On the Constraints the Arabic Language Imposes on Arabic Literature Writers

The Exact Spot Where We Pitched Camp Yesterday

The Exact Spot Where We Pitched Camp Yesterday


It’s been one helluva ride. Whenever I tell people that I translate Arabic literature, I know they’re wondering, Is that even a thing?

Well, kinda. And there are probably several reasons for the world’s reluctance to translate literature written in Arabic. In this post, I will try to uncover some of those reasons.

First, I am going to explain how the way people answer the age-old chicken-or-egg question of “What came first, language or reality?” depends mainly on the language with which they’ve been raised. In other words, I am going to expound on how language determines how we accept reality. Next, I am going to focus on the structure of the Arabic language to try and prove my theory that the way the language works influences the way Arabic speakers write when creating literature. My hypothesis is that, due to its inner structure (which, in my opinion, doesn’t equip Arabic speakers for acknowledging the indispensable figure of the third party—the arbitrator), the Arabic language makes the idea of the existence of an almighty creator almost compulsory. Arabic also doesn’t help its speakers comprehend reality in symbolical terms, and does not, therefore, lend itself to being used when creating literature the way “literature” is understood in English.

Let me begin by telling you what prompted me to examine how language disables us—insofar as it enables us—to see clearly.

For me, the choice of studying Arabic philology came easily. But back then, I couldn’t even legally drive a car, much less follow the rocky road to understanding how the Arabic language works and consequently shapes how Arabic speakers think. I’d always found language studies riveting (I know, what a dweeb!), and I often ruminated on the nature and purpose of language as a way of getting to the core of my own identity.

Like a rising number of our world’s increasingly globalized population, I was raised in a bilingual environment: Spanish at home and in the street, and German at school and in extracurricular activities. I come from a family of literary tradition, and when I was growing up, my father often warned me of the dangers of becoming unable to express myself fully and accurately enough in any one of the multiple languages I was learning simultaneously.

“At some point,” I remember him pointing out, “being theoretically able to communicate with everyone leaves you quite literally at a loss for words and eventually shut out completely.”

I made a habit of adding clauses to the sentences I wrote and, soon after, I had developed a pretty convoluted writing style. It was my way of proving to myself that I had that bitch they call “language” figured out.

As if it were gonna be that easy—I had yet to happen upon Arabic.

1. Language: our tool to assimilate reality

Reality, as compared to language, is fairly continuous. Reality came first. Second came our need to leave a mark, meaning that our vital and deeply-ingrained principle of “least effort” is always only going to allow us to apprehend the part of reality that we believe might some day profit us. This is why, sometimes, until we have a word to name a specific aspect of reality, we don’t see that aspect. Conquering, or—may I say—defining, a sliver of reality, can only be accomplished with language. But, why is it that whenever we humans stumble across a hybrid, we tag it as unnatural?

At this point, I probably should confide to you—exotic creatures who navigate the world-wide web—that I am a somewhat different sort of believer. I believe that we humans have molded ourselves into bodacious life forms. So much so, that we have developed a cognitive periscope-like device (inasmuch as it has two lenses) to sensibly approach our reality. The first lens operates much like the human eye. It helps us verify the presence of empirical phenomena on sight. It roughly sizes up the phenomena, but doesn’t furnish us with measurements, or with the details of how we are to engage. That’s the job of the second lens—to manage expectations—because we are clever enough to refrain, on each encounter with reality, from seeing it with new eyes.

This second lens sieves the bits that have proven worthy of our consideration, by virtue of being germane to the subject we are already invested in, from the rest of the inexhaustible amount of information. This way, we do not have to undertake the process of unscrambling reality anew with each encounter—a waste of both our time and our mental resources.

This second lens provides us with coherency. It feeds us a conceptual map in which the projections of reality flout the laws of physics and forge bonds with other projections. For instance, many would agree that it makes sense to associate virtue with chastity, religion, innocence, and the color white on one hand, and the proverbial necessity of which one can make a virtue on the other hand. The second lens acts mainly as a safety mechanism, so that we don’t take too many chances when venturing into the unknown.

