Leroy Leroy Lama Sabachtani?

I was thinking about the use of ‘Allah’ to mean ‘God’ in English when talking about Muslim worshippers.

Brian Whittaker had a good piece in the Guardian on this recently:

There is no logical reason for this. Why use an Arabic word in English-language news reports when there is a perfectly good English word that means exactly the same thing?

Various Arabic words – “jihad” and “sheikh”, for example – have crept into everyday usage because no precise equivalent exists in English, but “Allah” is not of that type. It is simply is the normal word that Arabic speakers use for “God” – whether they are Muslims or not. Arab Christians worship “Allah” too, and the first verse of the Arabic Bible informs us that “In the beginning Allah created heaven and earth.”

This is what he ascribes the phenomenon to:

Essentially, this is a modern version of the orientalism that Edward Said wrote about in the 1970s, where western portrayals of Arab and Muslim culture highlight its “otherness” in order (Said argued) to control it more effectively.Since Said wrote his influential book, however, we have also seen the rise of another phenomenon which might be called “reverse orientalism”, where Arabs and Muslims deliberately “other-ise” themselves in order (they hope) to better resist western influence.

I would agree, but also highlight that what is happening here -where a word or phrase is lifted from one language to be used in another, like a fish out of water, to affect knowledge and therefore power-isn’t something confined to the western world’s relationship with the Islamic east.

The object may not necessarily be the product of an entirely different culture for this manner of ‘other-ising’ to occur. I have often heard people speaking in English about Karl Marx having written “Das Kapital”, instead of simply “Capital”, as though the German-ness of Marx’s writings had some compelling importance. People rarely speak of ‘My Struggle’ either, preferring to leave Hitler’s Kampf in the original German. Yet you rarely hear anything about Freud’s Die Traumdeutung or Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude.

What’s the big deal? Well, most English speakers do not speak German, and as such have no authentic knowledge about the relationship between ‘kampf’ and the rest of the German language: whether it has any particular historical connotations etc. As it happens, I don’t either. But the point is not that there is something of any great importance missing from our knowledge when we talk about Mein Kampf in English, but that we make the assumption, by lifting the words untranslated, that there is nothing else that we need to know.

A tourist speaking English in Paris won’t talk about the Tour Eiffel. Yet later that day she might talk about the Arc de Triomphe instead of ‘Arch of Triumph’. There is no discernible logic to this. Spanish speakers talk about the Arco de Triunfo (de Paris). I don’t know why this is the case for this monument in particular, but it serves to point out that you could easily translate the thing into English if you wanted to.

(Interestingly enough, Erich Maria Remarque’s book, written in German, is, I believe, titled Arc de Triomphe in German, is also titled Arc de Triomphe in French, but Arch of Triumph in English.)

The question seems to be: why did people not want to translate it? These days, you probably have more native English speakers who -not knowing any French- know what the Arc de Triomphe looks like than those who know what its function is. If convention had determined it was to be called the ‘Arch of Triumph’ instead, you would have far more English speakers knowing what its function was than those who knew what it looked like. This seems to me to be as good an example as any of how words and phrases ‘lifted’ from another language, rather than demonstrating authentic knowledge, can obscure rather than enlighten.

One interesting example of this seems to occur in the New Testament (yes, I know I only got 87% in my Bible quiz – this is my way of making up lost ground). Hardened veterans of Palm Sunday Mass -where endurance is tested via the longest stand in the religious calendar- will be familiar with the bit in the Passion where Jesus, who has spoken English until this point- exclaims on the cross “Eloi Eloi lama sabachtani“- which, the narrator tells us, means ‘My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?’

Now, there may be deep and meaningful theological rationale of which I am ignorant for rendering this in its original language (in fact, the bit about how the people thought Jesus was calling for Elijah seems like an editorial afterthought to justify the preservation of the original), but it seems to me that part of the intention is to demonstrate the fact that Jesus did not speak in Greek, or English, but in Aramaic. Why this is important is a good question. Unless you are someone like Mel Gibson and you speak Aramaic, the words have no particular resonance, and anyone hearing the gospel is not really any better off for hearing them in the original. Could it be that part of it consisted in demonstrating the ‘otherness’ of Jesus?

I don’t know the answer to this one, but there is a certain irony to this example. Words have a physicality to them that is bound up with their meaning. Think of words like ‘cackle’ or ‘roar’. Some people think that the word ‘moon’, like ‘lune’ in French, or ‘luna’ in Spanish, originate in the circular shape made with the mouth by early man to replicate that great big circular thing which appears in the sky on a clear night.

I don’t know what the origin of the word ‘God’ is, though I don’t think that there was an equal chance of the deity being called Barney instead. But it seems possible to speculate about the origin of ‘Eloi’, or its cognate, ‘Allah’. The God of the Old Testament -a dedicated monotheist if ever there was one- did not like his people to say his name, lest they made a fetish out of it. Both ‘Eloi’ and ‘Allah’ (which different accents might pronounce identically – there is no reason to believe that Jesus pronounced ‘Eloi’ as rhyming with ‘Leroy’, which is how it gets pronounced at masses in Ireland) seem -to my amateur mind- to reflect this prohibition, via the most rudimentary of articulations: a vibration made by the throat – which means nothing, -given meaning by touching the roof of the mouth with the tongue.

