Is Arabic an ‘aggressive’ language?

Arabic image
"I will not tell you about my anger, but you will feel it" - graffiti at Tahrir Square © Yehia Nasr

Oh, dear.  Richard Dawkins has been at it again.  This time tweeting about the “aggressive-sounding ‘Allahu Akhbar’”.

And he is not alone in his views.  It is often stated that Arabic is a guttural language; that can sound aggressive to the Western ear.

But is this correct?

Dr Christopher Lucas, Senior Lecturer in Arabic Linguistics at SOAS University of London, addresses the question in a recent article published in The Atlantic, entitled ‘Why Richard Dawkins Thinks ‘Allahu Akbar’ Sounds ‘Aggressive’:

“A lot of times people’s negative or positive attitudes about a particular group get transferred onto the language.  They start to believe that it’s just the linguistic content of the language that is the bearer of those features that they experience as negative or positive, when that is almost never the case in actuality. … Sounds are just sounds.  They don’t have any objective content that you can map onto specific emotional states.”

Lucas adds that he believes Dawkins’s “vague soup of negative ideas [about Islam] is bleeding into his transcription.

“The author’s tweet refers to ‘Allahu Akhbar,’ but the proper transliteration would be Akbar, because this Arabic word contains no kh sound (as opposed to, say, the word sheikh).  He’s transcribing it as if it’s a kh, and for people who are native speakers of a language that lacks a kh sound—like most dialects of English—that is very often felt to be a harsh, ugly sound.  People here in the UK, when you ask them what’s your opinion about German, will say ‘Oh, it’s ugly!  You’ve got all these kh, kh, kh sounds.’  But there are many other languages with these sounds, like Dutch.  And no one in my experience says that Dutch is ugly.

“The people who get away with simplistic ideas about languages are people who don’t speak them and haven’t lived the experience of those languages being used to express love and anger and hilarity and sadness.  If you’ve been exposed to a language a lot, that pretty much guarantees you’re not going to have simplistic ideas about it.”

The solution?  Get out there and learn a language.  And where better place to start than at SOAS?

Want to learn more?

The Department of Linguistics at SOAS University of London was founded in 1932 as the first department of general linguistics in the United Kingdom.  Today, SOAS remains a centre for linguistic study in an unparalleled range of world languages.

At undergraduate level, it is possible to study BA Linguistics and BA Linguistics and…; while at postgraduate level, SOAS offers degrees in MA Applied Linguistics and Language Pedagogy, MA Language Documentation and Description, MA Linguistics, and MA Linguistics and Intensive Language.

SOAS also runs an extensive programme of courses to learn Arabic at a variety of levels, including BA Arabic, BA Arabic and Islamic Studies, MA… and Intensive Language (Arabic), and Certificate in Arabic.

Find out more

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