Languages are NOT stagnant!

Everyone who gives attention the development of his own mother tongue will observe that every year neologisms (new words) are created and that other old and even not so old words slowly disappear from current usage. When reading books that are only a hundred years old one will ever so often come across words one has never heard before and which one has to look up in a dictionary because it is not clear what they are supposed to mean. Not only is the vocabulary of a language undergoing constant change, even structural and grammatical features are slowly changing. This is not only true for current languages, this has always been true of any living language. It is therefore vitally important to know from what time a certain text dates to determine whether a word found in it could have a certain meaning or not.

Shibli Zaman, however, founder/director of the "Near Eastern and Semitic Studies Institute of America" and self-appointed internet pope of linguistics, seems to work under the curious assumption that languages are stagnant. The page will document various instances in which we see this assumption at work. The below discussed points are only samples. This page is very much "under construction" and will most likely soon be extended with further examples.

  • The Etymological Fallacy
  • e to be called the etymological fallacy or root fallacy. Roughly speaking one could say that the root fallacy is the assumption that the original meaning of the word (the root meaning) is its true or even its only meaning. Several instances of this fallacy are discussed in great detail in the articles Shibli Zaman and the Abuse of Etymology and Zaman on Etymology [Revisited].

  • English
  • Zaman's NESSIA site is not about a discussion of English language and literature, but this section will serve as background to help understand better the evaluation in the later sections dealing with the Biblical languages and then with Zaman's alleged area of expertise, the Semitic languages.

    It is somewhat curious that not only Shibli Zaman but many Muslim writers who publish articles against the Bible or Christian doctrines prefer to use the King James Version (KJV, also called Authorized Version) of the Bible, a translation that was published in AD 1611 (some background information on this translation is given in this article). There does not even seem to be much of a difference whether these Muslims are native English speakers or not. This is all the stranger an observation since even Christians who are native English speakers often have problems understanding this translation due to its dated language. Why would Muslims use this translation that has so much obscure language instead of any of the modern translations? Is it that an obscure phrase is easier to misinterpret and abuse? I don't know.

    Over the years a number of special "KJV dictionaries" were published to help people translate what they read in the KJV into their own language. For example, this site providing Bible Study Tools also offers a "King James Dictionary" because:

    The King James Bible has stood it's ground for nearly 400 years. However, during that time the English language has changed. With it has changed the meaning of some words used in the KJV. Here are over 800 words whose definitions have changed since 1611.

    The language has changed so much, that people who have not grown up with it, can hardly comprehend this translation. There is not only one such book, there are several different editions dealing with this issue. This page gives an overview, and then there are various online helps or home PC packages (*, *, *).

    Let me give just one example. I am a mathematician, so I like "proofs".

    Prove all things; ... (1 Thessalonians 5:21; KJV)

    Can we no longer state opinions? Does the Bible really command us to "prove" all things? Can we take nothing on faith? Are mathematicians, scientists and lawyers thus better Christians because they are trained in giving proof? Not at all. The way this word is used has changed. Here are some more verses from the KJV:

    ... that your words may be proved, whether there be any truth in you: ... (Genesis 42:16)

    ... that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law, or no. (Exodus 16:4)

    And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, ... (Exodus 20:20)

    And they were to prove Israel by them, to know whether they would hearken unto the commandments of the LORD, ... (Judges 3:4)

    It should become clear slowly, that 400 years ago, to "prove" was used in the meaning to "test" the genuineness or authenticity of people or things, not giving proof as in a mathematical or legal argument. Back then the outcome of a proof could be positive or negative, just as today, the result of a test is open. However, the meaning of proof / prove has narrowed today, and proving something has only one outcome, or it hasn't been proven. There are many more words where the meaning has changed in the last 400 years and that can lead to great misunderstandings of the Bible, because one thinks one knows the words, but actually assumes a wrong meaning. This is more dangerous than the many words which have completely fallen out of use and most people would not know at all what they are supposed to mean (e.g., cockatrice, concupiscence, purtenance, ...). The page Defects of the King James Version gives various other examples where the KJV is creating misunderstandings.

