Arabic in Conflict: A Study in Ideology, Anxiety, and Terrorism

The ACRPS has published Arabic in Conflict: A Study in Ideology, Anxiety, and Terrorism (408 pp.) by Yasir Suleiman-Malley. The book is divided into four chapters on issues of encoding, connection, disconnection, and variation; of language ideologies and their intersection with symbols; of anxiety, language anxiety, and Arabic-language anxiety; the Arabic language and terrorism; of American language policy; and so on.

An important point in language overall is the distinction between the performative and symbolic roles of language. The former relates to the communicative function of language by providing means of communication that allow the community to meet its needs, according to al-Khaṣāʾiṣ by Uthman ibn Jinni, one of the best-known works of philology and philosophy of language and replete with the inner workings of Arabic. The book defines language as “sounds by which a given people express their intentions”, which invokes none of the key concepts by which language is defined in modern linguistics such as structure and system. Instead, ibn Jinni expresses that the essential function of language is communication, without which it would be impossible to live life. Linguists across history have studied, codified, and attempted to understand the mental representations of communication to crack the code of how meaning is transmitted through speech and writing.

In terms of modern Arabic linguistics, which the author views as highly dependent on and indebted to Western linguistics for major scientific discoveries that cannot be overlooked, Arabic in Conflict shows that the field can indeed chart courses that strengthen the Arabic language’s cultural specificity, using the concept of “mother tongue” as used in Western linguistics scholarship as an example. The auther holds that the application of this concept to Arabic will create intellectual arbitrariness turning it into an almost foreign language; modern linguistics has a negative attitude toward popular linguistics despite the latter’s position at the heart of language ideology and its importance for language management in state institutions, especially the education sector.

Western linguistics is captive to its culture: it does not grant foundational premises in other cultures the standing by which its principles are forcibly inserted into various aspects the Arabic language to prove the discipline’s universality – even though Arab grammarians analysed these phenomena in ancient times with a methodological open-handedness warranting a great degree of descriptive restraint.

The first chapter discusses language encoding in two parts. The first part establishes a semiotic understanding of symbols that includes but is not limited to language, despite the ambiguity of the term “symbol” and its many meanings spanning the disciplines and theoretical frameworks in which it is used. The second part provides real-life examples demonstrating the symbolic use of the Arabic language in historical contexts of conflict, supported by other examples from various cultures that substantiate coding theory for human language.

The second chapter addresses at length Arabic language ideology and the reasons why modern linguistics has delayed in studying it, putting forth an interpretation based on while also going beyond previous research. The author holds that this is necessary in order to link Arabic linguistics to other academic disciplines (e.g., political science) that place great stock in the concept of ideology with its sociological intersections.

The third chapter is devoted to “language anxiety”, combining theory and application on a subject overlooked by modern linguistic theory. The chapter surveys the key characteristics of anxiety in clinical psychology. The fourth chapter is a study on terrorism, written originally in English but translated into Arabic before publication, examining the symbolism of language from the outside and specifically the post-9/11 United States.

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