In the aftermath of forgetting what these associations shield us from, humans sacralized folk wisdom, decided to follow conventions, employed proverbs, concocted fairy tales, and ultimately, invented religion, which indeed works wonders as a tool to deter us from disregarding preconceived notions, to the extent of making us believe that the values we conventionally place on the fabric of reality, by dint of what our ancestors deemed valuable, are actually inherent features of reality’s manifestations. Thus, we became all too eager to lose perspective and drive the physical aspect of reality to tally with its symbolical one. One can register this when, for example, religious people try to compel reality to behave according to what an omniscient being allows humans to see as beings who, after many generations, have become cognizant of how the world should spin so that we as a species—which from a semiotic perspective is, in fact, a superior being in itself—stay alive.

But, the vexed question, which has lately taken on a new significance, remains: How much do we need to change our perception of reality? More specifically, how many of the teachings from our past, of which we’ve grown fond, will we need to forfeit to adapt to a more globalized world with dynamics happening on a very different scale? In my opinion, we must become smarter and begin shouldering more responsibility—a responsibility we’ve shared with the “man upstairs” since the beginning of time—for how we create and recreate reality.

And here is where it gets intriguing for me. You see, I believe that languages assume the bulk of responsibility for how we allow ourselves to see reality, and I surmise that some languages are more inclined than others (because of the way their structure had to be fit to accommodate the specific needs of those who came up with them in the first place) to urge their speakers to view reality through a religious prism, and review it only once in a blue moon. In my book, Arabic is one of these languages. Why? Because of how it is arranged.


2. Case study: the Arabic language

2.1. Growth dynamics

The Arabic language is comprised of words that, for the most part, stem from a system bearing some resemblance to that of primordial societies. Three consonants—also called radicals—constitute the words’ lexical root: they remind the words of their origin and establish their identity. Then, each member of the semantic family lands itself a job, which couples with what the word’s identity makes it capable of, in order to be able to contribute autonomously to the creation of derivative meaning. The job prescribes wearing a visible batch, or a uniform, if you will. This suit of armor is called “paradigm” and has phonological, morphological, semantical and, in some cases, syntactical implications.

So far, Arabic looks pretty much like any other language. Nonetheless, the signifier (the appearance) is less arbitrarily linked to and is more automatically revealing of the significance (the meaning) of the words in Arabic than in English because the semantic family stops growing as soon as all the positions the family members can hold have been filled. The number of available paradigms was set from the very beginning according to what early Arabic speakers knew about how to engage with reality. This is also the case with the number of possible radical combinations available to form new semantic families, mainly due to phonological reasons.

Take, for example, the “writing” semantic family. Its different members (to write, writer, library, desk, book, letter, etc.) all share the same radicals, k-t-b. To form the words that belong to this family (kataba, katib, maktaba, maktab, kitab, maktub, etc.), different paradigms are applied to the radicals, including affixes and alliterations. In English, this would be comparable to having “writee” for book, “writorium” for library, “written” for letter, and so on.

You know how with the English language you always have a hard time guessing the etymology of a word? This doesn’t happen with Arabic. Arabic words of foreign ancestry—namely, neologisms—can be spotted from a distance. Native speakers are doomed to perceive the vague promise of a future, more multiculti Arabic language always undeserving of their efforts because, since paradigms cannot be modified nor augmented in any way, the sacrifice they would have to make in order to coin derivations from the original Arabic vocabulary which can absorb new aspects of reality is way too heavy.

The structure of the language makes Arabic change at a slower rate than English. As a result, in the long run, its speakers require a much slower changing reality to keep pace with its developments than do English speakers. The method Arabic speakers employ to have their language cover aspects of reality not previously observable without having to coin new words involves the adding of meaning to preexisting terms. Thus, most words become ultrapolysemic containers and acquire a broad and intemporal character, where one single word can mean simultaneously anything from mushroom, to fungus, to natural disposition, to form, to breakfast, etc. The different meanings a word bears may grow apart, but because the words cannot adopt even a slightly different form—a new name, a fresh start—from that of their forefathers, they cannot dissociate themselves conceptually. In Arabic, the distinction between polysemy and homonymy is blurry because the language cannot afford two unrelated meanings in one word.

This leads to a dire consequence: signifiers are never created spontaneously. In Arabic, unlike in English, there must be a preexisting and widely-approved need to justify creating a new signifier. Yet, it is very important that signifiers can be generated spontaneously to carry nuances of meaning the need of whose expression arises from the particular situation the particular speaker who first comes up with the newly forged signifier finds himself in when he first feels the urge to utter what is not yet a recognized word and may never become one. For the speaker to be able to verbalize a new and fleeting impression a particular set of circumstances may have left him with (although he may be unsure how, exactly, to define this impression or whether it makes sense to record this impression for posterity), he must be able to resort to linguistic elements that do not mean anything concrete per se, some sort of linguistic wild cards.

