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Ancient and Philosophy of Medieval Language

Linguistic Diversity: Dante And The Arabs

The mainstream Western medieval tradition of thought about language concentrated on a single language, Latin. By doing so, it gained the advantage of allowing philosophers to see more clearly the large, abstract questions that concern the relation of any language to the mind and to reality. It also suffered, because scholars (as appears strikingly in the case of the speculative grammarians) simply assumed that features in fact special to the structure of Latin were universal to every language. By the later Middle Ages, however, there was at least some analytical investigation of the facts of linguistic diversity. The great poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), writing his On Eloquence in the Vernacular in Latin to defend writing in Italian, tried to explain how all languages derive from the original tongue spoken by Adam, and how they have changed and developed.

Things were very different in the Arabic tradition. During the eighth and ninth centuries, a great quantity of Greek scientific and philosophical work was translated into Arabic. In the earliest period, at least, those thinkers in Islam who thought of themselves as followers of the Greek philosophers tended to play down the value of grammatical study. Their attitude led to a famous confrontation in 932 between the grammarian Abu Sa'id al-Sirafi and the philosopher Abu Bishr Matta. While Matta held that logic provided a universal key to thinking, al-Sirafi's contention was that Greek logic is based on the Greek language: writers in Arabic need, rather, to study their own language. The contrast with thirteenth-century Latin thought is piquant. There, grammar was made into a sort of universal linguistic logic; here logic itself is argued to be as particular as the grammars of different languages.



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John Marenbon

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ambiguity - Ambiguity to Anticolonialism in Middle East - Ottoman Empire And The Mandate SystemAncient and Philosophy of Medieval Language - Words And Things: Plato And Aristotle, Sentences And Facts: Aristotle And The Stoics, Abelard And The Early Middle Ages