[This article is a full translation of the fifth chapter of Ibn Hazm’s Ihkâm fî Usûl al-Ahkâm. It’s original title is: “The Origins of Language: Divine Providence or Human Codification”. It is presented here for the interesting points it makes about matters of general interest, and should not be taken as the final word on linguistic matters.]
Regarding how languages came about – was it by divine instruction or by human codification – is a question that people have debated considerably. The correct view is that the origin of spoken language is instruction from Allah. The evidence for this comes from revelation and what reason demonstrates to be necessary.
As for revelation, Allah says: “And He taught Adam the names of all things then he presented them to the angels…” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 31]
The rational necessity for this is as follows: Had speech been established by direct human codification, it would have been necessary for the people who set down its code to have had complete mental faculties, rational discipline, comprehensive knowledge, and direct experience with all thing found in the world along with knowledge of the limits, similarities, differences, and natures of those thing. However, we know by necessity that the interval of time between the first appearance of a person and the time when that person attains such a level is a considerable number of years, requiring education, protection, and the care of others. A person becomes independent only many years after being born. There is no way for a parents, responsible people, and nursemaids to cooperate in life without having a language by which they understand each other’s essential needs. These include their tilling, herding, and planting activities, also the means by which they protect themselves from the heat, cold, and wild animals, as well as their ways of treating illness. Every individual has to have gone through the experience of childhood, which we have already mentioned is a state of inability and dependency on others.
Moreover, the idea of codification necessitates that there was a time beforehand when language was not in existence, since it came about as the result of the activity of those who codified it. Yet, every activity requires speech in order to carry it out, sow how were the codifiers of language supposed to go about the business of codifying it without having a language already at their disposal? This is an impossible situation.
This rational proof follows necessarily from the evidence that the human species came about after having not existed, and from the evidence that there is a single Creator, and from the evidence proving the existence of prophethood and messengership. This is because no human being can remain in existence without speech, and speech is composed of letters, and composition is an activity that requires an actor to carry it out, and every activity that (the actor) carries out has a starting point in time. This follows from the fact that an activity is movement requiring aptitude. So it is affirmed that the composition (of letters) had a starting point and that the human being cannot exist without speech. Whenever the existence of one thing depends upon the existence of something else that has a starting point, then it necessarily has a starting point as well.
So it is affirmed that one thing must have come about after the other in succession, and it is confirmed that what is known of (language) is first known from the Creator, since (language) is something which, in its very nature, can only be known by way of being taught, and therefore requires that its first (human) teacher was taught directly by Allah. Then he in turn taught the members of his own kind what his Lord had taught him.
Also, the codification needed to establish a language necessarily needs to be conducted by way of an earlier language that the codifiers had in common or by a system of gestures that they all understood. They could only have come to a mutual agreement on understanding those gestures if they used a language to do so. Knowledge of the definitions and natures of things which is communicated through language utterances cannot be obtained except by way of language and explanation. There is no other way. From this we know that speech could not have come about as a result of human codification.
The only objection that can still be raised is that language is an instinctive act.
Rational necessity dictates that this idea is false. Instinct only brings about a single behavior, not a number of different ones. The composition of speech is a voluntary act that is carried out under many different circumstances. Some of the proponents (of this idea that language is instinctive) have resorted to a confused argument, saying that geographical differences necessitated by nature the different languages that the inhabitants of different regions speak.
This is also something impossible, for if differences in language are necessitated by the natural demands of different geographical environments, it would not be possible for more than one language to exist in the same locality. We can see with our eyes that this is not the case, since in most localities we find that various languages coexist, due to the movements of populations who speak different languages and those populations living alongside one other. This is enough to demonstrate the falsehood of that idea. Also, there is nothing in the nature of a geographical environment that would necessitate calling water by the name “water” instead of by another name composed of the same alphabet set. Whoever insists obstinately that there is (such a natural imperative) is one of two things: he is either being deliberately false or he is out of his mind. Therefore, the correct stance is that (language) came by way of by divine instruction by Allah’s command and His teaching it.