In English, these are mainly bound affixes that have, over time, lost much of their original meaning. A new adjective, for example, can come into being thanks to the addition to not only a noun, but also to other word types, like a conditional clause (for example, the adjective “if-f-y”) of a variety of suffixes (“-al”, “-ie”, “-some”, “-ish”, “-ful”, etc.) whose meaning is rather uncertain. This allows English speakers to dream up new words right off the top of their heads. Additionally, English speakers implement a whole range of word-formation techniques that also add meaning to newly-coined words, even though each specific technique might have been chosen pretty randomly.

By way of illustration, clipped words (ad, gator, gym) are coined when the words from which they spring (advertisement, alligator, gymnasium) have to be used frequently in less technical contexts than the ones that originated them, and thus, the newly conceived words become associated with a less formal register than the ones from which they derived; words formed by reduplication denote an exhortation or a wink of mutual understanding (night-night, bye-bye, okey-dokey, chick-flick); and so on.

Consequently, English enables its speakers to develop their language in a more intuitive manner than Arabic does. In English, chance plays a big role in the formation of language, whereas in Arabic, it doesn’t.

For a language to evolve, it is imperative that its words have the capacity to become morphemes. The meaning words carry must be able to become outdated, to be pushed into the background, even to be forgotten. For any linguistic particle to become part of a bigger structure, it must surrender part of its identity. That cannot happen in Arabic. Thus, idioms are rare in Arabic, and words bear only lexical meaning, not contextual meaning. 

Synonyms in English are words that in a very specific context perform the same semantic function. In Arabic, however, the relationships that exist between the different linguistic segments develop in an invariable sphere of reality that is abstracted from the knowledge of reality that was acquired when people’s environment was so hazardous to their survival that no risks could be taken when trying to build an early society. This abstraction of reality, which precedes all of reality’s manifestations from which humankind has subsequently gained knowledge, became fossilized and is impervious to evidence contradicting it. Words are synonymous with each other because they have to be synonymous in the context that matters. Likewise, the contexts where the words that are synonymous in the context that matters cannot be regarded as synonymous cannot be glimpsed. The context that matters, the primordial one, is blown out of proportion, and language doesn’t stand a chance of stripping reality of its false veneer of predictability. That being the case, synonyms are less virtually and more perfectly so in Arabic than in English.

Therefore, Arabic words don’t imply. Their duty when in context is to mean something pre-established. Consequently, they can never be placed in a position where the boundaries of what they are supposed to mean have to be redrawn so that they can mean something they have never meant before. Thus, Arabic speakers have a difficult time distinguishing what a word means from what it hints at—in other words, denotation from connotation. And this barrier to think in literary terms (which is a hobby that, at least, in the West, stands in stark contrast to the occupation of taking the language that enshrouds reality literally) leaves Arabic speakers paralyzed.

This is the detrimental effect a hieratic language—in every sense of the word—exerts on its speakers. The language lacks the bricks, and the speakers lack the incentive, to build metaphoric bridges between concepts that, despite belonging to different morphological and contextual families, share features that may bring them together in the speakers’ minds, where they may even fall in love and bear offspring.

Furthermore, when people are forced to look at reality through the specs provided by a language evolving at a slow rate, they cannot afford to desacralize the terms that structure their society and help them to survive. They cannot afford to have the words that need to be understood univocally in certain contexts running rogue and being used sarcastically, because the words would then lose their meaning. Imagine, for instance, that school children with English as their mother tongue still referred to the pencils they throw at each other and stick in their noses as “little wieners”. Since this would deprive them of their innocence, of their possibility to discover reality in two different times—before and after they are fully aware of their actions’ repercussions—, in Arabic, “dick” stays “dick” and never becomes “phallus”; “bitch” stays “bitch” and never becomes “dissed grown woman who flouts social conventions”; and God outlives Nietzsche.


2.2. The article: A two-alternative vs. a three-alternative model

This phenomenon also emerges from the fact that the Arabic language has only a definitive article and the lack thereof, which serves as an indefinite article. In contrast, the English language offers its speakers three different options to introduce a certain object, all morphologically disparate: “the,” “a/an,” and the lack of either. Definite articles are typically used to refer to objects that have previously been put into context, while indefinite articles are used to refer to those objects which are still foreign to the context at hand. For example, “I know the answer to the question” versus “I know how to give a straight answer to the question.” However, in English, one can also say, “I know how to answer questions people are too afraid to ask.”