Anyway, the point here is this: if Jesus said ‘Eloi’ to mean ‘God’, then his way of saying it -and by extension, his way of thinking about it- seem closer to that of the Arabic speaker who talks about ‘Allah’ than the English speaker who talks about ‘Gawd’.

Food for thought for the likes of US general William Boykin, whom Brian Whittaker quotes as saying:

“I knew my God was bigger than his,” US general William Boykin famously declared in 2003, recounting his battle against a Muslim warlord in Somalia. “I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”

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8 Responses to “Leroy Leroy Lama Sabachtani?”


  1. 1 Paul Gill February 16, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    I don’t buy this argument about Allah and God. As commenters on Whitaker’s piece pointed out, the God worshipped by Christians is a Trinity comprised of the Holy Spirit and Jesus. The God of the Koran, although it may be the same Abrahamic God, is not a trinity. Also, isn’t the language of the Koran supposed to be sacred to Muslims, thus discouraging translation? Catholocism had a similar thing about Latin and the vulgate for a long time. As far as I’m concerned, the usages of God and Allah are useful distinctions and I don’t think one needs to read into this anything sinister or ulterior. Sinister originally meant left, btw. I think Churchill said that the history is written by the victors so certainly the changes of meaning of words within a language are very interesting, but I think the changing meanings of words borrowed into a language are not a worthy source for political speculation. The Spanish say Arco de Triunfo because they have had their own in Barcelona since the 19th century and more pertinently, the translate everything into their own language. Of course there are cultural and historical reasons for this and there’s no reason why they might not change in the future. But up to now their borrowing of English words has been different to that of other countries. The French say “le weekend” and “le babysitter”. The Spanish say “footing” for jogging, “panching” for lazing around on the weekend, “tuning” for car customisation, “parking” for car park and “camping” for camp site. They have a weird obsession with “-ing” and are always quite amazed to discover that their “-ing” words make no sense in English. In the past they rendered English words into Spanish spelling – futbol being the most obvious example.
    English has a long history of borrowing words into its language and that tendency too has its origins in English culture and its history. The reason we have the words “chef”, “cuisine” and “restaurant” is completely different to the reason we have words like lieutenant and garden and warranty. The former group came into the language in the 18th century when France was the world’s culinary leader and English aristocrats either thought they were too cool for school if they pronounced the words in their original French or, if you’re less of a cynic, pronounced the words in French because they spoke French and so it was more natural to use the words as they referred to things similar in English but different. The latter group are a legacy from the days of the Norman occupation and the integration of those two cultures, with the English obviously winning out in the end.

    As for Mein Kampf and Freud, well Freud’s techniques and pioneering work have become part of western culture while Hitler’s philosophy was rejected by it. One cannot exclude either how the monosyllabry in the title of Hitler’s book lends itself to memorization while Freud’s longer polysyllabic titles beg to be familiarised. Why do we say Dante’s Inferno and not Dante’s Hell? Lots of cultural reasons there but all part of western culture, nonetheless.
    The English culture historically has had so much self-confidence that it never had a problem with borrowing words. Compare with the Spanish and French cultures, their Royal acadamies set up to “protect” their languages from foreign adulteration. English will happily use a foreign word to name something that previously had no antecedent in the culture – igloo, anorak, karaoke and when that word serves as a useful distinction, which, in my opinion, is the case with God and Allah.

  2. 2 hughgreen February 16, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    Also, isn’t the language of the Koran supposed to be sacred to Muslims, thus discouraging translation?

    This is really immaterial to the question of how something ought to be translated. If you want to translate a word, you ought to look for the word that corresponds most closely to it in meaning in the target language. As Whitaker’s article notes, Arab Christians also refer to Allah. You would not translate this as ‘Allah’ in English, since this is clearly also the God of the Trinity to which you refer.

    As far as I’m concerned, the usages of God and Allah are useful distinctions and I don’t think one needs to read into this anything sinister or ulterior.

    Think, for example, of a conversation between an Arab Christian and an Arab Muslim, conducted in Arabic. It is clearly conceivable that if speaking about matters theological, they would both refer to Allah. Now suppose you have to translate it. Are you telling me that you ought to translate the Christian’s Allah as ‘God’ and the Muslim’s Allah as ‘Allah’? This would not be a useful distinction.

    I agree that it isn’t necessarily for sinister or ulterior motives. In fact, it seems an inevitable consequence of when one language and culture is thought and spoken about through another language.

    I think the changing meanings of words borrowed into a language are not a worthy source for political speculation.

    In so far as politics is conducted in the main through language, I would beg to differ.

    Of course languages borrow from other languages. Spanish would be quite different had it not borrowed from Arabic. It is the fact that some words acquire different meanings in the borrowing language-as is the case with ‘Allah’- which interests me.

