Near and far

Yes, the languagehat blog is still dark.  Languagehat reports that  “Discussions with Gandi (the hosting service) are ongoing.”  In commiseration with suffering LHians, including the 149,649 other subscribers who like me read it on google reader, today again I’m writing something about language.

I usually work Friday night, but this week is spring break, so last Friday I took a train downtown for a Good Friday church service.  To read on the train, I brought Bernard Lewis’s The Political Language of Islam.  I’m not sure what I expected, maybe something about political rhetoric, but Lewis does actually talk about language–words. Interesting, interesting stuff–and you have to wonder how many misunderstandings and missed opportunities there have been when the East and the West do not understand each others’ usage of concepts that seem like they should be similar but are not.

In the chapter about metaphor and allusion, Lewis talks about how the meaning of metaphors can be buried.

When we use the English word “government” few of us think of its origins in an ancient Greek word meaning “rudder” and an ancient Greek verb meaning “to steer”; but when we–that is, the verbally less gifted or fastidious among us–speak of the man [sic] at the helm steering the ship of state, there is still some faint awareness of a maritime metaphor contained in these words.

The east and in the west spacial metaphors–denoting position and direction in space–are common but have a different meaning in the east.

But while Western language, from the earliest time, makes extensive use of up-down and front-back imagery to indicate domination and subordination, early Arabic political language makes very little use of these images.  Where they do occur, they are often specific allusions rather than metaphors.  thus, the common use of verbs from the roots qdm and ‘mm, both with a root meaning “in front of” or “before,” to  indicate precedence or authority, derive from leadership in battle or in prayer. In ancient, in contrast to modern times, both kinds of leadership were necessarily exercised from the front, not from the rear, and the use of these terms thus represented facts on the ground, not metaphors in the mind….

Power relationships are more commonly indicated in Islamic usage by the imagery of near and far, in and out, or, to borrow a social science expression, center and periphery, and of course, movement in either direction. Thus, according to an early text, the caliph ‘Umar explained his refusal to employ Christians in positions of power in these words: “I will not honor them when God has degraded them;  I will not glorify them when God has humiliated them;  I will not bring them near when God has set them far.” A Western speaker or writer would almost certainly have expressed this idea by saying that he would not raise them up when God had  cast them down….

Clearly the centrality of the ruler, and the importance of nearness and access to him, is reflected in this language….

One of the roots most frequently used to connote power and authority, the treliteral wly, whence come such familiar terms as vali and vilâyet from Turkey, mollah from Iran, and maulvi and maulana from India, has the primary meaning of “to be near.”….

Changes in power relationships are indicated by the same metaphors.  In Western language contenders for power may rise or fall.  If they rise, it may be as climbers or as rebels, engaged in an uprising.  In Islam, verbs meaning “to rise” are commonly used to convey religious, especially mystical, experience, but rarely political ascent.  Ambitious Muslims move inward rather than upward; rebellious Muslims secede from, rather than rise against, the existing order.  The earliest–indeed the paradigmatic–movement of rebellion against the existing order was that of the Khawārij, “those who go out.”  Significantly, their movement was expressed as horizontal, not vertical; even more remarkably, it was outward, not inward.  The same concept is expressed in the extensive social and political use of the two verbs jama’a, “to gather or join,” and faraqa, “to separate or divide.”  Gathering is good–hence the jamā‘a, “the community,” ruled by ijmā, “consensus.” Separation is bad, and gives rise to firqa, “sect,” and other forms of disunity.

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