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Kitab Sibawayhi: Syntax and Pragmatics.

Kitab Sibawayhi: Syntax and Pragmatics. By AMAL E. MAROGY. Studies in Semitic Languages and Linguistics, vol. 56. Leiden: BRILL, 2010. Pp. xviii + 238. $160.

In the preface of the book under review the author asks why yet another book on Kitab Sibawayhi. Her answer is that the Kitab's "contribution to the development of Arabic as well as to general linguistics as a whole should not be underestimated" (p. xi). And she is right. Indeed, Sibawayhi's main achievement is that the Kitab is not only one of the earliest books in the Islamic period, but also, affirming the marvel that it was within that context, happens to remain more or less unchallenged in its authority within the Arabic linguistic tradition until today. It is by no means an easy book and even the long extant tradition of commentary upon commentary has not succeeded in fully grasping the unique and creative insights put forward by Sibawayhi.

Sibawayhi shares with Aristotle the genius of establishing an explicit conceptual framework to study the phenomenon each was interested in. Though Aristotle was not the first to write on ethics, his Nicotnachean Ethics was the first systematic analysis of ethics; and Sibawayhi was one of the very first to attempt to lay down foundational work for what was to become Arabic grammar. Hence, committing one's research to a study of the Kitab implies a lifetime pursuit; in the meantime, and as a consequence of this magnitude. we still await a definitive scholarly work on Sibawayhi's "Qur'an of Grammar"--if one single work could ever achieve such a feat.

Sibawayhi (ca. 135-ca. 180 A.H.) was of Persian descent, a mawla (client) of the Banu Harith b. Ka'b. He spent his active scholarly life in Basra during the first decades of Islam's golden age; he died during the reign of Harlin al-Rashid. The discrimination he may have suffered as a mawla is perhaps reflected in the biographical anecdotes that underscore his alleged speech impediment and his presumed faulty command of the Arabic language (cf. M. G. Carter, Sibawayhi, OUP, 2004). It is no wonder, then, that the originality of his ideas was challenged--how could a non-Arab write such a brilliant grammar of the Arabic language without being part of an existing and flourishing linguistic tradition? Sibawayhi himself never had the opportunity to defend himself against whatever allegations were leveled at him, since he died very young, too young even to have a circle of students who could have properly transmitted his work as was common practice then. Nevertheless, within a century after his death, the Kitab was firmly established as the grammar of Arabic par excellence and a source of inspiration for linguistic scholars in the East and West alike.

Amal Marogy joins her predecessors in scrutinizing Sibawayhi's creativity and the Kitab's originality. To help structure her study of the Kitab, she introduces what she calls the "Principle of Complemen-tarity." which brings together formal syntactic and semantic studies on the one hand and the pragmatic approach of modern linguistics on the other. The pragmatic approach is focused on the study of natural language as meaningful communication and this, the author asserts, forms the core of Sibawayhi's linguistic analysis. Taking specific concepts from various modern general linguists such as J. Lyons, C. Lyons, Leech, Givcin, Dik, Van Valin, Halliday, and Downing--to name but a few--the author attempts to penetrate more deeply into Sibawayhi's approach to linguistic behavior. She emphasizes that it is not her intention to give the reader a comparative study, but that "[m]odern linguists are appealed to whenever their concepts, definitions or principles reflect what can essentially be described as the same linguistic phenomenon or way of reasoning as in the Kitab" (p. xvi), aiming ". . to pinpoint where Sibawayhi's linguistic thinking intersects with modern linguistics" (p. 48). In this way she hopes to offer a new and comprehensive approach to the Kitab which fully recognizes Sibawayhi's originality and at the same time renders its content more accessible to modern linguists.

A pragmatic approach presupposes a living speech community from which to draw material to be analyzed. The sources Sibawayhi uses reflect this pragmatic approach--he uses the language of the Qur'an, pre-Islamic poetry, and the living language of the Bedouin, kalam al-'arab), the latter by far the most important for him. The Kitab amply refers to al-arab in general and to specific tribes (the Banu Tamim stands out), regions (especially ahl al-Hijaz), and cities (Kufa, Mecca, Medina) for attesting language use. Amal Marogy discusses the linguistic data found in the Kitab within a cultural context that is closely linked to the town of al-Hira. She briefly describes al-Hira's history as a flourishing center of learning and culture that gradually gave way to the new Islamic garrison cities (amsar) of Kufa and Basra. On the basis of a similarity between the tribal presence in al-Hira and the various attesta-tions of kalam al-'arab in the Kitab, she formulates the hypothesis that "Sibawayhi was well acquainted with al-Hira and its cultural life" (p. 15). This hypothesis is subsequently used to discuss the existence of a grammatical debate prior to the Kitab (the identity of the nalntlyytin to whom Sibawayhi refers) and the alleged dichotomy between the grammatical schools of Basra and Kufa--two highly debated issues among modern-day scholars of the Arabic linguistic tradition. With al-Hira as backdrop, she concludes that the non-Arab Christians and Jews from that city permeated the early development of Arabic linguistics and hence she argues that al-Hira is the key to our understanding of the grammatical tradition.

The discussion of the al-Hira hypothesis is part of the first. introductory chapter of the book, "Historical Background," in which the author sketches Sibawayhi's life and the social and cultural milieu of his time, after which she presents an overview of the Kitab's contents and sources. The chapter closes with a discussion of the status of the Kite& and the way both Arab grammarians and Western scholars have, over time, studied the book.

