Language is different. We shouldn’t settle for just knowing how to use it. To understand it is to understand what it means to be human. Speech is deeply entwined in all aspects of our lives. It’s not hyperbole to say that linguistics is the universal social science. It intrudes into almost every area of knowledge: psychology, sociology, neuroscience, anthropology, literature, philosophy and computing. If that’s not enough, professional linguists must have some knowledge of anatomy (albeit an incomplete slice, from the diaphragm to the brain) and also of physics, which is important in the study of phonetics.

Wherever we are, language is. Most of what we do, we do using language. Ignoring its workings seems foolish. And this isn’t just a question of satisfying intellectual curiosity. Listening to people speak a language you can’t understand is a strange and maddening experience. It can be more than that. It can be the origin of prejudice and hostility. If you are unable to talk to someone, it’s hard to appreciate how much you have in common. When I was nineteen, I arrived at university and took a course in Arabic. I didn’t want to. I wanted to learn Farsi, my father’s language, but the rules said you couldn’t study that on its own from scratch. I had to take another language too, and Arabic was the obvious choice (Farsi borrows around 30 per cent of its vocabulary from Arabic). I may have been a reluctant student, but what happened over the following weeks and months was a revelation – and one I’ve never told anyone about, because it’s embarrassing to admit to prejudice, however vague, and however young you were at the time. My perceptions of the Arab world, insofar as I thought about it at all, had been shaped by news reports of violence in Palestine and in Lebanon, of the Lockerbie bombing, of hijackings and the war waged by Iraq on Iran.

I wasn’t alone in this: when baddies in movies weren’t English, they were Arabs. If I pictured an Arab in my head, he was an angry man, jabbing his finger and shouting guttural syllables at a news camera. At the same time, I thought the script was beautiful – but then scripts don’t have an accent. The sound of a human voice has a unique emotional resonance, and the resonance here was bad. But as I began to chip away at the edifice of Arabic grammar, to learn about its elegance and precision, something changed in my attitude to Arabs and the Arab world. I found myself spellbound by Arabic morphology – the way that words are built up – and I still find it astonishing today.

Every word in Arabic, unless it’s been borrowed from another language, is based on a set of three, or more rarely four, consonants. This is the scaffolding around which the word is built. So you have, for example, ‘k-t-b’, which is the root that has to do with books and writing. Maktab means ‘offi ce’, kitaab is ‘book’, kataba is ‘to write’, kaatib is ‘a scribe’, aktubu means ‘I write’, and so on. The roots can be used to build verbs which take up to ten forms: kataba is form I, kattaba form II, kaataba form III. Skipping ahead,form X is istaktaba. Any root can be made into a verb using these patterns: so, form II of the root ‘m-l-k’, which has to do with owning or possessing, would be mallaka, form III maalaka and form X istamlaka

Each of these forms has its own ‘flavour’ of meaning. Form II is often a causative verb: kattaba means ‘to make someone write something’, mallaka means ‘to make someone the owner of something’. Form III is often about doing the action to or with someone else. So kaataba means ‘to correspond with someone’. Form III of ‘m-l-k’, maalaka, doesn’t actually exist (not all roots take every possible form). Form X often involves asking for something or thinking something should be done. Istaktaba is ‘to ask someone to write something’. Istamlaka is ‘to take possession of something’. 

This was my first experience of a non-Indo-European language, and it overturned my assumptions about what language was. Everything that had seemed natural and obvious to me – like the way you look up a word in the dictionary – turned out to be a quirk of the languages I was used to. (In Arabic you have to pick out the root consonants and look the word up under that entry. Istaktaba doesn’t come under ‘i’ but under ‘k’.) The formal kind of Arabic I was studying seemed a lot more sophisticated than English in many ways, and my main feeling was one of respect, awe even. I’m not saying it was the verbs that did it, but they were a way in. Of course, I was learning much more about the Arab world in general; but in terms of establishing a human connection, there was something fundamental about getting to grips with the language. Arabic was no longer scary sounding. Learning it had offered me a more accurate picture.

People are now more exposed to foreign languages than ever before. Sadly, we’re not better linguists – far from it, in many cases. But as we move about modern cities and fly abroad for business or pleasure, we hear foreign accents and incomprehensible words far more often than our ancestors did. There is a risk that we fall back on our instinct to disidentify with these people, to judge them as being not like us, or worse, not quite human. Understanding the mechanics of language – not necessarily understanding the words, but appreciating that here is a complex mode of expression with layers just like our own (phonemes, morphemes, words and syntax) – can help check this instinct. If you are a native English speaker, you’re also now more likely to be exposed to more people who speak your language with some degree of difficulty. You may find their speech laborious, or their accents grating. You may fall into the trap of thinking that they are slower or less intelligent than you because they struggle with English prepositions (on, over), phrasal verbs (do up, tie down), or definite and indefinite articles (the, a). Perhaps if you knew what these things were, and how they are not laws of nature but idiosyncrasies of your own language (many others lack articles, don’t use phrasal verbs, and the number of prepositions varies hugely), you might not.

Extracted with permission from Don’t Believe a Word: Surprising Truth About Language, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2019 

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