The Arabic Language in Finland
University of Helsinki
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“Oh God grant me the ability to endure what I can not change and courage to change what should be changed and give me wisdom to distinguish between them”.
A prayer of a Greek philosopher
The beginning of the study of Arabic in Europe, originally for missionary purposes, dates back to the middle ages. Later, two additional reasons or purposes developed: for studying medicine and for helping to understand the Hebrew Bible. Here in Finland, the academic year 1709-1710 marks the first year in which Arabic was taught.
The mandate of the Institute for Asian and African Studies (in Finnish: Aasian ja afrikan kielten ja kulttuurien laitos = The languages and cultures of Asia and Africa, and since the beginning of 2010 it is under the name: Department of World Cultures) founded in 1974 at the University of Helsinki is the "teaching and study of languages and cultures of Asia and Africa". The Institute consists of the following nine departments:
1) African Studies
2) Arabic and Islamic Studies
4) Central Asian Studies (Turkic and Iranian Studies), in Finnish appears as "Central Asian Studies" only.
5) East Asian Studies (Chinese, Korean and Altaic Studies), in Finnish appears as "East Asian Studies" only.
7) Japanese Studies
8) Semitic Studies (including Hebrew and Jewish Studies), in Finnish appears as "Semitic languages and Cultures".
9) South Asian Studies and Indo-European Studies.
The Institute is the only academic institution in Finland which teaches and investigates languages and cultures of Asia and Africa. These are the world’s two largest continents both in area and population. A multitude of languages and dialects are spoken there and they belong to Indo-European, Altaic, Hamito-Semitic, Sino-Tibetan, Uralic, Khoisan, Nilo-Saharan and Congo-Kordofanian including the subfamily of Bantu languages. More than a thousand languages are spoken in Africa. The Institute can be viewed as an outgrowth of the chair of Oriental Languages (linguarum orientalium) established in 1640 at Turku.
On 20 June 1984 a committee was established by the Finnish Ministry of Education to prepare a memorandum exploring the need for teaching and research in the above mentioned fields, and how to organise and develop these activities. The final main goal of the committee was how to achieve practical language skills and to explore the cultures of Asian and African peoples.
By the end of 1986 a memorandum of 506 pages had been prepared. One of its major proposals was to leave the task of teaching and research of Asian and African Studies in Finland to the University of Helsinki. In other words there was no need to establish new departments of Asian and African Studies in other Finnish universities such as in, Tampere, Oulu, Koupio, Turku and Jyväskylä. This means unfortunately there is no Finnish competitive universities to the University of Helsinki in this vast field.
Some subjects, such as Assyriology and Egyptology, deal with antiquity and their main focus is naturally on research. These nine departments deal with the instruction in living as well as dead languages and cultures including Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian), Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, Chinese, Coptic, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Malayalam, Mongolian, Ndongo, Pahlavi (Middle Persian), Persian, Phoenician, Sanskrit, Sumerian, Swahili, Syriac, Tamil, Turkish, Ugaritic, Urdu and Yiddish.
Accordingly, almost all the chairs of the Institute carry the title of “Chairs of languages and cultures”. The term ‘Culture’ means “how a human society lives and this includes ways of thinking, beliefs, customs, language, technology, art, music, literature and traditions” (The New American Desk Encyclopaedia, completely revised and updated 3rd edition, 1993). In other words ‘culture’ is “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another” (Random House Webster s College Dictionary, 1991)
Though the Semitic languages in general and Arabic and Hebrew in particular interest us here, the general discussion holds true with regard to all other living languages. (taught at the Institute as well as at other departments at the University of Helsinki and elsewhere in the world). These two languages are considered mother tongues for the present writer. The number of native speakers of this family of languages is estimated at approximately 400 million people. These people live in the Middle East, Ethiopia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, North Africa, Russia, North America, Latin America, Australia and Europe.
The Middle East is the cradle of civilisation and the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Finland there are about nine thousand speakers of colloquial Arabic and a few hundreds speakers of Hebrew. A weekly one-hour programme in Arabic, the voice of Ibn Fa∂lån, established in the 3rd of March 1996 was heard locally by radio in Helsinki for nearly ten years.
The relationship between language and culture is particularly strong among Jews and Arabs because of their holy books, the Old Testament and the QurAbd al-Wål• (1851-1852), Wilhelm Lagus (1857-1866), Knut Tallqvist (1899-1934), Aapeli Saarisalo (1935-1963), and Jussi Aro (1965-1983).