    Sometimes Muslims challenge Christians: ‘Your own Bible demands that you "prove everything", ...’ but as we have seen, it doesn't say that. That was a correct translation in 1600, but it is no longer an appropriate translation today because the English language has changed. Applying this verse to Islam and Muslim claims regarding the Qur'an and the person of Muhammad, I am not called to prove Islam (to be true) but to put these claims to the test (whether they are true or not). That is part of the calling of Answering Islam.

    Looking through Zaman's articles, he quotes nearly only from the KJV, the oldest of the available English translations. I don't know why, but has he perhaps chosen this translation for the same reason as in many of the below discussed languages where he seems to think that the oldest meaning is the most correct meaning of a word? (See the above mentioned articles on the etymological fallacy.)

  • Attic Greek and Koine Greek
  • The Greek of the New Testament period (AD 50-100), the form of Greek spoken in the Middle East is as far removed from Classical Attic Greek (e.g., Plato BC 427-347) of Greece as is 17th century British English from 21st century American English. It is still Greek, but the language has changed significantly both because of the time that has elapsed and because Greek had become the lingua franca of a large part of the world, just as English is today influenced by the fact that it is spoken by many people in many countries as a second language.

    The study of Koine Greek (the "common" Greek) has made vast progress in the last one hundred years. A century ago, it was an appendix or minor section in Greek studies, today it is a field of research in its own right. Even though Koine is based on Attic Greek the differences are substantial and important to know for proper understanding of texts.

    Grammar Books: Shibli Zaman doesn't care about this difference when polemicizing against Christians. When Sam Shamoun discussed a Biblical text and quoted from a textbook for Biblical (Koine) Greek, Zaman protested that this is not a standard grammar book, and then continues to recommend two grammar references about Classical (Attic) Greek (cf. the article Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools ...).

    Dictionaries: When discussing the meaning of another Biblical text, and one particular word in it, I made reference to the most comprehensive and scholarly dictionary covering the period and vocabulary of the New Testament, the BDAG: A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Even though it did not make one iota of difference in this particular case, in his response Zaman again protested and insists that the right dictionary to look at is the LSJ, i.e. A Greek-English Lexicon by Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and revised by Sir Henry Stuart Jones. However, LSJ is again mainly a lexicon of Attic Greek (cf. the above linked articles on etymology).

    Why would Zaman regularly point to grammars and dictionaries of Attic Greek when discussing texts written in Koine? Apparently, he does not know that there is a difference and seems to assume that the language has remained stagnant over these centuries.

  • Aramaic and Syriac
  • There is an argument between Shibli Zaman and Dr. Christoph Heger whether the Arabic word "Furqan" used in Surah 25:1 really comes from the Syriac language and means "salvation, redemption" and that the whole verse originated from a Christian hymn. Dr. Heger argues this theory in his article Surah 25:1: Al-Furqân and "the warner". I know neither Syriac nor do I have a sufficient knowledge of Arabic to be able to confirm or disprove this argument.

    Obviously, if Muhammad indeed adapted some Christian material into the text of the Qur'an he had hardly come to know of these expressions and their use in Christian liturgy by studying the Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament Scriptures in some public library but through his discourse with his Christian contemporaries with whom he discussed religious matters, be it in Arabia itself or on his own travels to Syria as a young man, i.e. roughly AD 600.

    Despite my lack of knowledge in Syriac and Arabic that prevents me from evaluating the details of this argument I can, however, clearly see that Zaman makes at least one serious categorical error in his attempt to refute the assertions of Dr. Heger. Zaman posted his rebuttal article on his website (before it was completely revamped and renamed, this article is currently not available there) as well as on the discussion forum soc.religion.islam. The following are some of his statements:

    I honestly believe Dr. Heger knew what he was writing was false.
    Otherwise, if he claims that he did not know it was erroneous and
    false, then he is admitting a severe incompetence in the area of
    Semitic languages and needs to refrain from writing any further
    articles on the subject. ...
    The word "FURQAAN" ... IS found in Hebrew, Aramaic and even Chaldee 
    as the word "PARAAQ" and not "PURQAAN" as Dr. Heger says in errata. In 
    the Semitic languages the letter "FEH" is interchanged with the letter 
    "PEH". ...
    Now, regarding the word "PARAAQ" what do the leading Lexicons of 
    the Old Testament say?
    Dr. William Gesenius of the 1800's upon whose work all the noteworthy
    Hebrew/Aramaic/Chaldee Old Testament Lexicons are based is the utmost
    authority in this subject.
    "PARAAQ - To Bend, to break..1) To break off, followed by "MA'AAL"
    Genesis 27:40. 2) To break or crush bones and limbs (used of a wild
    beast), Psalm 7:3. 3) To break away, to liberate, Psalm 136:24.
    Lamentations 5:8 (Syriac "PARAQ") Piel. - 1) To break off, to tear
    off, Exodus 32:2. Zechariah 11:16, 2) To break, or rend in pieces, 1
    Kings 19:11. Hithapiel. - 1) to be broken in pieces, Ezekiel 19:12. 2)
    To break, or tear off from oneself, with an acc. Exodus
    32:3,24;...Derivatives "PARAQ", "PEREQ", "MAPIREQEH"."
    [Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, page 692 under
    "PARAQ", Feb. 1999 edition]
    Where is the mention of Dr. Heger's definition "SALVATION" or
    "REDEMPTION"? Observe what the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English
    Lexicon states:
    "PARAAQ - verb. tear away, apart (New Hebrew: remove (load, etc.)) Pi.
    separate, take to pieces; Arabic: "FARAQA" split, divide; *ESPECIALLY*
    "PIRAQ" (PEH/shva, REH/patax, QOF) redeem, rescue; Syriac "PARAQ"
    withdraw (intransitive), also remove, rescue..."
    [Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, page 830 under
    "PARAQ", fifth edition]
    So, now we see where Dr. Heger gets his definition of "salvation".
    However, the sad reality is that "FARAQ" does not mean salvation but
    to "seperate, remove or divide". Thus, it is used to designate
    salvation IMPLICITLY by meaning a seperation or removal from
    adversity. This also, to Dr. Heger's chagrin, is ONLY when it is used
    as "PEH, REH, QOF" with a "shva" on the "PEH" and a "patax" on the
    "REH" as mentioned in the B-D-B Lexicon (page 830, fifth edition).
    The word "PARAAQ" is used in its various forms 10 times in the Bible.
    It is used only 3 times to IMPLICITLY designate salvation by removal
    from adversity. This is in Psalms 7:2, 136:24 and Lamentations 5:8.
    The other 7 times it is used in the Bible it is used to mean "breaking
    away". ...
    (Shibli Zaman, Heger's "FURQAAN" and "NATHEER" theories [PART 1], 23 June 2000;
    SRI posting as found in the Google archive, Sept. 27; bold emphasis mine)

    For Gesenius' Lexicon it is already obvious from the title and Brown-Driver-Briggs is a revised & extended lexicon in English but based on the German one by Gesenius: both these lexicons are dictionaries for the vocabulary of the Old Testament. The latest part of the Old Testament dates to about BC 400 (some liberal scholars may argue for BC 200), but this means these dictionaries only reflect the meanings of Hebrew and Aramaic words some 800 to 1000 years before the time of Muhammad. In particular, these dictionaries were not designed to cover the vocabulary of Aramaic/Syriac Christian liturgy and theology which did not even exist at this time.

    Similarly, Islam was not only formulated in Arabic, it has in turn also shaped the Arabic language and given many words new religious meanings that they did not have before. Every new religion, worldview or movement has to shape a new vocabulary for conveying its new ideas. To expect that one HAS TO find the words and meanings of Sixth Century Syriac in a dictionary of Old Testament vocabulary exposes a severe lack of linguistic understanding on the development of languages.

