Just Wanna Know

Revolutionary Propaganda Organ

Friday, August 25, 2006

To Express or Communicate

"An unjust decree was promulgated in the 'Moriscos' law, which ordered the eviction of the last remaining Andalucians and compelled them to cross the sea and emigrate to the lands of North Africa [after 1492]."

(From al-Bukhlakhi, Amhannad, in Mafkharat al-Rif: Al-Mujahid al-Maghribi Muhammad 'Abd al-Karim al-Khatabi [“The Pride of the Rif: The Moroccan Mujahid Muhammad Abdelkrim al-Khatabi”], Tangier: Matabi' al-Shamal, 2005, p. 12.)

A common Arabic word for "express," "declare," "voice," or "state clearly" is 'abbara / yu'abbiru. The form (morphology) is "Form 2," fa''ala, which has often been considered to express active intention or intensification. The root is 'ain-ba-ra, which in the simple form 'abara / ya'buru (or "Form 1") most commonly refers to fording a river, crossing a strait, or passing over or traversing an obstacle. This was the word I found in the passage above.

Thus, due to the striking harmony and elegant symmetry of Formal Arabic, in Form 2 the concept of "to cross" intensifies to yield something like "to make an object cross over an obstacle"—in a sense, to express an idea across a void.

We should not understand this crudely as yet another version of the idea that communication is successfully achieved by crossing boundaries between similar individuals: that once encoded carefully, a message can be sent across the abyss that divides each of us from one another, whereupon it is appropriately decoded by the receiver, with the result of perfect understanding.

Instead, I want to stress the tentative and partial connotations suggested by the image of fording a river or crossing a straight. Everyone knows such crossings are dangerous. When we see a friend off on a crossing, we can’t know for sure that everything will go smoothly.

Moreover, from the point of view of the mediator, the form and content of the message are really not that important. In this example, the ferry captain and crew are responsible for mediating, for making sure the cargo or passenger makes it across safely. Sometimes the ride is rough or the course is diverted, the ferry seeking any port in a storm. Occasionally, the boat sinks. But the key factors in the success of such an expression are not content, but rather medium and context. No matter how priceless the objects, no matter how well secured the cargo, the success of the crossing depends on the soundness of the vessel and the severity of winds and currents.

In fact, there is no perfect communication model. There is no discrete chain of "sender-message-receiver." Rather, there is a sender, a message, and mediation—and the media here could range from spoken words to texts to DVDs to online chat to video chat (which is at least triply mediated). On the other side, there are media, a message, and a receiver. Not only do these two sides inhabit different planes, but they also completely interlace and shift and interface with one another, and there is usually a lot of static, framing, and multitasking involved.

Moreover, the connections between each of the constituents of this anti-model are loose and never assured: Although we know that our receivers might have believed that they understood what they thought they heard, they probably have not yet realized that what they heard couldn’t possibly have been what we meant.

Finally, no common language can be assumed. We are crossing between two sides of a gulf, two banks of a strait, and the critical point is that communication occurs across it despite the absence of a common community. Communication must precede full understanding, and thus a fully shared language. In fact, it's only through communication that a shared language can be built, just as we make friends over the course of many conversations and interactions.

So I guess my point is that the Arabic word represents the idea that "communication" implies in a way that is superior to how the English word "communication" represents it, because the English term leads us to argue that a "common" language precedes communication.

OK, I have dissembled a bit here. The Arabic equivalent of "communication" is more properly found in the family of words stemming from the root waw-sad-lam, wasala / yasilu. The meanings involve "uniting," "joining," "combining," and many others all the way up to ittisalat, or telecommunications. But wasala is also a crisp and discrete root that imagines connections and links without implying any necessary commonality of the things that are linked. It’s just that 'abara is so much more tangible and poetic and evocative.

(For my brother, who likes to bash spurious reasoning-from-etymology that pretends to establish "what a word really means" by digging up the bones of Latin and Greek roots: This is not an etymological argument. Just as it’s pretty obvious to any everyday English speaker that "communication" contains "commun," which sounds like and indexes "common," the Arabic relationships are similarly clear to an everyday Arabic speaker. Hey, if Chomsky can pose himself as the final arbiter of what an "everyday speaker" knows, so can I, right?)


At 6:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John! If in your typical AfroAsiatic (linguistic terminology for what are elsewhere called "Semitic" languages) you have a total of about 20 consonants, then this gives you 20 to the 3rd power (20x20x20) possible triradical roots, which means that the total number of possible roots in such a language is 8000, maximum. Now, since any ordinary human language has at least 20 to 50 times that many basic words--and probably many more--then in your basic AfroAsiatic language you will have vast opportunities for etymological definitions, at least some of which are probably valid (since you alluded to me, I can't pass up the chance to give you your money's worth :) And hey, one of my students here is actually going to get to meet Chomsky in Norway, so *I* actually know somebody who's actually (probably) going to meet the great man himself!!! ;) Seriously, I liked your discourse very much and I think the poetic nonlinear approach to word meanings is just fine! (Paul)


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home