This is now making the rounds, courtesy of a TEDX talk by Radius Foundation director and Arabic student Terry Moore. The lead quote is: “To write a word or a phrase or a sentence in Arabic is like crafting an equation, because every part is extremely precise and carries a lot of information.”

There’s also a good yuk-yuk about how hard it is (for those who speak European languages) to pronounce certain Arabic letters.*

Whether the mathematical X comes from a Spaniard’s mispronunciation of ش, well, I don’t know. But this boiling-down of Arabic (which Arabic? from when?) to its essential “mathematical” nature seems a bit odd. Wouldn’t it be great if words and sentences in Arabic were so “precise” that no poetic ambiguities were possible? Oh, well, maybe not.

NOTE: I have received a number of criticisms that insist that Arabic is/was a precise (or logical) language. I think that while a language could be more or less logically structured, I must disagree with the idea that precision is possible, particularly if we agree that a (word) symbol maps to other symbols, not directly to the world. So I’m not really sure what “precision” would even mean here. Fewer words? Fewer synonyms?

I’m sure this fellow is a nice guy: He’s learned the language, he is equating Arab-ness with mathematical logic. But I still don’t agree with his summary statement about a language, whether the (10th century) or now.

Thanks to Margaret Litvin for passing it on.

*My laptop speakers still aren’t working, but the TED site offers a transcript. I assume it’s accurate-ish.

8 thoughts on “Because the Arabs Are Too Damned Logical, That’s Why

  1. I’m inclined to be highly skeptical of any such claims that one language is more logical than another, whatever that means. It’s a claim that the French and their admirers often like to make about the French language, particularly in reference to Descartes (a seriously discredited philosopher anyway). After considerable thought on the subject, I see about the same level of polysemy and semantic creep in Arabic as in any other language – and those features might reasonably be seen as ‘illogical’. Also, a logical form of Arabic would definitely not have the unpredictable “rogue” vowel in the imperfect of 1st form verbs. Where Arabic does differ from many languages, especially most European ones, is that the vast bulk of the vocabulary forms a coherent interlinked whole, drawn in the case of Arabic from its proto-Semitic roots, so that abstract meaning is more likely to be transparently derived from the tangible world. This may give the illusion of logicality.

    1. Well, I suppose it’s unfortunately that you didn’t give the TEDX talk. Although perhaps that would be harder to get a general audience to chuckle over first form verbs.

  2. one more thing: didn’t mediaeval spanish in fact have a /š/ sound? (see what i did here? as a speaker of a slavic language — apparently not european, but whatever — i actually have it on my keyboard 🙂 ) i have to check my uni notes, but i’m pretty certain it was actually written as “x” (as in el cid’s wife, ximena diaz) — wasn’t it only later that it changed into /h/ (written as “j”? but i could be totally wrong. will investigate, because as a member of gen x, i feel appropriately lost 🙂

  3. No, you are not wrong at all. In mediaeval Spanish there were six different sounds that, later on, in the XVII, merged into our current sounds /s/ and /θ/. And they were: /ʦ/, /ʣ/, /s/, /z/, /ʃ/ and /ž/. This one, /ʃ/, was represented with the letter “x” and was exactly the same sound as the English “sh”. So, it is absolutely impossible that a Spanish mediaeval speaker may confound this sound. I think this man of the video may need to have a look to some books of both arabic (he mispronounced the word الشيء , pronouncing the /l/ sound of the article instead of making a double “sh”; and to other of Spanish language history…

    However, I also think that this kind of opinions about the logical different languages are is not very scientific.

  4. logical languages … illogical people … nothing to be done. unless we all switch to esperanto or some computer language.

    i want to know about the math, though (geek alert!): can you invite mathematicians and have them explain the situation? pretty pleeeeeeze?

    1. Oh, boy, Bibi, I’m not sure any mathematicians come by here. But hey, am I following any math blogs? I don’t think so.

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