  3. 3 Paul Gill February 16, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    “Think, for example, of a conversation between an Arab Christian and an Arab Muslim, conducted in Arabic.”

    But the fact remains that the conceptions of these Gods are different. If Arabic doesn’t distinguish between them, that’s not to say that English shouldn’t. The use of the word Allah to denote the God worshipped in Islam which does not admit of a trinity is, I insist, useful. Commenters at Whitaker’s page have made the argument much more eloquently than I am doing here.

  4. 4 hughgreen February 16, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Paul,

    ‘But the fact remains that the conceptions of these Gods are different.’

    You argue that the distinction ought to be made on the basis of the fact that there is no trinity in Islam. Yet even the Vatican says that Muslims and Christians worship ‘the one God’.

    Now, I am not arguing that the Vatican has absolute authority on this matter, but it is certainly a useful starting point, especially if we are introducing the question of the trinity and its importance to the conception of ‘God’.

    Now, if we are prepared to accept the use of ‘Allah’ to denote the different God worshipped by Muslims (which is a controversial proposition, to say the least), the question also arises: would English (and, by extension, other languages) benefit from the invention of another term for the deity worshipped by Jews? One could always say that Jews worship Eloi/Eli/whatever, whereas Christians worship God. And if not, why not?

  5. 5 Paul Gill February 19, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    I’ve been mulling your post and the Brian Whitaker piece for the last few days. Really, I think the issue is far more complicated that Whitaker admits to. For me it’s not a simple issue of translating to the word that corresponds most accurately in English. If you haven’t gone through the comments section on the guardian piece, it’s worth your while as some of them are informative. One commenter points out that the word you render as “Eloi” and he as “Eli” doesn’t mean “God” but “my God”. Somewhere in there is a demonstrative adjective and I don’t know to what extent that changes the root word. Other commenters point out that Allah is the personal name for the God of the Koran and another commenter posts an excerpt from the Koran which admonishes worshippers of the trinitarian God and uses both “Allah” and “God” depending on whether it’s referring to the Muslim God or the non-Muslim God.

    At the same time, I agree that there are times when using Allah for God is probably unnecessary. I read an interview with Osama Bin Laden from 1998 on the PBS website, translated into English and I could see here that the use of “God” for the oft inserted Allah would have been fine.
    So I guess I’m arguing for a broader treatment of the word and an acknowledgement that perhaps there are instances when Allah is more appropriate than God. People have argued that you don’t find the word Yahweh in print very often, presumably because it’s been rendered as God, but apart from the fact the western tradition has been passed down to us by judaeo-christianism, it is also surely relevant that these days we are more sensitive to and aware of linguistic differences. Whereas once “Koran” sufficed, now you’re more likely to see it rendered “Qur’an” or “Quraan”. We may yet get to a point where “Islaam” will replace “Islam” as the favoured rendering.
    It might be instructive to make a study of the history of the translation of “Allah” and see if it yields any insight into the extent to which a “clash of civilizations” mentality is promoting this “mistranslation”.
    For my part, while accepting the points you make in your posts, I continue to believe that a broader treatment of the term along with a wider ranging examination of the uses of both in Islamic text will bear out the argument for the maintenance of both as useful distinctions, if not every time.

  6. 6 hughgreen February 20, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    ‘So I guess I’m arguing for a broader treatment of the word and an acknowledgement that perhaps there are instances when Allah is more appropriate than God.’

    Well, I guess my own approach to it so far has been to think of it in terms of translation. The question for me is: are there any circumstances where it would be more appropriate to translate ‘Allah’ as ‘Allah’ and not as ‘God’? I will concede that it is certainly possible to use ‘Allah’ to make a distinction; I just find it rather hard to think of circumstances in everyday language.

    For instance, if we’re talking in terms of the literary character represented in the Koran, then it might be reasonable to talk about ‘Allah’, if we are distinguishing between him and, say, the ‘Yahweh’ of the Old Testament.

    So there are plausible specific circumstances where this is appropriate, but I think that when this applies to general use, e.g. Muslims worship Allah whereas Christians worship God, the distinction covers up a lot more than it reveals. So you can argue that a particular distinction is useful, but the question then arises as to what you are using the distinction for.

  7. 7 Fred September 15, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    Even English speakers who believe in God but not in the trinity still refer to “God”, so Paul’s assertion that the Arabic word Allah is useful for distinguishing the Muslim interpretation of God from the Christian interpretation of god is ridiculous. In fact, in the early centuries of Christianity, the trinity was not even held by a majority of people who called themselves Christians. The notion of the trinity had to be enforced by the state & church leaders who adopted it, imposing the death penalty on thousands of Christians who denied the validity of the trinity.
    Of course, whether referring to God or Allah or JHWH or Deus or Zeus or Jupiter or Odin or whatever, they’re all of the same substance — nothing but the fevered overwrought imaginations of humans.


  1. 1 My Dieu and My Right « Most Sincerely Folks Trackback on September 9, 2007 at 6:30 pm

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