    No wonder Dr. Heger responded to Shibli Zaman:

    Unfortunately Mr. Zaman didn't have a look into the relevant literature ...
    The whole verbose argument of Mr. Zaman can be reduced to this kernel:
    1) He doesn't find the word "purqaana/furqaana" in 
    > [Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, page 692 under
    > "PARAQ", Feb. 1999 edition]
    nor in
    > [Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, page 830 under
    > "PARAQ", fifth edition]
    2) He substitutes various verbal or nominal forms and derivatives of the
    (English translation of the) Hebrew word "paraaq" in the Bible by the
    (English translation of the) Syriac word "purqaana/furqaana" or
    connected verbal forms - and finds his own joke very funny.
    Ad 1: Mr. Zaman should try a dictionary of the *Syriac* language, not a
    dictionary of Hebrew (even if it comprises those Aramaic words which are
    present in the few Aramaic passages in the Old Testament). I guess why
    he hasn't done so far: He simply cannot read the entries of such a
    dictionary and wouldn't recognize the entry "purqaana/furqaana" there.
    Ad 2: It's hard not to be sarcastic about this nonsense of Hebrew-Syriac
    "sausages" a la Shibli Zaman.
    (Christoph Heger, Heger's "FURQAAN" and "NATHEER" theories [PART 1], 29 June 2000;
    SRI posting as found in the Google archive, Sept. 27)

    Mr. Zaman then responded to the above charge to have consulted the wrong dictionary with these statements:

    this response was devoid of:
    a) Even a single counter-argument
    b) Even the slightest clue regarding Syriac/Aramaic.
    At one point Mr. Heger actually says that a Hebrew/Aramaic - English
    Lexicon is insufficient and that I should try a "Syriac Dictionary".
    This is an extremely odd statement considering SYRIAC IS CHRISTIAN
    ARAMAIC!  ...
    (Shibli Zaman, Heger's "FURQAAN" and "NATHEER" theories [PART 1], 4 July 2000;
    SRI posting as found in the Google archive, Sept. 27; bold emphasis mine)

    It seems that Zaman did not understand the essential problem. Syriac may well be another name for later Aramaic, but the point is that he missed the right dictionary by a millenium!

    Zaman actually made two related errors in his article. His first serious error was to think he can find the meanings of a word at one particular time in a dictionary that only covers the language up to about 800 years earlier. Should a citizen of London in AD 1000 (with a comprehensive knowledge of its language) suddenly be transported into the same place in AD 2000, he would be pretty lost. Not only because the mode of operation of the society has changed so much, but because he would not understand half of the words used in "his" language today. Zaman missed the correct dictionary by a thousand years. Even though the overall change of language may not have been as extensive between BC 400 and AD 600 as between AD 1000 and AD 2000 it is certainly crucial that the word under discussion (salvation/redemption) is part of theological and liturgical terminology, indeed an absolutely central concept of Christian theology, while Zaman appeals to a dictionary covering only the BC period when there was no Christianity yet. It would be just as meaningful to insist on explaining important Islamic concepts only from the meaning of these words in pre-Islamic times. For example, try to gain a proper understanding of the meaning of Islamic Shariah allowing ONLY the meanings found in the Arabic vocabulary before Muhammad.

    The second error, similar in nature but going in the reverse direction, was committed by Zaman in the second part of his article:

    Now we have already destroyed the first half of Dr. Heger's argument
    without a shred of doubt. But let us pursue it one step further to put
    one last nail in the coffin. Let us replace each occurrence of "PARAQ"
    in the Old Testament with "SALVATION".
    "And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it
    shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt
    SALVATION/REDEEM his yoke from off thy neck." [Genesis 27:40]
    "..REDEEM his yoke from off thy neck"? "SALVATION his yoke from off
    thy neck"? "SALVAGE his yoke from off thy neck"? I don't think so...
    "And Aaron said unto them, SALVATION/REDEEM the golden earrings, which
    are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters,
    and bring them unto me."
    [Exodus 32:2]
    "REDEEM the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives.."?
    "SALVATION the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your
    wives.."? Here even with a stretch to make the words applicable you
    end up with the OPPOSITE of what the Bible says. The Bible says Aaron
    said to remove the earrings and cast them off. Dr. Heger's
    interpretation would be to salvage them.
    And all the people SALVATION/REDEEM(ed) off the golden earrings which
    were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. 
    [Exodus 32:3]
    "REDEEM(ed) off the golden earrings which were in their ears.."?
    "SALVATION off the golden earrings which were in their ears.."?
    "SALVAGED off the golden earrings which were in their ears.."? Again,
    Dr. Heger's interpretation of the word brings about a serious oxymoron
    in this sentence. How does one "SALVAGE off" something?
    There are 7 other examples but I will not task the readers any more.
    Dr. Heger's point has been refuted enough. The fact that he alleges he
    wrote a "thesis" on this and it met no opposition is quite absurd as
    any sincere professor of Semitic languages would have shot it down
    with a rail gun.
    (Shibli Zaman, Heger's "FURQAAN" and "NATHEER" theories [PART 1], 23 June 2000;
    SRI posting as found in the Google archive, Sept. 27; bold emphasis mine)

