Monday, December 24, 2007

Language evolution and cultural transitions

Hassaniya, is it a language, a dialect, both or neither? Where is it spoken and who speak it? These are the common questions directed to me when I say that I speak Hassaniya. They are valid and good questions and the answer is in the past, the present and the future of the culture and the language. The reason Hassaniya has been hard to classify is because of its evolution over time. Moreover, it is not only the case for this language/dialect, which is spoken in Northwest Africa, but also many other languages. Language and culture commonly are hard to separate and in some cases the first is referred to as the carrier of the latter. I always believed in the analogy for one very important reason, which is the fact that both have been evolving of overtime and are affected by time and the surrounding cultural environment. Moreover, language is the mechanism through which we inherit history and culture, and then each individual word functions as a type of gene. In this essay, I attempt to highlight the mechanism by which language is evolving just like a gene and also the complexity of the process of passing on a language.
The analogy that language is like a gene is true in the sense that like genes, language is inherited through parental lineage. We get the language from our parents who got it from theirs and then we pass it on to our children, and they in terns pass it on to the next generation. Moreover, languages undergo changes or mutations genetically speaking. These mutations can be both positive and negative. As for genes, they mutate to give new traits that make an individual unique and different or leads to a disorder that may be fatal to the carrier. In addition, these mutations are caused by external factors such as radiation. Similarly, language changes over time. These changes can be both positive and negative. Languages adopt new words due to the influence of other languages, which is in some cases due to technological advancement and the invention of new techniques and equipments. However, languages are affected by other external factors that lead to the disappearance of that language over time. One of the most important factors – I believe – is that of colonialism. Like radiation which can destroy a chromosome, colonialism can erase the language and its culture.
In most of the Arab world, the official language is Arabic, but how many people do actually speak Arabic, which is referred to as classical Arabic? Very few people do! Each country has its own unique dialect, which is a mixture of Arabic and other languages. In my country, we speak Hassaniya, which is a mixture of Arabic, Spanish, French, Swahili and English. Very few Arabs understand me when I speak it because it is the least close to the classical Arabic and that is due to the colonial powers we experienced. Hassaniya has traditionally been transmitted orally from one generation to the next. It has been the responsibility of each and every individual to carry on this spoken language or else it would have died centuries ago. In addition, it has undergone many changes and transitions, in the same way the culture has evolved. Furthermore, language, any language has a dual character: it is both a means of communications and a carrier of culture. Like many other spoken languages, Hassaniya has mainly been inherited through storytelling. The stories told are the ones that teach lessons and so the parents choose which ones to tell their children. In this sense, the parents have been able to control what aspect of culture they want to pass on to their children.
There are so many aspects to culture, ranging from language, music, history to simply the food. For this, describing language as a gene may be not an accurate analogy because language is much more complex than just a gene. For instance, parents are able to choose and control what aspect of their culture to pass on the next generation, whereas, they cannot decide what genes their children should inherit. Moreover, people can learn a new language and adapt to new culture, meanwhile, it is impossible for one to adapt a new gene and hence new trait. For instance, one cannot change his/her eye color or hair color. However, it is easy for a person to speak multiple languages and experience many different cultures. Moreover, the geopolitics, religion and personal interests affect the culture. For instance, people may be from the same culture but have different music taste and like different foods.
In conclusion, culture is determined by many factors and language is the most important one of them. The latter has been affected over time, which in terns has big impacts on the nature of the corresponding culture. Hence, on the one hand, language is like the human body and each word is a cell that renews its self. On the other hand however, culture is a hard and complex concept to analyze. These complexities give birth to a unique and diverse culture.


rajeeva said...

dear zeina,
enjoyed reading your article.more than anything u deserve appreciation for yr genuine concern for language and culture.

el-Shinqiti said...

Zeina, your posting is very curious, to say the least!You say you are a Sahrawiya and speak hassaniyah, but hassaniyah has NOTHING at all of Swahili (a language of south-east Africa!), and nothing of Spanish, except VERY rare loan words, and even less of English! It does have a few French loan words, mostly technical terms like "wata" car, from "voiture", etc. However, most of it's loan words come from Berber. As for it being the furthest dialect from classical Arabic, that is quite ridiculous, because it is replete with terms from classical Arabic long lost in other dialects, and its pronunciation preserves many classical arabic morphemes. It also contains many terms from its Yemeni roots. It is one of the Maghrebi dialects, which includes the dialects spoken from Mauritania to western Libya, and Malta as well. EVERY arabic dialect contains many non-arab words: for example, Gulf Arabic has Persian words and pronunciation, levantine Arabic has French, Greek, and other words, etc. The reason for the difficulty in communication with the eastern dialects is because most people there would use Egyptian to communicate with other Arabs. the Arabic of the hills of Yemen, Palestinian villages, Iraqi marsh-dwellers, and Egyptian peasants all differ one from the other. Egyptian is used as a "lingua franca" among arabs of different regions because of it's popularity in arabic films and songs. But,these dialects are all Arabic, nonetheless. Where do you get these ideas, and, in fact, who are you, in reality, "Zeina"?