The Future of the Arabic Language. (EXCERPT)
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
By Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) Translated from Arabic by Adnan Haydar
Do bombs and weapons destroy a civilization? Is it the media or other outlets that destroy it? What really destroys others is really in the hands of the learned, or is it not?
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What is the future of the Arabic language?
Language is but one manifestation of the power of invention in a nation’s totality or public self. But if this power slumbers, language will stop in its tracks, and to stop is to regress, and regression leads to death and extinction.
Therefore, the future of the Arabic language is tied to the presence or absence of invention in all the countries that speak Arabic. Where invention is present, the future of the language will be glorious like its past, and where it is absent, the future will be like the present of its two sisters—Syriac and Classical Hebrew.
And what is this power we call invention?
It is the nation’s resolve to move ever forward. It is in the nation’s heart, a hunger and thirst for the unknown, and in its soul a chain of dreams that the nation seeks to realize day and night, and every time one of the links in the chain is realized, life adds another one. It is, for that individual, a yearning for brilliance and for the group enthusiasm. And what is brilliance save the ability to mold the group’s hidden tendencies into clear and tangible forms. In the Jahiliyya* the poet was always prepared because the Arabs then were in a state of readiness. Likewise, in the period bridging the Jahiliyya with Islam, the poet prospered and expanded his talents because the Arabs then were in a state of growth and expansion. In the post-classical period the poet split his loyalties because the Islamic nation was in a state of disunion. And the poet kept on progressing, ascending and changing his color, appearing at times as a philosopher, at other times as a physician, and at still other times, as an astronomer, until the Arabic language was lured to drowsiness and then to sleep. And in its deep sleep the poets reverted to versifiers; the philosophers metamorphosed into scholastic theologians, the physicians into quacks; and the astronomers into fortune-tellers.
If the above is correct, the future of the Arabic language is closely tied to the power of invention in all the nations that speak Arabic. And if those nations together were possessed of a private self or unity of spirit, and if the power of invention in that self were to wake up after a long sleep, the future of the Arabic language would be as glorious as its past. And if not, it will not happen.
What kind of influence would the European Civilization and the Western Spirit have on it?
As for the Western Spirit, it is but a stage in man’s life and a chapter of his existence. For man’s life is a formidable procession that forever moves forward. And out of that golden dust arising from the roads he travels, languages, governments and sects are fashioned. The nations that walk in the forefront of this procession are the inventive ones, and that which is inventive is that which influences. On the other hand, the nations that walk last in the procession are the ones that imitate, and the imitator is the one who is influenced. So when the Easterners were ahead and the Westerners were behind, our civilization had a great influence on their languages. But now, since they are in the front and we have lagged behind, their civilization has necessarily exerted great influence on our language, our thinking and our morality.
Whereas the Westerners in the past consumed what we cooked, partaking of our food, swallowing it, and transforming what was useful to their very being, the Easterners, at present, consume what the Westerners cook; they swallow their food, but it does not become part of their being. Rather, it transforms them into something similar to their counterparts in the West. This is a result that I fear and complain about because it presents the East, at times, as an old man who has lost his molars and at other times, as an infant who has not yet sprouted them.
The Western Spirit is at once our friend and our enemy. It is a friend if we can vanquish it and an enemy if it can vanquish us, a friend if we can open our hearts to it, and an enemy if we offer it our hearts, a friend if we borrow from it what suits us and an enemy if we place ourselves in situations that suit it.
What influence does the present Arab political scene have on our language?
All writers and thinkers in both the East and the West agree that the Arab countries are in a state of political, psychological, and administrative confusion, and most of them agree that this confusion is the harbinger of destruction and extinction. I, however, ask: Is it confusion or boredom?
If it is boredom, it will spell the death of every nation and the end of every people. Boredom is dying in the form of drowsiness, and death in the semblance of sleep. And if it is in reality, confusion. I believe that confusion is always useful because it brings to light that which was hidden in the nation’s soul, changing this soul’s intoxication to sobriety and its stupor to wakefulness, precisely the way a powerful storm shakes the trees, not to uproot them, but to break their dead branches and scatter their yellow leaves.
And if confusion appears in a nation that still possesses some inborn qualities, that will be the plainest proof of the presence in its individuals of the power of invention and the power of initiative in its public soul. Is not mist the first word in the book of life, not the last? And what is the mist save a life rife with confusion?
Therefore the influence of political development in the Arab countries will change these countries’ confusion into order and their ambiguities and their problems into harmonious organization. But it neither alters their boredom to passion nor to excitement. For the potter may be able to fashion from clay a jug for wine or vinegar, but he cannot fashion anything from sand and pebbles.
What is the best means to revive the Arabic language?
The best and only means is to be found in the poet’s heart, on his lips, and at his finger tips. The poet is the mediator between the power of invention and humanity. He is the cable that transfers what the world of the soul conceives to the world of research, and what the world of thought determines to the world of retention and writing.
The poet is both the father and the mother of language; language travels the same roads he travels and stops to rest where he stops to rest, and if the poet dies, language sits on his grave crying over the loss, wailing until another poet passes by and extends his hands to it. And if the poet is both the father and the mother of language, the imitator is the weaver of its shroud and the digger of its grave.
