The Limitations of Language: High School Students Recite the Pledge in Arabic, People Piss Themselves.

I try not to be terribly combative in real life. It’s a struggle because I have a temper. I have discovered an activity that helps me be more patient and also helps me analyze political and social issues to a much more fine degree.

I read Todd Starnes’s Fox opinion blog. It’s kind of like a conservative gawker in a weird way. His posts are very short and generally express anguish over something somebody else has done. He also enjoys declaring wars for others, like a liberal “war” on Christianity, or whatever.

So, some Colorado students as part of a multicultural club decided to say the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic. People would’ve likely not gotten too upset if they had not used the  Arabic cognate “allah” instead of “god.”

Where my education lies, however, is not with Starnes, but with the comment section (I was recently banned; a revelation of how variations on the “report” button make it easy to censor alternative views). It was an opportunity for me to converse with those who disagree with me over almost everything. People get very upset with me in conservative forums and comment sections. They attack me, are sexist, degrading, threatening, or insult me for having gone to Berkeley. I’m kind of used to it, unfortunately.

Where I learn things, however, is in my use of Aristotelian rhetoric. I simply ask questions.

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Now, there are major obvious issues with parents freaking out over this. I’m going to consolidate a lot of the comments I left on this blog to break down some major issues. Here are the obvious ones I won’t really talk about:

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  1. Xenophobia: People associate the Arabic language with terrorist cells, thus they want to isolate America from the Arabic world. They cannot differentiate between the  larger culture of Arabic people and an extreme minority. Some people simply equate the two.
  2. Racism: This goes along with the Xenophobia. All (non-white) Arabic people supposedly hate the United States and the American way of life (though nobody can actually define the “American way” for me, no matter how many times I ask).

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To me, these two things are so obvious that they’re boring to talk about. Everyone with a little sense and the will to do some research can learn that Islamic terrorists are extremists. They are the exception to the rule.

Now, what is really interesting to me is how this questions language and the ability of language to fully express meaning.

Understanding linguistics is really difficult. It’s impossible for symbols and grammar to full express the meaning and connotation of a concept.

You have to admit that there is a lot of baggage surrounding the word “allah” in American culture. Trying to deny that fact is pointless. Rather, the issue is why there is that baggage. Acts of terrorism against this country were perpetrated by people who use the word “allah” to mean an “Islamic” god who favors forced conversion and violence against non-believers. That is terrible; it’s terrible when violent extremists reappropriate a faith to match their personal convictions.

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However, this situation is an opportunity to reflect upon the fact that such extremists do not reflect the beliefs of the majority of Arabic and Islamic people’s. They are the exception to the rule in a similar way that extreme Christians who murder abortion doctors and the Westboro Baptist Church do not reflect the beliefs of most American Christians. Some people said this was a false equivalency, but it’s not an equivalency.  They merely function similarly. The idea is that extremists are extremists because only a few of them believe it; so we can’t reasonably treat all people of a particular community as we would the extremists.

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I have also said before that extremists think themselves the majority and the minority at the same time. We get confused and afraid that the extremists will win because when it suits them, they purport themselves to be a larger community than they really are. Tea Party activists do this a lot with the rhetoric of “taking back America.” Such language implies an original possession, that they are the true and real America and the extremists and non-true-Americans have stolen it from them. On the B side, when they are challenged or opposed, it suits them to play the martyr, the victim, the “little guy” who’s fighting the Goliath of “mainstream media” or other “majority” group. These are examples of extremists manipulating language.

Here are some terms:

  • Cognate: “In linguisticscognates are words that have a common etymological origin.”
  • Proper noun: ” a noun that in its primary application refers to a unique entity
  • Connotation: “a commonly understood subjective cultural or emotional association that some word or phrase carries, in addition to the word’s or phrase’s explicit or literal meaning, which is its denotation.”

The major issue in this story has to do with the words for “god” and what they suggest. The inability for words to be entirely literal is the BIGGEST issue with language. For instance  “god” and “allah” are cognates. They are words that have common origins. Christianity was born in the Middle East, along with the other local Semitic languages. Therefore, there is a ton of linguistic overlap between Hebrew, Aramaic (Jesus’s language), and Arabic.