The Arabic language has been taught in Finland within the framework of Semitic languages as has been generally the case in the west. It seems that some courses in Arabic were given during the eighteenth century. Yet the earliest obvious course on Arabic grammar was in 1709-1710 in Turku. For Christian religious reasons, Hebrew was the main Semitic language taught in the west. Adding Arabic was for the sake of illustrating some obscure lexical phenomena in the language of the Hebrew Bible. Professor Abraham Alanus was the first teacher of Arabic in the eighteenth century. The chair for the Arabic language was created in 1980, lectureship in 1971 and assistantship in 1990.
One can learn about the culture or some aspects of the culture of a given society by two major means. The first is language study in all its manifestations, prose and poetry, written and spoken language at various levels and in different periods. It is a well known fact that language is the most necessary tool of civilisation. It is self-evident that competence in a certain literary language means mastering the four skills, listening, speaking, reading, and writing. With regard to spoken languages, the ability to speak at least one dialect is definitely necessary. Language is the mirror of culture in many ways. There is a significant difference between learning about a culture of a society or community through translation or directly through its native language. One may compare these two ways by imagining someone who has read several articles and books about sauna, the Finnish bath, for instance, and some one else who has also a rich experience of the sauna bath. +ubrån Khal•l +ubrån (1883-1931) has said “Do you think you can know the taste of wine just by looking at the jar from outside”? Generally speaking we are dealing with theory and practice. Both are required and important in our modern era of globalisation. Each complements and strengthens the other and both are emphasised in all spheres of life in Finland. In academic literature, theory without practice is shaky and practice without a theoretical basis is not considered scientific. In addition to the main two manifestations of language, written and spoken, one may add the “mute language” as named by the anthropologist E. Hall. There are various means and forms of information and message such as the so-called body language and intonation. Such means and forms are very difficult to investigate.
This issue reminds me of the following slogan.
"Theory is when you understand everything but nothing works. Practice is when everything works but no one understand why. In this research station, we combine theory with practice: nothing works, and no one knows why. We have combined theory and practice: nothing works and no one knows why” (A. Maley 1991. Classroom practice: an overview. In: R, Bowers ans C. Brumfit (eds.), Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching. London: MacMillan: 23). In other words we are dealing with utterance and writing, speech and language. J. R. Firth wrote “Language is currency minted with the public stamp, and usage is a way of life”. (J. R. Firth, The Tongues of Men and Speech. Oxford University Press, first published 1930, repr. 1966, pp. 7-8). The well-known Arab scholar Ibn Khald¥n (1332-1406) drew the following relevant simile in his Muqaddima. A theoretical knowledge of Arabic grammar does not necessarily lead to writing good Arabic, any more than a knowledge of all the rules of sewing or swimming makes for a good tailor or swimmer. In other words one can reach a conclusion that active knowledge leads to formulation of rules and theory but not vice versa. Unfortunately in many cases theory is considered an end itself rather than means to acquiring languages. Teachers of languages that they master can easily formulate rules and theories rather than consume them.
Linguistics has been described as “the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences”. The methods of observation, classification, generalisation and analysis are found in natural sciences as well as in linguistics. With the humanities it shares an interest in language, which is unique to the human race, distinguishing the human being as the “talking animal”. Any manifestation of language deserves to be investigated by linguists. Yet, the fundamental object of study for linguistics is speech rather than writing. Theory and practice, the world of things and of thoughts which is to a great extent unorganised, receives structure when expressed by a spoken language. The primary task of linguistics, as a matter of fact, is the correlation between the world of sound with the world of meaning. Needless to say that primarily language is a matter of understanding and speaking rather than reading and writing. With regard to living languages the natural question is: Do you speak Arabic, Hebrew, Finnish etc. and not do you write them, particularly when we are talking about experts. All mankind understands and speaks and a small number of the languages of the world are attested. Historically, it is possible that man started speaking and understanding since half a million—a million years ago while writing and reading go back only to five thousand-ten thousand years ago.
The second means for understanding culture is direct interaction with people of that culture. By direct interaction we mean living among the people of that culture for a sufficient period of time. Communication with the people of the culture under study in their own dialect is a great advantage. Direct connection brings forth many insights and shades of understanding which usually are not revealed through translation into a foreign language. Somebody who acquired his knowledge in Palestinian Arabic through textbooks and dictionaries knows, for example, that the meaning of “ba˓