At the same time, we do not deny that people brought about a variety of languages after there had been a single language that they used to have in common by way of divine instruction, and by which they had been able to know the natures, modalities, and definitions of things. We have no way of knowing what the original language was that Adam (peace be upon him) spoke. All that we can say for certain is that it must have been the most comprehensive of all languages, the clearest in expression, the least ambiguous, the most concise, and the most extensive in vocabulary to comprehend the names of all things, whether substances or accidents. For Allah says: “And He taught Adam the names of all things…” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 31] And this is the confirmation that dispels all problems and disputations on the matter.
Some people have suggested that the first language was Syriac. Others have said it was Hebrew. And Allah knows best.
What we do know for certain is that Syriac, Hebrew, and Arabic – the last being the language of the tribes of Mudar and Rabi`ah, not the (Old South Arabian) language of Himyar – are all a single language, and that language underwent change when its speakers settled in different geographic localities, so that it was fragmented. This is just like what happens when an Andalusian encounters the Qairawani dialect or vise versa, or when a Khorasani encounters either of the above. When we listen to the speech of people from Fahs al-Ballut, it is almost a different language than that spoken in Cordova, though it is only one night’s journey away. The same situation can be found for many other parts of the world, because when the people of a region live in close proximity to another people, their language changes in a way that is obvious to anyone who gives thought to the matter.
We find that the masses have changed the vocabulary of Arabic so significantly that their words have become as distant from the original as to be another language. different we find them saying “`eenab” for “`inab” (grape), “astoot” for “sawt” (whip), and “thalathdaa” for “thalaathah danaaneer” (three dinars). When a Berber becomes Arabized and wants to say “shajarah” (tree) he says “sajarah”, and when a Galician becomes Arabized, he replaces both the letters `ayn and the aspirate h with the throaty h, so he says Muhammad with a throaty h instead of an aspirate h. Such things are commonplace.
Therefore, whoever investigates Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac will ascertain that the differences between them are of the nature we have just described. Those differences came about as changes in people’s pronunciation over long periods of time, from geographical dispersion, and from proximity to other nations, and that they are a single language in origin.
Having established that, we say that Syriac is the ancestor of both Arabic and Hebrew. It is generally known that the first to speak this Arabic was Ishmael (peace be upon him) and it became the language of his progeny. Hebrew is the language of Isaac and his progeny. Syriac is without doubt the language of Abraham (peace be upon him and upon our prophet), as it is narrated by the general historic consensus to such degree that we can be secure in our knowledge of it. Therefore, Syriac is the ancestor of both Hebrew and Arabic.
Some people have claimed that Greek is the simplest of languages. However, it is possible that this is only true for Greek in the present time, since much of it is lost. It has been marginalized by the fall of its speakers’ nation and the foreign occupation of their lands, or by their migrating from their lands and intermixing with others. A nation’s language, learning, and history are only maintained by the strength of its polity and by the vibrancy and leisure of its people.
As for those whose state has collapsed and whose enemies have vanquished them, who are preoccupied with fear, need, disgrace, and serving their enemies, their creativity dies. This may be why the Greeks have lost their language, forgotten their genealogy and history, and had their sciences perish into nothingness. This can be confirmed both through observation and through reason. The Assyrian Empire passed into obscurity so many thousands of years ago that now its language is completely forgotten. So how much easier can it be for most of a language be lost? And Allah knows best.
We cannot say that for certain that it is the language that Allah first bequeathed. It might be suggested that the original language has been lost without leaving a trace, or that it endures until today but we have no way of knowing which language it is. This is something we must admit. We know that there must have been some original language. Yet, maybe Allah taught Adam all of the languages that people speak today. Maybe it was one language back then with many synonyms signifying one signified, that then became many languages distributed later on among his progeny. This seems to me the most likely scenario. However, we can never know for certain. All we can say for sure is that there was one original language bequeathed by Allah.
What makes me feel that whatever Allah originally bequeathed must have comprised all of the languages spoken today, is that I see no reason why people who already have a common language they speak and understand would bother to develop a new one. That would be a tremendous and meaningless effort, the type of excess that no sensible person would think of undertaking. If such a person did exist, he would have to be excessively frivolous and poor in judgment, busying himself with what has no benefit while neglecting what concerns him – things far more relevant to him like the affairs of his afterlife, his worldly interests, his pleasures, and all the beneficial sciences,
Furthermore, how would such a person get the people of his county to abandon their own language and adopt the new one that had been concocted for them? I am not saying it is an impossibility, just that it is an extremely remote possibility.
