The Ideal Language
Is there an ideal language? Descartes would say ‘yes’ if one follows his line of thinking. His argument for God’s existence is the presence of the perfect-being idea in our mind; it follows that a perfect or ideal language must also exist or else it would not exist in an imperfect being’s mind. Because we are finite beings, we can’t conceive of the idea of an infinite being unless the latter causes that idea to twinkle in our mind. Going back to language, why do we have the idea of an ‘ideal language’? Is there proof that an ideal language does ‘not’ exist? If there was no proof, then, what would be the criteria for this ideal language?
Before proceeding into the criteria of an ideal language, a definition of the latter is in order: an ideal language is “a language that is precise, free of ambiguity, and clear in structure, on the model of symbolic logic, as contrasted with ordinary language, which is vague, misleading, and sometimes contradictory” (Britanica.com). Otto Jespersen summarizes the criteria of an ideal language in his quote:
…that language ranks highest in the art of accomplishing much with little means, or, in other words, which is able to express the greatest amount of meaning with the simplest mechanism. (Jespersen 1993:13).
From this quote one would immediately understand that to say much with little is an indispensable criterion for an ideal language. This economy criterion should be noticed not only at the sentence structure level but also at the fundamental level of language, and thus satisfying the as-above-so-below principle of harmony, agreement and correspondence. Another criterion that goes hand in hand with brevity is simplicity. If it is complicated it is not qualified to be an ideal language.
A well-established fact in linguistics is that languages are dynamic and subject to change through time. All languages have undergone radical change before reaching their modern state. This makes change an aspect of all languages. However, should this aspect also be a feature of an ideal language? A language that changes over time is more likely to lose features that can make the language more communicative. For example, in Old Hebrew there existed a dual noun case which seems to be fading away nowadays. This case is not so unimportant to just get rid of with time since it is vital to communication and here is why: If one uses this dual noun case, one is being more precise than when only using the singular or plural noun case when referring to two pairs of something. The second case may create confusion. This dual case in Modern Hebrew is limited to nouns that come in pairs (yadaym: two hands; misparayim: pairs of scissors) only, whereas in Arabic, for instance, the language has a full-fledged dual case applicable to all nouns which was also the case in Old Hebrew.
When the language loses such features, people tend to look for a new word to refer to the dual, like ‘both’ in the English language. The word ‘both’ in English solves the problem at the expense of violating the brevity criterion. One single word that communicates the noun and its case number is better than two words (both+noun). Relying on the above, changes in language should not be an aspect of an ideal language. However, one may think that since change causes a language to lose important features, it can equally cause a language to gain features that would make communication precise and brief. Thus, a legitimate question one may ask is: Are old languages equal to modern language in terms of their communicative fluidity?
The older a language is, the more sophisticated it is. This statement may go against the current worldview about the human race that is evolving, that humans are smarter than before; and presumably whatever lies behind is primitive, including language. Languages paradoxically are heading toward more deficiency as time passes. As we dive deep into history, we find that languages used to be more perfect than now. Sanskrit, for example, at some point in the 19th century, used to be thought of being the mother of all Indo-European languages by philologists, but shortly afterward they discovered that Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit are rather sisters from which a portion of Indo-European languages sprung. The reason why they thought so is because they were bewildered by the beauty and elegance of its structure. They saw it was more perfect than the existing languages. Sanskrit is in fact a rich and beautiful language, and philologists were not mistaken after all. Latin, Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Tamil are among the oldest and most sophisticated languages on earth.
…the history of any given language, rather than representing an increasingly complex structure as the structure of its users supposedly evolved into higher levels of complexity, seems, instead, to record an inevitable decline in complexity. (Henry Madison Morris,1996:96)
To conclude, an ideal language has to be ancient, unchanged, economical, and simple. Complexity does not necessarily mean un-simple. Simplicity is a feature that can be manifested in complexity.
The Arabic Language
Arabic is a very special language for it has features that may not be present in other languages. These special features seem to make Arabic the closest to coming to an ideal language. If this is so, does Arabic satisfy the above-mentioned criteria? The rest of this paper is about answering this question.
The building blocks of Arabic are structured elegantly. This elegance is manifested for example in its word-roots. All verbs in Arabic have roots. These roots constitute the base upon which other words are constructed or derived. If one knows the root of a word, one knows all other derivations of the root simply by applying a rule (e.g: adding diacritics or vowels) to these roots, thus having different shades of meanings from one single root. This is an aspect of simplicity. One does not have to memorize all the words in the language. Once the roots and the derivation rules are memorized, myriads of words are at one’s disposition.
Arabic words are derived using three concepts: root, pattern and form. Generally, each pattern carries a meaning which, when combined with the meaning inherent in the root, gives the sought-after meaning of the inflected form. (Philip M. McCarthy et al. 2011:385)
Other Semitic-languages share this aspect of simplicity with Arabic since they belong to the same language family. In contrast to Arabic, other languages have less simple structure. They rely on compound words (adding affixes) instead of derivations, and this may imply a sort of lengthiness or redundancy in a language.
The Arabic roots are not constructed randomly, for they tend to follow a mathematical pattern. Arabic is made up of twenty-eight letters. Any possible combination of two letters is likely to give an already-existing word in the language; mostly grammatical words. Any possible combination of three letters also has the potential to giving a word-root. The surprising thing is that 90% of the Arabic roots are composed of three letters (J. Frawley.2003:122, Ahmad Mazhar.1967:23). There are of course word-roots made up of four or five letters but they only constitute the remaining 10% of word-roots, including the two words combinations. In other words, all word-roots composed of less than or above three letters are the exceptions. This has great significance because the aspect of brevity necessitates the aggregation of word-roots in the row of three letters. This row is the most optimum for it contains a great deal of combinations. This would ultimately generate abundant word-roots with the least possible letters, namely three letters. This is called a ‘triliteral formula’ and it is the optimum formula for a language to be economical. This fundamental pattern is reflected on the macrostructure of the language as well.