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Indeed, because Jesus spoke Aramaic, evidence shows that he would’ve referred to god as “elah.” Sound familiar? Jesus did not speak English. The word “elah” literally translates to “awesome,” which is not a proper name, but a term. It is etymologically related to the word “allah,” and actually precedes it considering that Christianity was founded before Islam.

sean 2The words allah, yehova, jehova, elah, and waaaay more (per the many monotheistic religions) all break down to a variation on the concept of “sole deity.” This is a title, not a name. In polytheistic religions, there must be names, proper nouns, in order to differentiate between different gods. In monotheistic religions, there is no need to differentiate. So there is one word, one single title. God in the Christian faith, for instance, has no “real” name. He has a name that cannot be pronounced by humans, so we have no choice but to stick with a generic title. His name for humans is the same as his title: god, or “the lord”. Further, there are thousands of words for “king” but they all reference the same figure. So, while the rules and backgrounds on the faith are different, the language and basic concepts are the same.

I believe this is what these students were trying to share. They were showing an underlying commonality, similarities between cultures through language.

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Therefore, the literal functionality of the language is not preferring one religion over another. Rather, there is a connotation that “allah” means Islamic god whereas “god” means Christian god.

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You might then think “What about Jesus? That’s a proper name.” And that is correct! However, “Jesus” is the English name for him. In reality, because so much damn time has passed and language has changed so much, translations of his name span the spectrum. However, because he has a name and is a specific figure, his character transcends languages. In Islam, for instance, Jesus is “Isa.” His character remains the same, though, so there is no other Isa rolling around doing non-Jesusy things. Isa is a prophet in Islam. In Hebrew he’s Yeshua, in Spanish Jesús.

Because of the instability of language, this one guy has had several freaking names. However, if you look across them all, they share some similar structures, similar foundations. We don’t have that same luxury with the “names” of god because they are all different characters with the same title. Jesus is the same character with different names.

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When Jewish kids and Islamic kids say “under god” while reciting the pledge in English, they are personally swearing to the flag under their specific deity. The word is flexible. The meaning is complex. When a Christian uses the word “allah” in that context, they are personally swearing under their specific deity.

So, basically, this here is an opportunity for us to discuss the limitations and powers of language to unite and divide. We get to look into the meaning beyond words.

We must discuss the baggage surrounding language, and in a rhetorical sense stir up questions about the ability of language to express meaning. Is the meaning altered by a translation? If so, how so?

The Arabic Language is not the Islamic Language. Islam predates the modern Arabic language. Language is a reflection of geographical communities and the migration of peoples. It’s a facet of human culture. Religion is a facet of human culture that is expressed through language. It does not dictate language. Language evolves to give us the means to communicate meaning. Religion is one type of meaning.

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Both religion and language are symptoms of human analysis. Language helps us ask questions. Religion helps us answer questions. (I am making no assertions for or against the accuracy of religion. It’s merely one way to answer questions.)

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It’s impossible for us to truly talk about the issues of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic unless we speak both Arabic and English. Only then will we have the literal and figurative vocabulary to explore whether or not the meaning is altered in translation.

Such an issue in translation raises questions about the meaningful accuracy of sacred religious texts that have been translated from languages nobody speaks anymore. The English language did not develop in congress with Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic. It was constructed out of Germanic tribal language and French Latin a couple thousand years later. While all languages share words and structures, English and Semitic languages are very different. For instance, they don’t even share a written alphabet. Translations take into account the aural aspect of the language. We all know the instability of oral storytelling, particularly if you’ve ever played the game Telephone.

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Coming right around to it, I would like to say to everyone freaking out about this:

  1. You’re probably being pretty racist, and
  2. I assure you that using the word “allah” in an Arabic version of the Pledge of Allegiance is not Islamic evangelism. It is merely an example of how Language cannot reflect all meaning. It shows how connotation undermines the ability of language to be literal. Language cannot separate cultural baggage from the literal roots of the words. This is because language is flexible, unstable, and limited. Our minds and culture are much too complex to be summed up in a single word.

The very concept of god, of any god, is beyond our comprehension. It is definitely, therefore, beyond our ability to describe it. Further, every language carries with it the failures and accomplishments of its speakers. We cannot give in, however, to linguistic bigotry. While language is limited, the wealth of information it imparts is not. We have the ability to talk and write until we pass out. Because of that, we should endeavor to root out the meanings underneath the words and address the volumes of information in one term, one title, and an entire vocabulary.

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