The Tragedy of Dying Languages


One global issue of great concern to me is the alarming rate of language death happening in the world today. It’s estimated that half of the world’s 6000 living languages will be extinct in the next 50 years, many with little to no record of their vocabularies, grammar, or potential for expression. I deeply love and am fascinated by language as it forms the vital medium for clear and direct communication at all levels. Without it there is no science, no politics, no philosophy or religion, virtually no art, and no substantial form of education. Every natural language carries with it some thousands of years of cultural history with it, shaping it as a unique lens to frame life and new experiences. Each of these lenses gives us a new view, a new angle to approach problems of the world or to be more creative. These languages are the backbone of unique indigenous culture, and indeed, one cannot separate language from culture itself. The death of a language is the effective death of a culture and the reduction of human diversity. This being at such a time where humanity is more capable of learning from one another than ever before is one of the greatest unspoken tragedies of modern man.

Coming from a multicultural background and having a diverse group of friends at a young age brought me to early consideration of the differences between cultures, and this only grew as I learned about religions and world history in high school. Having now traveled the world a bit and spent a great deal of time studying languages, I have learned just to how great an extent psychology and philosophy can be shaped by language. Language has long been considered the cornerstone of humankind and it has the potential to elevate us to unimaginable heights in the arts, sciences, and philosophy. Such an incredible tool is remarkable in its own regard but with a huge array of different such tools at our disposal, and for the sake of the over-all well-being of humanity such diversity must be maintained and promoted to make the world that much richer and more beautiful.

The Meaning of Communication

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Life is a combination of sensory experience and creative myths and metaphors around the complex and biotic organizations of sensory experiences. Beyond lucid clarity and awareness this is what makes up conscious experience. Every mental object amounts to a myth or metaphor of an aspect of objective, physical existence. Language, at the broadest level, is any attempted representation of a mental object, event, or phenomena–itself being a representation of some aspect of physical existence (thus making language “representation of representation”).

As soon as there is an effort to communicate through art or language (including math), there is the attempt at engaging two or more consciousnesses into an act of temporary union. This union through the sharing of experiences is the root of all forms of communication between organisms, and it is the purest form of connection that we can achieve in this world at this point. Communication, including language and art, is therefore the most basic expression of the human will, for it is the will that drives us away from the suffering of disconnection and towards the contentment of its opposite.

Here is the underlying force which pulls life inexorably onwards. It is why, when a person is drawn into connection with their senses and inanimate objects, it is the highest symptom of an illness of the will or spirit. Whether brought about from the person’s community or the person themself, they have failed to attain the necessary degree of connection with other living things to allow them to thrive in contentment as a living, conscious organism. A will wasted on sensory experience is an ill; the cure is pure connection to other conscious beings through the myth and metaphor of lucid experience.

Becoming Filipino in One Month

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One of the primary ideas driving me in life is the idea of mindhacking.

Mindhacking is the term i like to use for probing the pathways and currents of cognition, learning, perception, awareness, emotions, and so forth, and to find the tricks, methods, and principles which allow for the most effective and efficient navigation, manipulation, and evolution of these aspects of consciousness. Travel is a very effective method for both uncovering the nature of the mind as well as for exploiting new pathways to growth and change within it.

So as this year will be a year of predominantly travel (which you can read more about in my prior post here), it will give me a chance to put my money where my mouth is. I will begin with the Middle East in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with family, but afterwards I’m on to the Philippines for a month to stay with an old friend in the heart of Manila and to attempt to hack my mind into thinking, speaking, and acting as a native Filipino to the fullest extent one month will allow for.

But of course this trip will require funds; funds which i have few of. Thus i humbly ask the internet and the blogosphere to help in any way you can. I will post about the developments of the travels extensively and will attempt to vlog as well. The insights into language and culture will be paramount, but my observations of my own consciousness throughout the new experiences and experiments will feature prominently as well.

So please check out my Trevolta for the trip and donate! Any amount is appreciated, and $15 or more will get you a copy of my ebook on language learning upon its completion this spring!