If someone argues suggested that the king of a multilingual kingdom might try to unite everyone upon a common language, we could argue back that this is the very opposite of the codification of many languages; it is the reduction of many languages down to one. Moreover, why would the king go to the immense trouble of doing so when it would be much easier for him to unite them upon one of the languages they already speak or better yet his own language? This would be easier and more plausible than concocting a whole new language. And Allah knows best.
There are those who assume their language is better than others. This means nothing, since superiority comes about in certain well-known ways: either by deeds or by special distinction. A language has no deeds and there is no scriptural text conferring the distinction of superiority to one language over another.
Allah says: “And We did not send any messenger but with the language of his people, so that he might explain to them clearly.” [Sûrah Ibrâhîm: 4]
He also says: “, We have made this (Qur’an) easy, in your tongue, in order that they may give heed.” [Sûrah al-Dukhân: 58]
So Allah tells us that He only revealed the Qur’an in Arabic so that the Prophet’s people could understand it. That is the only reason.
Galen was very much mistaken when he said: “Greek is the superior language, because all other languages sound like either the barking of dogs or the croaking of frogs.”
This is blatant ignorance, since when anyone hears a language other than his own, a language he does not understand, it invariably sounds to him the way that Galen describes it.
People have said that Arabic is the best of languages, because Allah’s words are conveyed by it.
This does not mean a thing, because Allah has told us he always sent a Messenger speaking his native tongue, and Allah says: “There never was a people without a warner having lived among them.” [Sûrah Fâtir: 24]
He also says: “” [Sûrah al-Shu’arâ’: 196]
This means that Allah’s words and revelations were sent down in every language. He sent the Torah, the Gospel, and the Psalms. He spoke to Moses in Hebrew. He sent the Scrolls to Abraham in Syriac. Therefore, languages are equal in this regard.
Regarding the language of the denizens of Paradise and that of the denizens of Hell, we do not have any knowledge about these except by way of scripture or consensus, neither of which exists on the matter. They certainly must speak some language, so there are three – and only three – possibilities: they will speak some language presently in existence, they will speak a language unlike any that presently exists, or they will speak a plurality of languages. In any event, the depiction Allah gives of their conversing with each other shows with certainty that they will all able to communicate intelligibly with one another, either in Arabic as it is given in the Qur’an, or in some other language, and Allah alone knows what it will be
Someone asserted to me that that their language will be Arabic, citing Allah’s words: “And their final supplication will be: ‘Al-Hamdu Lillaahi, Rabbi-l-`Aalameen’.” [Sûrah Yûnus: 10]
I countered this by saying to him: In the same way, it will have to be the language of Hell, since Allah informs us they said: “Sawaa’un `alaynaa a jazi`naa am sabarna, maa lanaa min mahees.” [Sûrah Ibrâhîm: 21]
And that they said: “An afeedu `alaynaa min al-maa’i aw mimmaa razaqakum Allah” [Sûrah al-A`râf: 50]
And likewise that they said: “Law kunnâ nasma`u aw na`qilu maa kunnaa fee ashaab al-sa`eer.” [Sûrah al-Mulk: 10]
He then said: “Yes. This is the case.”
I then said to him: Then you must furthermore assert that Arabic was the language of Moses and all of the prophets (peace be upon them), since all of their words are quoted to us in the Qur’an in Arabic.
However, your Lord shows your assertion to be a lie when He says: “And We did not send any messenger but with the language of his people, so that he might explain to them clearly.” [Sûrah Ibrâhîm: 4]
This means that Allah only quotes to us the meaning of what they said in their various languages in a language we can understand, to make it clear to us. That is all.
The letter-sounds of languages are all the same, none take precedence over any others, and there is no inherent ugliness or beauty in some to the exclusion of others. They are the same for all languages. Therefore such a flimsy and spurious claim is false. And success rests with Allah.
It was such misguided and common notions that led some Jews to permit telling lies and swearing false oaths in other than Hebrew. They claimed that the angels who convey human deeds to heaven do not understand anything but Hebrew, so they do not record against them anything else. This is patent foolishness. The Knower of the unseen and of what is in the hearts surely knows all the languages and their meanings – there is no God but He. He is sufficient for us and the best of protectors.