The neither known nor unknown “questions” and “people”, which constitute the third alternative the English language provides its speakers to refer to their reality, allow English speakers to see a set of possible scenarios where the “question” at issue is neither one specific and contextualized object, nor an object that has not yet been contextualized further but has been singularized to be revealed. Instead, the third alternative provides an object that is not intended to be placed into context, save as an abstract representation, and whose allusion is merely meant to help the context benefit from the audience’s extrapolation of its general characteristics. In Arabic, it is predominantly the definite article that helps introduce concepts not necessarily adopting a concrete manifestation that would compel them to take place—for instance, when introducing nouns wrapped in idiomatic expressions.

Accordingly, the concepts framed by words in Arabic take on a more defined complexion than those framed by English words because, in Arabic, there is an almost perfect correspondence between concepts and words. English concepts, on the other hand, may be formulated by linguistic elements that correlate with words, but may also be smaller or bigger than any single word, making Arabic prone to advance a more discrete understanding of reality than the one English does.

Arabic speakers don’t need (at least as much as English speakers do) to see the abstract terms that appear on paper surrounded by specific phrasal companions—in combination with which they form collocations in English—to grasp what they stand for. This is because Arabic words are not so eager to relinquish their sense of wholeness to join a bigger structure, and thus contribute to defining a more elaborate concept. For that reason, Arabic words are singly more able to summon up a complete image than the English ones. Since the notions the Arabic language licenses its speakers to have are fuzzier than the ones the English language projects before they are set in context, the Arabic speakers’ need to have their words mean something specific when in context narrows the range of what they can mean eventually. Therefore, in Arabic, the context doesn’t require boasting as many elements to localize the contextual meaning of every single word as it does in English. Hence, the writing style Arabic authors adopt when trying to create literature seems rather dense, clumsy, and preachy for English speakers’ taste. English speakers might get the impression that this disrupts the text flow and fails to allow the text to conjure up original literary images. This can be appreciated very clearly, for example, in “A Whiff of Farewell in the Air.”


2.3. Absolute distance vs. relative distance

Another aspect of the Arabic language that hinders the capacity of its speakers to write complicated fiction is the lack of definition power its verb tenses have to specify when actions are occurring relative to the speaker (i.e. actions are either finished or underway, but the verb tense does not distinguish between past and present). The verb tenses prevent locating the experience being depicted in a time frame established according to the time distance the speaker keeps with it. Arabic has a perfect, a progressive, and a perfect progressive tense (future is indicated by a prefix that can only be added to the progressive tense). These tenses allow Arabic writers to describe how a certain plot unfolds in line with how the characters of the story engage with their reality at the very moment their reality is being illustrated, but the tenses foil their attempts to maintain themselves as authors in a timeline different to that of their fictional characters.

This poses the following problem: Arabic authors struggle to bring their fictional characters back to the time where the action was first happening after having had an incident reported in flashback. Authors can only manage to jump back and forth from a past time frame to a present one if they can tell the difference between themselves and their characters. Otherwise, when narrating the past, when dwelling on it, when recapturing it, the author would get stuck in a past he wouldn’t be able to return from. The present time the character was in before starting to relive his past would have been replaced by his past, which would have automatically become present.

Arabic authors tend to make the places where their characters become narrators and start rememorating match the places where their characters’ recollections take place. The past of the characters is dramatized where they are at present in order to have their present time originate from their past and not turn into a different story. What often happens, therefore, is that the characters in Arabic fiction are usually startled out of their reveries to wake up to a reality where they were expecting to find a continuation of what was going on in their heads. They are then surprised to find that their present time has suddenly overtaken their past or their alternate future, as if what had changed was not the time, but they themselves. A story that illustrates this point particularly well is “The Self of the Heart and Other Innards.”

Additionally, Arabic writers usually move from describing developments that occur repeatedly over a long period of time to outlining a specific event that unfolded only once without stating whether the event took place in the past or in the present. To Arabic speakers, only the present time counts, and, thus, the systematic repetition of an action over a certain period of time, which, in English, constitutes a routine, cannot be represented. All are isolated incidents which do not get to be considered as a different entity en bloc. In some cases, the writer might simply insert an adverb clause of time such as “that day,” which indicates that the character is temporarily situated, although it is not disclosed to the readers when he is situated, because, contrary to what an English reader might think, in Arabic it is self-explanatory. It equates to “next” or “after the last of those isolated incidents that just happened.”