The Grammatical and Stylistic Similarities between Spanish* and Arabic: A Brief Comparative Grammar

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Many people are familiar with the fact that the Arabs controlled or maintained a cultural presence in Spain for about 900 years (If not, i recommend you give this wiki page about it a quick look-over). It should be of no surprise then to learn of the Arabic influence on the developing Iberian tongue. This of course has been well documented of the Spanish lexicon, and it has been estimated that about 8% of the Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin — no small amount when considering that’s about one in every twelve words. These words include such important daily terms as:

  • Sp. hasta: until, even, to, through. From Ar. ḥatta (حتى)
  • Sp. azul: blue. From Ar. Azraq (ازرق)
  • Sp. loco: crazy. From Ar. lawqa “fool.”
  • Sp. ¡ole! (or olé): The most famous expression of approval, support or encouragement, possibly comes from Ar. wa-llah (و الله): by Allah (God)!
  • Sp. cero: zero. From Ar. sifr (صفر)
  • Sp. café: coffee. From Ar. qahwa (قهوة)
  • Sp. tarea: task. From Ar. ṭaríḥa root(طرح), “to throw”.

Here’s a full list of Spanish vocabulary with an Arabic origin.

The familiar vocabulary words will be a welcome sight for any Spanish speaker attempting to learn Arabic or vice versa, but there are many similarities of stylistics and grammar that will be notable as well. Oddly enough, counter-intuitively, these are all almost entirely coincidental and have essentially nothing to do with influence of Arabic on Spanish. These are the 10 most notable similarities i’ve found, so far (some of which are actually common in other languages, too):

  1. Surprisingly similar definite articles: Sp. “el/la”, Ar. “al”.
  2. Similar flexible syntax of VSO (verb-subject-object) and SVO (sub.-verb.-obj) in various contexts. Summarized in this excerpt from the wikipedia on the subject: “Both the Spanish and Greek language resemble Semitic languages such as Arabic in allowing for both VSO and SVO structures: e.g. “Jesús vino el jueves” / Vino Jesús el jueves, “Tu madre dice que no vayas”/”dice tu madre que no vayas”. In Spanish, the only restriction on the VSO form is for the object to require a definite or indefinite article in the sentence.”
  3. The word for “there is/are” is a single word which is treated less like a verb or noun, and more like a preposition of sorts, and is unrelated to the demonstrative pronouns. The usage and connotation is exactly the same: “hay” in Spanish and “fī” in many colloquial variants of Arabic.
  4. The conjunction “or” is expressed with “o/u” in Spanish and “aw” in Arabic, which in normal speech is pronounced very similarly.
  5. An arbitrary gender system for nouns and adjectives, with the feminine marked by a suffixed “a” sound, in Arabic called the “taa marbuta” (ة).
  6. Suffixed direct and indirect object pronouns. Ex.: “Tell me it” Sp. Dímelo, Ar. Qul-li-ha : the exact same morpho-semantic units, with simply different sounds making them up.
  7. A comparative-superlative adjective system which depends on a combination of context, word order, and the definite article to convey one or the other. Ex.: Sp. Fátima es la más alta. Ar. Fatima hiya aṭwal فاطمة هي أطول (gloss: Fatima she[-is] taller[-one].)
  8. The use of adjectives as nouns. Arabic actually views nouns and adjectives as effectively the same thing, because an adjective literally would translate as a noun + adjective, so “beautiful” (jamīl جميل) would literally be “beautiful-one”. Spanish appears to have a similar view of adjectives. Ex.: Sp. La joven; aquel viejo; este ciego; los altos están allí; etc.
  9. Common omission of the subject pronoun of a sentence due to the precision of verb conjugations–the use of pronouns being mainly for emphasis or formality.
  10. N-final plural verb conjugations. Ex.: Sp. Ellos/ellas/ustedes hacen; Ar. They (m.) do: yafʿulūn يَفْعُلُونَ; You (m. pl.) do: tafʿulūn تَفْعُلُونَ; they two (dual 3rd person): yafʿulān يَفْعُلاَنِ. (And of course these conjugation patterns apply to all the verbs of the languages).

Wikipedia mentions this as a non-coincidental influence of Arabic on Spanish grammar:
The suffix í: Arabic has a very common type of adjective, known as the nisba or relationship adjective, which is formed by adding the suffix -ī (masc.) or ية -iyya (fem.) to a noun. This has given Spanish the suffix -í (both masc. and fem.), creating adjectives from nouns which indicate relationship or belonging. Examples are Marbellí, Ceutí, Maghrebí, Zaragocí, Andalusí or Alfonsí.

I hope that this information with all prove useful to anyone studying Arabic or Spanish with a knowledge of the other language! Starting at the common ground, i find, tends to be the fastest, most effective way to learn a new language.

– J. Ibrahim Abuhamada

*I’m not certain, due to my ignorance of the language in depth, but i would assume most, if not all of these similarities apply to Portuguese as well.