople, and good schools that integrate that knowledge into their curricula. All of these are in short supply in the Arab world."

I agree that the early Arab/Muslim scientists developed many terms that were later absorbed into everyday English and that a lack of effort or incentives may be one of the reasons why few technical terms are created in Arabic today. But I still think it's more difficult to create them in Arabic than in English.

Take the word "toxic". In English, we can add bits to make "toxicology" and "toxicologist". Arabic, with its three-letter root system, can't do this. For "toxicology" you have to say "the science of poisons", while "toxicologist" becomes "a specialist in the science of poisons". Basically, it means adding whole words rather than syllables and the more technical it gets, the more cumbersome it is to express complex scientific ideas in Arabic.

Another point is that the way new words are constructed in English results in concise terms with a very precise meaning, and little room for ambiguity. For example, "anaesthesia" and its related words have a very clear medical context in English, while the relevant Arabic roots, b-n-j and kh-d-r, are potentially more ambiguous because they have more general connotations relating to drugs and narcotics. 

Yesterday, I wrote that when new Arabic words are coined, "the precise meaning may only become apparent (even to Arabs) through repeated use in a specific context" and Benjamin suggests this is true in all languages.

But I still think there is an important difference here between English and Arabic. Obviously, some new English words need explanation, though many do not. Very often, a native speaker can quite easily work out what they mean without help from anyone else, or having to look them up in a dictionary. And, I would contend, this happens far more often in English than in Arabic. Try the following words for size (they are all recent additions to the Oxford dictionary):

  • agroterrorism

  • celebutante

  • obesogenic

  • upskill