For example: “He went for a run in the mornings. That morning, he stumbled upon a girl.” Thus, we know that the character’s everyday morning run was meant not only for the author, but also for the character in the story, to bring the character to stumble upon the girl the author wanted to incorporate into the plot. The character suddenly becomes aware of the relevance of his past—to spark off his present time—as if it were the same as the relevance of what gets presented of his past: to make its implications for his present time understandable for the readers. What day did he stumble upon the girl? The day he was meant to stumble upon her, because it is how the script reads.


2.4. Inherent vs. acquired traits

Furthermore, the Arabic language doesn’t boast many elements to allow its speakers to differentiate the restrictive from the non-restrictive ways to approach reality. In Arabic, they are one and the same. Therefore, I might be saying, “I only like women, who like to do the dishes” when I say “I only like women who like to do the dishes.” One statement conveys the idea that I like my women to do the dishes, while the other hints at my conviction that I am attracted to nothing but women, who happen to be the creatures that like to spend their days in the kitchen. I can assure you it can come in handy to be able to draw a distinction between the state a certain object might get into due to the conditions it has to abide by when in a specific context and the essential properties of the object at issue. Since Arabic doesn’t provide such a mechanism, the red dress that helped the little girl to stand out in the crowd becomes the little girl’s identification card forever. She can never be seen wearing a blue dress because she can only be recognized wearing red.

The fact that Arabic speakers believe that anything that has a predisposition to take a certain form or get into a certain state has necessarily to take it is indicative of how their way of thinking has been shaped by their inability to distinguish between the qualitative and classifying properties of their surroundings. It’s just a matter of time. Women can get pregnant, ergo, women cannot choose not to fall pregnant if they still want to be discerned as women.


3. Conclusion

Arabic can only deliver unequivocal news, because the language doesn’t facilitate the distinction between signified and referent. Considering the fact that no linguistic construction can mean two separate things at the same time, Arabic cannot advance a symbolic understanding of reality. Since the language does not have a past perfect tense, Arabic speakers cannot see an evolution from one moment in the past to the next, which would allow them to see that, since we can verify that there were aspects of reality we hadn’t discovered until a latter point in time, it is only reasonable to assume that there are other aspects of reality we have yet to discover. Hence, in Arabic, unexpected features of reality are not awaiting to be discovered. Arabic refutes perspectivism.

Moreover, reality is immanent in language. There is no unwritten law Arabic speakers are encouraged to observe. Pragmatics is not a field in Arabic linguistics that has been regulated nor systematized, because Arabic words are functionally deictic. The phatic function is only performed by a cluster of fixed polite forms because Arabic speakers don’t feel the need to communicate anything beyond what they must communicate to deliver their message; they do not fear their message may be misconstrued. They don’t hold expectations about the message and, thus, repetitive messages hardly ever seem trite.

Once, I had a teacher who tried to explain to the class the meaning of “inshallah”—roughly translatable as “God willing.” She told us that people used the expression to respond to yes/no questions. Hence, the electrician you reach out to in order to get your bathroom lights repaired might use it in reply to your question as to whether he is willing to show up at your house the next morning. It neither means the acceptance nor the rejection of the compromise. It doesn’t even reflect the electrician’s intention of parrying the question or deferring his decision. It is the negation of language, the negation of the possibility of reaching an understanding. In theory, according to what experience teaches us, God won’t start objecting now to electricians doing their job. Hence, “inshallah” should be understood affirmatively. But, since it has to be understood anew every time it finds expression, it never becomes fully synonymous with “yes.” The electrician cannot be expected to arrive, your questions are not expected to be answered, and you are not required to seek compromises with a third party because reality is expected to get in the way of your attempt at getting your life under control. Reality is always disappointing, because it cannot be but ideal, the way language shapes it. Arabic is not designed to describe reality, only to prescribe it.

In short, I believe that, since the purpose of literature is to stretch the bounds of how reality is perceived, in order to write literature, Arabic speakers will have to first acknowledge that, from their single and static standpoint, they won’t be able to understand reality as fully and accurately as the present times demand. They will have to allow their language to be contaminated by other languages to embrace the linguistic segments that can allow them to see that their take on reality is not the only one there is to adopt. As I see it, they must start by writing in the vernacular.