The Sumerian cuneiform scripts are held to be the oldest forms of writing on earth. They are 5,000 to 6,000 years old whereas the oldest Arabic form of writing is only 2,800 years old. Arabic seems to have developed later than many languages such as Egyptian, Akkadian, Elamite, Hurrian, Hittite, Greek, Old Chinese, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew and Phrygian. Arabic thus is very young compared to these ancient languages. However, do we really have knowledge about a language’s age? Unfortunately we do not. We only know when a language was ‘codified’. To put it differently, we only know when a certain nation learnt the art of writing before another. Inscriptions, manuscripts, hieroglyphs, or cuneiform tablets are not a decisive factor to fixing a language’s age.
The fact that all languages are primarily spoken and only secondarily written down, that the real life of language is in the mouth and ear and not in the pen and eye, was overlooked (Jespersen 1922:23)
Therefore, when one says, for example, that the Sumerian language is the oldest in recorded history, it does not necessarily imply that Arabic was not spoken back then in the ancient Sumerian times. Arabic, although it is believed to be a relatively recent language, seems to capture a great deal of features that may partially exist in older Semitic languages which may point to the Arabic language’s seniority over other languages.
In spite of its late appearance in history, literary Arabic displays certain features which have helped Semiticists to gain greater insight into the older Semitic languages. (Anwar G. Chejne,1969:36)
In the Islamic tradition, Arabic is believed to have existed in the times of the Great Flood. It was among eight languages that were spoken by the people that were saved in Noah’s Ark. (Tafsir ibn Kathir, 1370:Noah’s story). Cataclysmists , unlike evolutionists, agree that the earth experienced a spectacular and cataclysmic event between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Add to that, the collective memory of old myths all over the world seem to share the same story of a global flood. So if there really existed a flood, and if the Islamic tradition is right, then Arabic is at least 6,000 years old.
The source of the Arabic Language lies far beyond historic proof. (John Richardson,1777:04)
Some philologists went to the extent of claiming that the unique structure of Arabic roots shows that it could ‘not’ have been derived from any other language, thus maybe it is the ‘oldest’. (Muhammad Mazhar,1963:50)
Assuming that Arabic is a bit older than what most archaeologists, anthropologists and linguists assume, should it not have undergone a massive change throughout its journey? As said earlier, an ideal language should resist change in order to preserve its richness and perfectness. Arabic surprisingly seems to be a language that has least likely changed over time. Because any possible combination of three letters has the potential of giving word-roots, changing the combination of three letters means falling into an already existing word-root in the language. Therefore, speakers are more likely to avoid changing the combination of word-roots to avoid confusion of meanings. One has to stick to each combination’s meaning because the transposition of letters, known as metathesis, is very restricted. Thus, all combinations are occupied with distinctive meanings. This means that there is no space for change. The leeway for Arabic roots to change is so narrowed to tolerate sound shift, and this is only one aspect among others that make Arabic resist change and it is not within the scope of this short paper to discuss other aspects.
…this aspect of Arabic roots completely insures them against metathesis. Like the number and order of letters the accent of a letter is also perfectly fixed in that the slightest change of accent will yield a different root… (Mazhar Mohammad,1963:41)
…The spelling of Arabic is unchangeable and permanent for all time. This is in a marked contrast with other languages which have been reforming their spelling from time to time. (Ibid:42)
Arabic seems to have built-in mechanisms that make it last longer without transforming into a new language. An external factor that could also have preserved the Arabic language is the seclusion of its people in the Arabian Peninsula from the outside world in the past, which means the language was not exposed to other foreign languages’ influence.
There are, of-course, different dialects of Arabic, but the focal question is: To what extent do they differ from Old Arabic? Individuals speaking English are unable to understand Old English that existed 1,500 years ago. Moreover, individuals speaking French, Spanish, or Italian are unable to understand Latin. These two examples show that these people are unable to understand the ancestor of their native language. This signifies that their languages have been undergoing a fast and massive change. European languages seem to not only be undergoing rapid change but also to be widely diversified. The concrete example is that French, Spanish, and Italian people are unable to understand each other although their languages sprung from one common ancestor (Latin).
Now, let us compare these cases to the Arabic language. The people speaking Moroccan Arabic may understand Old Arabic although it is old. The same thing goes with Egyptians, Algerians, Tunisians and other Arabic dialects. Add to that, Arabic has not branched out into other new languages. Moroccans for example can understand Algerians, Libyans, Tunisians, and even Egyptians although they are geographically distant from one another. In contrast, Indo-European languages differ greatly from each other although they are geographically condensed into a relatively small area. This seems to suggest that the Arabic dialect continuum is wide and the language seems to maintain its mutual intelligibility. It seems it is branching out less dramatically. This could only suggest that Arabic is undergoing a slow pace of change.
Linguistics throughout the past century has established the idea that all languages are alike. This idea is well established among linguists with certain evidences presented by theoretical linguistics. For example, all languages are relatively acquired in the same amount of time, or that most languages abide the same syntactic rules advanced by Chomsky in his X-bar theory, for Chomsky points to the universal and eternal unchanging aspects of Language. This makes languages equal. However, can’t we give an evaluation on how communicative a language is in the light of what has been discussed above?
About the Author
Zakaria Bziker is a student at Ibn-Tofail University (Kenitra, Morocco), currently pursuing a master’s degree in Education. He Obtained his bachelor’s degree in General Linguistics.
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