Arabic Meta-Grammars (Part 2)

In a previous post, we started to discuss the activities of Arabic meta-grammarians in the 4th/10th century. These meta-grammarians were operating within a particular understanding of what grammar is (it is the study of how the endings of Arabic words change depending on their function within a sentence, as I discussed in an earlier post), and how it functions (the default assumption was that every change in ending is caused by an `amil, a syntactical agent, which is often another word within the sentence).

The syntactical agent assumption was questioned a couple of centuries later by the Cordoban Ibn Mada’ (d. 592/1196), who attacked the traditional grammarians in his book al-Radd `ala al-Nuhah (Refutation of the Grammarians). He argued that there is no need for the concept of syntactical agents, and showed that the traditional approach is arbitrary and sometimes questionable as it resorts to circuitous explanations to make data fit into this arbitrary system. For example, he says the question of why the mubtada’ is in the marfu` state is unnecessary; the answer is simply that this is the way Arabs spoke. Similarly, he says the traditional meta-explanation that the vocative is mansub because it can be considered the direct object (maf`ul bihi) of an implicit verb, “I summon,” is pretentious and misleading, because the vocative “Hey, John!” is an inceptive (insha’i) statement, whereas the alleged equivalent “I summon John,” is an informative/descriptive (khabari).

Ibn Mada’ was a judge under the Almohads, and followed the ‘literalist’ (Zahiri) school of Islamic law. His attack on the grammarians is conceptually similar to the Zahiri jurists’ attacks on the formalism and affectedness they perceived in the 4 established Sunni schools of law. (The Zahiris favor sticking to what God or His Prophet have advised, without looking for rationales or constructing theoretical models. Pork, for example, is prohibited simply because God has prohibited it; one should not try to deduce any further reasons or rationales.) Even if one disagrees with Ibn Madda’ in approach or details, he did highlight that Arab grammarians had set up a framework for classifying and understanding the language that was strongly influenced by their aim of preserving knowledge of the the correct word-endings. While they deserve credit for that, their framework was also, as Ibn Mada’ pointed out, often arbitrary. In modern times, the renowned scholar of Arabic Dr Shawqi Dayf (who brought Ibn Mada’s book into the public by editing and publishing it) drew on Ibn Mada to support his call for a reformation inArabic grammar. Another Egyptian linguist Dr Tammam Hassan proposed the concept of linguistic contextual indicators as an alternative to the traditional concept of syntactical agents.

So, what practical relevance, if any does all of this have? I came up with three take-away points:

  1. The Basran Take-Away: As human beings, we tend to like regularity; for things to fit into a pattern. This Basran mindset is useful, especially while learning a language. Imagine if every time you learned a grammatical rule you also learned all the exceptions to the rule! Introductory books (in grammar and other disciplines) will often simplify things, and not even mention exceptions, and this is good for learning.
    • While learning a language, it is useful to come up with your own pseudo-justifications for why something is a particular way. Associating a grammar rule with something silly or funny that helps you remember it is a valuable mnemonic aid. Of course, sometimes you might end up having to modify your abandon your ‘mental rule’ as your learning advances.
    1. The Kufan Take-Away: Notwithstanding the benefits of regularity, we can learn from the Kufans that, as I often say, “Never say ‘never’ or ‘always’ in advanced Arabic grammar.” So, be wary of condemning something as a ‘grammatical error’ when your knowledge of Arabic is the superficial analysis of an observer on the beach who has not yet scuba-dived to realize what is to be found in the depths.

Never say "never" or "always" in Arabic grammar

3. The Ibn Mada’ Take-Away: Traditional syntactic analysis (إعراب) of sentences is beneficial, but some of the justifications it gives are arbitrary. There is benefit in adopting a consistent approach (to grammar or any other field), but it is good to realize that there are other ways to see things. It’s ok to be a grammar policeman, as long as you are not fanatical.

There is another current within the usul al-nahw tradition, that looks at grammar through principles calqued from Islamic legal theory. I might return to discuss this in a separate, future post.

– Suheil Laher

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