Physical about Arabic

Lisa  J. White was a senior instructor of Arabic (2009–2019) and former executive director (1993–97) of CASA (the Center for Arabic Study Abroad) at the Arabic Language Institute of the American University in Cairo, where she taught for over thirty years. A morphology and translation enthusiast, she received the 1999 University of Arkansas Translation Prize for her translation of Mohammed Afifi’s Little Songs in the Shade of Tamaara (2000).

Here is how she got rooted in Arabic and wrote Rooted in the Body, (AUC Press, 2020).

You said during an interview “Embodiment is the idea that human experience–and therefore human thought–is necessarily tied to the body. Without a body, we die, and so bodies have a hard-wired power over our thinking.” Is this recognition the initial driving force behind Rooted in the Body?

The seed idea for this book was actually a discovery I made while putting together a vocabulary worksheet for a higher elementary Arabic class. Because roots and patterns are essential tools for students of Arabic as a second language, it makes good sense to introduce new vocabulary side-by-side with its companion root. In this case, the target word was mutaqaddim, advanced, so I wrote (قدم)  متقدّم. The root qdm and the noun qadam do not sound the same, but because Arabic doesn’t normally write short vowels, they look exactly the same on paper. Strangely, it had never occurred to me that an abstraction like ‘advanced’ would be derived from something so plebian as al-qadam, the foot. But the semantic connection is clear. Where do you go on your feet? Forward. In fact, words derived from the qdm root all have a link with forward motion. I had noticed derivational metaphors associated with a number of other body parts before, but after the qdm+forward motion metaphor hit me over the head, so to speak, I knew I was on to something. By derivational metaphors, here, I mean the kind of metaphor that links words derived from one root, as opposed to the common sense of metaphor as a variety of figurative or idiomatic speech, like to put your foot in your mouth or to have two left feet. Looking for more of these derivational metaphors, a quick investigation revealed that dozens of body parts produced semantically linked clusters of vocabulary. From that point on, I gradually began introducing more and more body parts in my teaching. Vocabulary of the body is essential, anyway, and it really lends itself to illustration, something of considerable pedagogic value. It’s also an ideal vehicle for exploring the derivational system, because it is so productive and because the vocabulary it produces is so often colorful and culturally significant. As I discovered the power of the body in Arabic, and compared it with what I knew intuitively as a native speaker of English, I began to look for research on the body in fields like psychology and anthropology. That is how I discovered that embodiment is actually a major interdisciplinary topic.

You studied Arabic and have been teaching it now for over three decades. How intimidating can Arabic derivation and root attribution be for a student and does using Arabic metaphors help to explain some of the language morphology and grammatical rules?

Arabic would be MUCH more intimidating without its ingenious derivative system. This system is what allows students to make educated guesses about the meaning of words and the semantic links between words that share a root, or alternatively, that share a pattern. Without the derivative system, learning Arabic as an adult would be a true nightmare. It makes a lot of sense to use essential vocabulary like body parts as source words, because language of the body is inherently interesting. It is also colorful and quirky, and the perfect vehicle for imagery. All of this combines to make the body a great way to access the cultural fabric of a language, and ultimately, culture is the Holy Grail in language learning.

As you point out, “in Arabic, the body is the root.” Adding suffixes, prefixes, and infixes to the root changes the meaning of the word and its pronunciation. Can you give an amusing example?

One of Arabic’s words for the jaw is الفكّ al-fakk. Its plural is fukuuk. Adding the instrument prefix mi– yields mifakk, a screwdriver. Using a screwdriver, we can take something apart, rendering it mafkuuk, disassembled. Adding one little vowel sound produces fakka, change (for a larger sum of money). This noun has a verbal homonym, fakka, meaning to undo. Undoing can be intensified, and fakkaka means to take multiple things apart, or to disassemble, to break asunder. That verb produces the noun tafkiik, used in the modern scientific term tafkiik adh-dharra, splitting the atom, or nuclear fission. These are just some of the acrobatics that a root can perform. By considering them all together, the jaw’s operative metaphor emerges: dismemberment. What’s a jaw for, after all?

The book is beautifully illustrated by academic, artist, and animator Mahmoud Shaltout, otherwise known as Mac Toot. How did you manage to sync your essays with his witty illustrations?

