The Arabic language before Islam
The Arabic language before Islam used to meet the needs of the Arab tribes on the semi- island known today as Saudi Arabia. The language was relatively simple and there was no formal standard language unifying all Arabs under its banner. But even prior to Islam there was a need for borrowing foreign ideas and concepts which referred to areas foreign to Arab culture such administration. Words like qalam (pencil) borrowed from Greek and Sira:T (way from Latin strata) along with many other words borrowed from Persian were used and even mentioned in the Quran. (See the foreign vocabulary in the Quran). Some other examples of early borrowings from Greek are words like daftar (notebook), funduq (hotel).
After Islam and the contacts with the neighboring developed civilizations like the Sassanid’s, the Greek, the Byzantines, Arabic as the language of the holy script developed at a dramatic pace overrunning its sister languages like Aramaic and Arabizing the vocabulary of non-Arab languages (see Arabic jumruk: customs, corrupted from Latin commercium). Arabic words penetrated nearly all oriental languages reaching all Islamic countries. It soon became the lingua franca of Orient per se. The 800 year Islamic rule of Spain gave European languages many Arabic words (algebra, alcohol). As early the 8th century Arabic lexicography, next to Chinese, boasted the greatest lexicographic achievement. This was instigated by the necessity to read and understand Quran and a need to help non-Arab Muslims with the language. Many Quran glossaries appeared which ultimately led to a preoccupation with linguistic studies in general and Arabic language in particular. In his work titled Kitab Al-Ain, so called after the letter 3ain which it begins with, the deepest Arabic sound in the human sound tract, with a pun on the words “eye” and “well” which 3ain can additionally refer to, Khalil bin Ahmad (born A.D. 718) first arranged the stock of Arabic words.
In the age of industrialization and traditional journalism
Advances in science and technology originating mostly in West European and North American world in the 20th century after the industrial revolution were relatively slow and recipient languages had enough time to integrate the relevant terminology into their own languages and actively use them. At least spoken Arabic still uses words like telefon (phone), televiision (television), raadio (radio) telegram and typhoid (typhoid)… The Arabic language institutes in Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus driven by national awareness but without any co-ordination coined new words on the basis of loan translation mostly based on English models which to varying degrees gained some currency. For example ?idhaa3a (broadcasting), haatif (phone). Other words like qitaar “train” and “sayyaara” or “3arabiyya” in some spoken varieties, were used. The new vocabulary of psychology, literature, medicine, art….and particularly of journalism was based entirely on loan translation. People joked about the journalese in Arabic in words such as (taTawwiraat 3ala ?aS-SiHHa) development on health.
Arabs are usually not aware of those loan translations. On the other hand Arabic could easily cope with incorporating the new terminology. School and university education made borrowings from west European languages necessary. Yet, communication among experts in different disciplines had and has still to be conducted mostly in English particularly in the more prestigious disciplines such as medicine; engineering, loan translation and borrowings became indispensible. Arab institutes in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad were founded to translate and incorporate the new vocabulary.
As a Semitic language Arabic has powerful word engineering possibilities. Words can be coined from the roots (usually three Arabic letters) which carry the core meaning by way of affixation. Most languages have two affixes (prefix and suffix) to make new words: satsisfied – dissatisfied – satisfaction. Arabic has additionally an infix. Thus, new terminology can easily be coined by additions (affixes) which can be added not only to nouns but also to verbs. For example the three consonants k-t-b carry the core meaning “write” but words like maktaba (bookshop/library) or ka:tib (writer) can be coined easily.
Globalization, IT and modern scientific advances
However globalization and the advent of global communication means like satellite TV, internet, mobile phones and advances in nearly all scientific and technological areas, made Arabic face new challenges. But keeping pace with the accelerated pace of important changes, is not an easy matter. Arabic translation dictionaries have often been based on literal translations of English or French dictionaries. They are slow, neither uniform in their choice of the new terminology nor comprehensive or regularly updated.
In the age of globalization, industries doing business with the Arab world are in need of Arabic translations of their manuals and product descriptions and a language to meet their purposes in their presentations. They now need ASP: Arabic for special purposes. TV and radio advertising are in dire need of a uniform data bank to resort to for translations and processing specialist terminology. Communication became easier and faster and global business possible. However, fast advances and the emergence of English as a global language have marginalized many a language. European and North American companies (Microsoft) have tried desperately to build their own data bases in order to communicate their message to the Arab customer.
These companies are facing the following problems:
1. The problem of integrating new ideas and concepts into Arabic
2. Harmonization of terminology
3. The Arabic Script
Not only Arabic but many other languages are now facing new challenges and dangers. In the age of specialization and sub-specialization most of scientific communication is conducted, written or spoken in English. If languages like Arabic fall behind in their scientific terminology, the risk that they one day might be limited only to the needs of everyday life will be higher. They might even cease to exist as a medium of communication for more sophisticated scientific challenges. Arabs need to develop different registers to meet the needs of different disciplines. The question is how far Arabic is able to cope with language of medicine, engineering, Information technology, law……How to create data banks like Oxford (developments in corpus linguistics) and unify different translations of the same ideas and concepts. But even when such terminologies are available they will be only available to a small elite group as long as the Arab masses lack the necessary skills needed to understand such modern academic and technical concepts. To make matters worse the Arab political systems neither encourage nor all of them have the necessary funds to promote such undertakings.
Finally I would like to conclude with the following remarks:
1. Developing countries which only consumes the modern technology and do not produce it will lag behind not only in technological innovations but also in incorporating the new concepts in their terminology.
2. Prestigious degrees like those in medicine engineering are coveted greatly in Arab countries simply because of lack of awareness that other disciplines could be worth of studying.
3. The number of books translated by Arab is indeed not worth mentioning. For example all books translated into Arabic does not equal the number of one year of translated books into Spanish.
4. Lack of organizational structures and governmental funds. One problem is that everything is left to the government because there is no private sector. This has shown that concentrating everything in the hands of government because it controls the national resources like oil has great drawbacks.
5. Terminology is no more a scientific issue it is a commercial issue. The developing world can hope that big multinational companies are interested in tackling this issue for profit reasons.