What then follows are three closely connected studies of concepts in the Kitab, which are discussed in the context of modern linguistic theories. Moving from the more general Principle of Complementarily to a more detailed concept of Definiteness as a case study of the complementary approach, the author ends with a discussion of mubtada' (the initial position in especially nominal sentences) within a framework taken from Functional Grammar.

Central to the discussion of the Principle of Complementarity--the subject of chapter two--is the term tnustagim, used by Sibawayhi to indicate a grammatically correct and meaningful utterance. Inspired by, among others, John Lyons's Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (first published in 1968) and Geoffrey Leech's Principles off Pragmatics (1983), the author selects passages from the Kitab to illustrate what she calls Sibawayhi's holistic approach (p. 94). Thus, the Kitab's chapter on al-istigama min al-kalam wa-l-ihala, "on rightness and wrongness in speech," serves as backdrop to introduce pragmatic principles, such as the Politeness Principle (PP), which dictates that the speaker convey messages that are meaningful to the listener. The Politeness Principle and istiqama come together, for instance, in Sibawayhi's statement that "[i]t is not mustaqim to inform the listener about something indefinite, as the latter is not something by which he [the listener] will be put in the same status as yourself regarding the definite" (p. 76). In other words, order for our speech to be mustaqim, common-ground knowledge with the listener is required" (ibid.). Along the same lines, the contemporary theoretical pragmatic principles of Negotiability (the speaker leaves room for different interpretations by the listener), Motivation (the speaker intentionally chooses one particular meaning and leaves no room for the listener to interpret otherwise), and Conventionality (expressions whose unambiguous meaning is rooted in usage) are discussed.

The above-mentioned example of Sibawayhi's application of the Politeness Principle--his requirement to inform the listener about something familiar--is further elaborated on in chapter three on Definiteness and Identifiability. Here, Christopher Lyons's Definiteness (1999) and relevant material from Talmy Givon's Syntax: An Introduction (2001 ed.) are, among other works, used to explore how Sibawayhi deals with definiteness. Starting off with a discussion of the five classes of definiteness and their internal hierarchy that are distinguished in the Kitab, the author moves on to an investigation of the behavior of (in)detinite nouns in the word order of Arabic nominal sentences. The emphasis here is on the restricted possibility for indefinite nouns to appear in the initial position, because it is required of the speaker to inform the listener about something he or she is able to identify from a shared currentspeech situation. A discussion of the role verbs play in the debate on (in)definiteness precedes the conclusion of this chapter in which the pragmatic notion of identifiability is underscored as crucial for the interpretation of definiteness and word order in the Kitab (p. 148).

Chapter four takes the reader a step further into the depths of the complex theories on "the nature of nominal sentences and the factors motivating various structural elements to occupy the 'initial' position in such sentences" (p. 151) with a discussion of the Arabic notions of mubtada' and ibtida' against the background of modern linguistic concepts such as Topic and Theme. A relatively large part of the chapter is devoted to an elaboration of the various functional grammatical theories, which, according to Marogy, would serve best as backdrop for an interpretation of Sibawayhi's ideas. Simon Dik's general theory of the organization of natural language (Functional Grammar, FG), Van Valin's theory of Role and Reference Grammar (RRG; pivoting on the communicative function of grammatical structures), and Michael Halliday's Systematic Functional Grammar (SFG; primarily concerned with the practical use of language) are first discussed in order to come to an adequate definition of Topic and Theme. The author finally opts for Angela Downing's schema as formulated in her 1991 article "An Alternative Approach to Theme: A Systemic-Functional Perspective" (Word 42 [1991]: 119-43). The second part of the chapter analyzes large quotations from the Kitab in light of these various functional-grammatical theories, leading to the conclusion that "[t]here is little doubt about motivated syntactic and pragmatic arguments being employed to account for the behaviour of nominal sentences. Only when these two complementary linguistic factors are given due weight, are we able to approach nominal sentences as were envisaged by Sibawayhi" (p. 201).

The book ends with a conclusion (chapter five), a bibliography, and a fitting index of terms and names.

The al-Hira hypothesis proposed at the beginning of the book is thought provoking and the comple-mentary approach is inspiring, to say the least, for a different scrutiny of Sibawayhi's often enigmatic text. The book as a whole is written in a pleasant style, but it is not easy reading. Interspersed digressions often break one's train of thought and the book would have profited had the author been more able to differentiate between key issues and details, using the main text for the former and footnotes for the latter. Instead the author crisscrosses through an abundance of modern linguistic works, without informing the reader why particular concepts, ideas, notions, or definitions were chosen instead of others from these works. An underlying principle at play in her choice may have been that both the modern linguistic notions and the sections taken from the Kitab were "selected" in order to illustrate that Sibawayhi already took everything into account. Large parts of the book seem to have been written for the general linguist. That is to say, the book relies heavily on the reader's ability to cope with modern linguistic theories and, at least for those who have no thorough training in this field, it will be no easy task to grasp the principles nor the Principles and their abbreviations, the CPs, the PPs, and the IPs, the Topics, Tails, Themes, and Rhemes. At the same time, however, the general linguist who does not know Arabic will have great difficulty in following the quotes from Sibawayhi, which are not transliterated and quite often not even translated, only paraphrased. On the whole, the author would have made things considerably easier for the reader by presenting a succinct theoretical framework together with an accessible translated presentation of all the Arabic quotes to elucidate Kitab Sibawayhi as a communicative grammar for both layperson and specialist, hence meeting the needs of both. Despite this lack of conceptual unity, Amal Marogy's monograph on the most important book of Arabic grammar is nevertheless a valuable contribution to the study of (Arabic) linguistics and, together with other works on Sibawayhi's Kitab, helps us to start to actually understand it.

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Author:Bernards, Monique
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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