    Again, since some words change greatly in meaning, sometimes turning even into nearly the opposite meaning that they had earlier (cf. the examples given in Zaman and the Abuse of Etymology), it is linguistically ludicrous to import a later meaning into an earlier text when a word did not yet have that meaning. This is called "semantic anachronism". If Zaman had any deeper understanding of linguistics he would have known this, but obviously, he does not. This is not just a problem of Syriac but that is the case in EVERY language. The above certainly made great polemical rhetorics for an audience which is as ignorant regarding linguistics as the person who makes the argument. I am sure Zaman got a lot of cheers for it, but nobody with the least bit of linguistic education will have fallen for it. One doesn't need to be a professor in any language to shoot this one down.

    Zaman's errors can be summarized in this formulation: Words do not only mean what they have meant originally (the root fallacy) nor have they always meant what they mean today (semantic anachronism). The meaning of a word is usually established by its immediate context and contemporary usage. Scholars of linguistics have been emphasizing the synchronic approach (cf. this article) for already a century while Zaman works primarily with diachronic reasoning and violates the most fundamental linguistic principles.

    Zaman loves to "shoot down" other people and "drive nails in their coffins", but all he manages to achieve with spicing up his ridiculous arguments with lots of ridicule is becoming "hoisted on his own petard".

    Is the argument by Dr. Heger correct? Is it at least a possible hypothesis? [Not every linguistically possible construction is therefore necessarily correct.] Frankly, I don't know. But Zaman's reasons for rejecting Dr. Heger's thesis are without doubt completely wrong and his methodology is linguistic nonsense.

  • Arabic
  • It appears that Zaman committed an error in the Arabic language that is very similar to the second one described in the last section, i.e. a semantic anachronism. In his discussion of the verse, "Till, when they reached the Valley of the Ants, an ant (naml) said: O ants! ..." (Surah 27:18), Zaman makes the following statement:

    First of all we have the word "naml" in Arabic which is a word for ants as well as termites in the Arabic language. Termites are usually called in Arabic "an-Naml al-Abyad" meaning "the white ant".

    There are several errors in this statement which are discussed in (a) the scientific and exegetical response to his article "Talking Ants in the Qur'an?" as well as (b) my paper on Zaman's various etymological fallacies. There is another aspect that was not touched upon in those articles. The expression "an-Naml al-Abyad" exists in modern Arabic but despite quite some effort to find it in the classical Arabic literature we have not been able to, neither in the classical Arabic dictionaries nor in early scientific books on animals written in Arabic. Ants are discussed there, and even termites under several different names, but the Arabic equivalent of "white ant" is unknown in Arabic literature until quite recently.

    It seems that in his attempt to introduce termites into the interpretation of Surah 27:18 Zaman read a modern Arabic expression back into the Qur'an which was completely unknown in the time of Muhammad. Obviously, this is yet another aspect that invalidates this part of his argument all by itself.

    There seems not to exist any etymological dictionary of the Arabic language and we have not found yet how and when exactly this term was introduced into Arabic, but one Arabic linguist told me that his current best guess is that the expression is a loan translation from the French fourmi blanche and was perhaps introduced during the era when many Arabic speaking countries were under French colonial rule.

    If Zaman wants to maintain the claim that "an-Naml al-Abyad" is used in classical Arabic, say in the first three or four centuries of Islam, then it is for him to bring the evidence, i.e. quote the text where this expression is used to denote termites. We do not claim that we have searched all possible classical texts, maybe we overlooked the relevant one, but the burden of proof of its existence is on Zaman.

    Jochen Katz

    Responses to Shibli Zaman
    Answering Islam Home Page