By poet, I mean every inventor, be he big or small, every discoverer, be he strong or weak, every creator, be he great or humble, every lover of pure life, be he a master or a pauper and everyone who stands in awe before the day and the night, be he a philosopher or a guard at a vineyard. The imitator, on the other hand, is the one who does not discover or create anything, but rather the one whose state of mind is borrowed from his contemporaries and whose conventional garments are made from the tatters of garments worn by his predecessors.
By poet, I mean that farmer who plows his field with a plow that differs, however little, from the plow he inherited from his father, in order that someone will come after him to give the new plow a new name; I mean that gardener who breeds an orange flower and plants it between a red and yellow flower, in order that someone will come after him to give the new flower a new name; or that weaver who produces on his loom patterns and designs that differ from those his neighbors weave, in order that someone will give his fabric a new name. By poet, I mean the sailor who hoists a third sail to a ship that has only two, or the builder who builds a house with two doors and two windows among houses built with one door and one window, or the dyer who mixes colors that no one before him has mixed, in order to produce a new color for someone who arrives later on to give the ship of the language a new sail, the house a new window, and the garment a new color.
As for the imitator, he is the one who travels from place to place on the roads that a thousand and one caravans have traveled, making sure he does not deviate from his course for fear he will get lost; he is the one who earns his living, eats, drinks, and wears the clothes of a thousand generations before him, and so his life remains a mere echo, his whole being a mere shadow of a distant truth he neither knows anything about it, nor cares to know.
By poet, I mean that worshipper who enters the temple of his own soul and kneels down crying of joy, wailing, rejoicing, listening. And when he comes out, his lips and tongue articulate nouns, verbs, letters, and new meanings for the various patterns of his own adoration which renew themselves everyday, and for the many types of his own supplications that change every night. Thus he adds with this effort a silver string to the lute of the language and a perfumed branch to its hearth. The imitator, on the other hand, is the one who repeats the worshippers' prayers and their supplications without an act of will on his part, without even an emotion, and thus leaves the language where he finds it and keeps his personal rhetoric where there is neither rhetoric nor distinctive character.
By poet, I mean that lover who, when he falls in love with a woman, his soul isolates itself and walks away from all that is human in order to drape his dreams with embodiments of the day’s splendor, the night’s terror, the tempests’ rage and the valleys’ calm, then goes on to fashion from its experiences a wreath to grace the head of the language, and mold from its contentment a necklace to adorn its neck.
The imitator, on the other hand, is the one who copies others even when he loves, or flirts or celebrates his beloved in verse. So if he happens to describe his beloved’s face or neck, he says "moon" and "“gazelle"; if he thinks of her hair, her figure and her glances, he says "night," "bent branch," and "arrows"; and if he complains about his love, he says "a sleepless eyelid," "“a distant dawn," and "close rebuker"; and if he decides to come up with a rhetorical feat, he will say "my beloved sheds tears of pearls from her narcissus eyes in order to water her roseate cheeks, and bites her fingers of gum-arabic, with her hail-like teeth." And so our friend keeps on aping this hackneyed song, not realizing that he is poisoning with his stupidity the richness of the language and insulting, with his abuse, its honor and nobility.
I have talked about the "innovative" and its benefits and the "barren" and the harm that comes from it, but I have yet to mention those who spend their lives writing dictionaries and founding language academies. I have not said a word about them because I believe that they are like the beach between the ebb and the flow of the language and that their job is limited to functioning like a sieve. Now sifting is a good job, but what can the sifter possibly sift if the nation’s innovative power plants only chaff and harvests only straw, and hoards in its threshing floors only thorn and thistle?
Again I say the life of the language, its unification, its propagation and all that has any relationship to it have been and will always be the product of the poets’ imaginations. But do we have poets?
Yes we do have poets, and every Easterner can be a poet in his field, in his garden, before his loom, in his temple, on his pulpit, and in his library. Every Easterner can free himself from the prison house of imitation and tradition and come out to meet the sun and walk in the procession of life. Every Easterner can submit to the power of innovation that lies hidden in his soul—that eternal power that transforms rock to God’s children.
As for those who have devoted themselves to versifying and setting in prose their talents, to them I say: Let your personal aims prevail over your attempts to follow the tracks of those who preceded you, for it is better for you and for the Arabic language to build a poor hut made of your humble selves than to erect a lofty palace made of your borrowed selves. Let your self-esteem prevent you from composing eulogies, elegies, and occasional poems, for it is better for you and for the Arabic language to die despised and cast out than to burn the incense of your hearts before the idols and the monuments. Let your national zeal spur you to depict the mysteries of pain and the miracles of joy that characterize life in the East, for it is better for you and for the Arabic language to adopt the simplest events in your surroundings and clothe them with the fabric of your imagination, than to translate the most beautiful and the most respected of what the Westerners have written.
The young Khalil Gibran
*Jahiliyya: "The Age of Ignorance." A reference to the period in Arabia before the rise of Islam.
From Al-bada'ic wa al-tara'if. Translation copyright 2010 by Adnan Haydar. All rights reserved.