Language, culture and religion

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I’m currently learning French, German and Spanish on Duolingo (French and German to regain what I learned – then forgot – at school, and Spanish just because), and an interesting discussion came up on their forum.

One of the courses that made it into beta last month was Arabic>English, which means that once it’s stable Team Arabic will start on the ‘reverse’ course, English>Arabic. This is one I’m looking forward to, as I’ve been wanting to learn Arabic for years – and I’m looking at a new job in which Arabic will be useful.

However, Arabic as a language, and Arabic culture, are both very much intertwined with Islam as a religion. Someone asked, how was Duolingo going to manage to teach Arabic without also teaching religious stuff? Cue an interesting discussion of the fact that most languages seem to have religious bits and pieces in them – even when used in a completely secular sense.

Terry Pratchett said it best:

“Dwarfs were not a naturally religious species, but in a world where pit props could crack without warning and pockets of fire damp could suddenly explode they’d seen the need for gods as the sort of supernatural equivalent of a hard hat. Besides, when you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer it’s nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, “Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!” or “Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch!”

But in English, as well as ‘bloody hell’, ‘damn’, ‘Oh God’ etc, we have ‘goodbye’, which is a contraction of ‘God go with you’. Granted, the religious quotient of English is substantially less than that of Arabic, but it’s hardly absent.

So it’s quite interesting to think that religious imagery and terminology are not entirely the preserve of the religious. When they enter the common vocabulary, the ‘religious’ element fades and they gain a new, secular meaning and a place in secular culture and communication. From a writing perspective, it’s something to bear in mind: speaking Arabic colloquially involves a lot of “Insha’Allah”, even if you’re not Muslim, and as Terry Pratchett points out, what, as a committed atheist, should I be saying when I stub my toe?

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