Actually, it happened the other way around: Mac Toot is the one who synched his illustrations with my essays. I had been working on this project for about ten years before I met Mahmoud, thanks to a fortuitous introduction by Nadine Aboulmagd of AUC’s Center for Learning and Teaching. After reading about ten essays, and seeing the illustrations I had chosen from the web to illustrate them, Mahmoud told me he loved the idea and would be excited to work on it. So I began providing him with additional finished essays (or chapters) and illustrative slides I had selected from the net. After thinking about the metaphor(s) associated with a given body part, he would come up with his own idea for a companion illustration. We would then get together to review his sketches and decide on any changes. I must say that Mac Toot has been a terrific collaborator. He is creative to the nth degree, deeply interested in pedagogic techniques, full of humor, and always willing to listen.

Which would be your favorite body metaphor if you had to choose one?

It’s impossible to choose a favorite. But, coming from English, one unexpected metaphor can be found in vocabulary derived from al-qalb, one of Arabic’s terms for the heart. English tends to associate the heart with romance (heartfelt/ heartache/ heartsick/ heartbreak) and health (hearty). Arabic, however, looks at al-qalb as an organ in motion, one lacking in stability. Observation of the heartbeat, itself, presumably led to the understanding that, as long as a person was alive, the heart could not be still, and it acquired an aura of changeability and turbulence. Vocabulary derived from al-qalb includes taqallubaat, fluctuations, as of the weather, and inqilaab, a coup, literally, an overturning. Coup, incidentally, is a direct borrowing from French, where it, too, is a metaphor for being struck down.

Many other languages have linguistic metaphors connected to the human body. But does Arabic hold a more extensive, pervasive, and colorful range?

Embodiment theory tells us that all human thinking is tremendously influenced by the body. Humans also express themselves non-verbally, in dance, sculpture, painting, fashion, and a host of other arts, but language is a rich and fundamental feature of human expression. It follows that all languages must have powerful and pervasive body metaphors. The specifics, happily, can be strikingly different, and it is this delicious and quirky specificity—whether artistic or verbal—that illuminates a culture. For example, Arabic says عين العقل ‘ayn al-‘aql, literally, the eye of the (rational) mind. This expression means the epitome of reason. Arabic seems to be saying that the eye is a precious feature, centrally located in the face. Hence, the eye of the mind is its precious center, its essence. Using the same vocabulary, English creates ‘the mind’s eye.’ But that has nothing whatsoever to do with rationality, and instead encapsulates the brain’s faculty for visualization.

To return to your question, while the Arabic language shares a richness of metaphor with many other languages, there are things that make it special. First, as a result of its extraordinary longevity and wide geographic distribution, Arabic is brimming with cultural content that has been distilled over centuries and that bears intriguing traces of the civilizations it has lived beside and among. Second, and pivotal to this work, Arabic’s unique pattern system amplifies root meanings and core images. It is this process that creates the metaphoric vocabulary clusters like qdm+foot+forward motion and fkk+jaw+dismemberment on which this book is based.

How advanced does the reader’s Arabic need to be in order to benefit from this unique language learning textbook?

My primary target audience is students of Arabic as a second language at the intermediate level and beyond who want to get a firm grasp of the language’s derivational system, something which greatly facilitates vocabulary acquisition and retention. This book allows students to pick and choose, smorgasbord style, and go at their own pace. It also presents vocabulary in a culturally contextualized way. In fact, Rooted in the Body was designed for a wide spectrum of readers. Its powerful and omnipresent visuals have their own very special magnetism. Native speakers might imagine ‘ilm aS-Sarf, morphology, to be a dry and technical discipline. I hope they will enjoy this novel approach to the subject, and discover intriguing connections in vocabulary that had escaped their notice before. Even the culturally curious who have never studied Arabic can read the English and simply gloss over the Arabic script, since transliteration is provided throughout. They are sure to enjoy the quirky and inventive semantic connections that animate root families, and can glean some insights into Arab culture. A friend of mine who doesn’t know a word of Arabic read dozens of these chapters and found them intriguing. She works as an editor, but was trained as a lawyer, and she was fascinated to discover that the Arabic nose, al-’anf, is associated with haughty rejection and, by quirky corollary, with judicial appeals. Although English speakers unconsciously associate court appeals with pleading for a change in a verdict, Arabic speakers are more likely to sense in al-isti’naaf, the plaintiff’s indignant rejection of an unfavorable judgment.

When and how did you fall in love with Arabic?

By the time I had reached my senior year in college, I had studied a little bit of a lot of languages. But when I dipped my toe into Arabic waters, I could tell that this language was one I really wanted to pursue. At first, I loved its mysterious ‘otherness’ and was very intrigued by its morphology—those amazingly systematic roots and patterns. But I was also curious about Arab peoples, and wanted to learn more about a region I knew next to nothing about.



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