Hi Maha,

Congratulations on the your Reclaim hosted blog. The WordPress (TM) installation always kicked me off comments and insisted that I sign into my WP-Imperial account first.

Back to terminology. I like Tarek’s suggestion to use Wikipedia as a kind of lens for achieving consensus on Arabic terminology. This has several advantages but it also assumes that people understand what the nature of Wiki as an “authority” – and this is a pretty large assumption. I don’t think anyone has much of an understanding of how this works yet.

We can construct the terminology problem academically, politically or linguistically.

As an academic problem it would refer to who is creating knowledge and how they construct it. An example of this is the development of medical terminology in the late Middle Ages. At this time, most medical terminology was in Arabic and anyone who wanted to study medicine normally had to learn Arabic first. Spain was the primary locus of medical scholarship then. Medical sources were often in Arabic but the main problem was the terminology which was also in Arabic. This made it very difficult to speak about medical topics in any language other than Arabic. Then, someone discovered a Latin medical dictionary that held the terms needed, and Europeans were able to shift their discussions of medicine into Latin. This was a windfall. Once they had the linguistic tools they needed, they could begin to create medical knowledge in Latin, and they began to take ownership of their own intellectual production, in a language that made sense to them.

As a linguistic problem, this comes down to saying what we mean. My first training was as a translator so I’ve thought about this kind of thing for a long time now. A technical term is a tight little package that contains a kernel of meaning that is understood because it has a social history and a context. I agree with George Lakoff who claims that virtually everything is a metaphor (see The Metaphors We Live By). This position places terminology in a particularly interesting light. In the social sciences at least, a technical term cannot often be translated because, as Tarek points out, to understand it really, we need to participate in its culture. Your example of “community of practice” is a case in point. What is a “community” for instance. What does this word mean to people. How is it used? How is it misused? To my mind, “community” describes almost any loosely bound group of people who share one or more characteristic in common. The “community” then focuses on that community, so we can have a “buck toothed, red-haired, Tomboy Nebraskan community” and an infinite variety of others. In the car this morning, I thought of almost a dozen different Arabic words to describe groups of people – a lot of these are metaphors too. fakhad, hizb, firqa, fir3a… they describe groups that are tightly or loosely bound. We could probably place them on a continuum following how tight or loose they are. The word /jamaa3a/ is probably fairly loose – this is from “Classical Arabic” and is used in the Quran referring both to people /ins/ and Genies /jin/ – the two sentient beings in the Islamic universe. Insects also have /jamaa3a/ I think. /ma3aashar/ is another that I feel is pretty loose – though also very big. If we were to construct a native Arabic term, we might use one of these words… but, as Tarek points out, we still need to tell people what it means, and this is the really difficult part. The terminology does not exist in a vacuum. It must emerge from a body of knowledge and scholarship that is also expressed in Arabic.