Part 53

What is the real meaning of the word 'taste'?

December 29, 2021

The word “taste” is in current use among those who are concerned with the various branches of literary criticism (bayan). It means the tongue’s possession of the habit of eloquence. What eloquence is 1380 was explained above.

It is the conformity of speech to the meaning (intended), in every aspect, (and this is achieved) by means of certain qualities that give this (conformity) to the word combinations. An eloquent speaker of the Arabic language chooses the form (of expression) that affords such (conformity) according to the methods and ways of Arab address.

He arranges his speech along such lines so far as he is able. When he does this constantly in his use of Arabic speech, he gets the habit of arranging his speech along those lines. (The use of proper) word combinations becomes a simple matter for him. In this respect he hardly ever swerves from the way of Arab eloquence. If he hears a word combination that is not along those lines, he spits it out, and his ear recoils from it upon the slightest reflection. Indeed, no reflection whatever (is needed, for his reaction is) the consequence of the (linguistic) habit he has obtained.

Habits 1381 that are firmly established and rooted in their proper places appear to be natural and innate in those places. Therefore, many ignorant people who are not acquainted with the importance of habits, think that the correct use of vowel endings and the proper eloquence of Arabs in their language are natural things.

They say that “the Arabs speak (correct Arabic) by nature.” 1382 This is not so. (Correct Arabic speech) is a linguistic habit of (proper) speech arrangement that has become firmly established and rooted (in speakers of Arabic), so that, superficially, it appears to be something natural and innate. However, as mentioned before, 1383 this habit results from the constant practice of Arabic speech and from repeated listening to it and from understanding the peculiar qualities of its word combinations.

It is not obtained through knowledge of the scientific rules evolved by literary critics. 1384 Those rules merely afford a knowledge of the (Arabic) language. They do not give (a person) possession of the actual habit in its proper place. This was mentioned before. (Now,) if this is established, (we may say that it is) the tongue’s habit of eloquence that guides an eloquent person toward the various aspects of (word) arrangement and toward use of the correct combinations (of words) corresponding to the word combinations and arrangement used by Arabs when they speak Arabic.

When a person who possesses the (Arabic linguistic) habit attempts to deviate from the specific ways and the word combinations peculiar (to Arabic speech), he is not able to do so. His tongue will not go along with him, because it is not used to (improper speech), and its firmly rooted habit will not let it use it. Should any (form of) speech that deviates from the method of the Arabs and the eloquence they use in arranging their speech occur to him, he would avoid it, spit it out, and know that it does not belong to the Arabic speech that he has assiduously practiced. He mayoften be unable to support his attitude by arguments, as the people who know the grammatical and stylistic rules can do. But such is a matter of argumentation with the help of inductively derived rules, whereas (correct use of the language) is something intuitive, 1385 resulting from the constant practice of Arabic speech until such time as (the person who practices it) comes to be like one of (the Arabs).

For comparison, let us assume an Arab child who grows up and is reared among Arab Bedouins. 1386 He learns their language and has a good knowledge of the vowel endings and of eloquent (Arabic) expression. He masters (all) that completely, but he does not have any knowledge whatever of grammatical rules.

His (correctness and eloquence of speech) is purely the result of the linguistic habit he has obtained. In the same way, the (linguistic) habit may be acquired by those who live after the time of the (ancient) Arab Bedouins, with the help of expert knowledge of, and constant occupation with, (the documents of) their speech, their poems, and addresses.

This will eventually give them the (linguistic) habit and make them like persons who grew up and were reared among them. The (grammatical) rules cannot do that.

This habit, if firmly rooted and established, is metaphorically called “taste,” a technical term of literary criticism. “Taste” is (conventionally) used for the sensation caused by food. But, since the (linguistic) habit is located in the tongue, which is the seat of speech as it is the seat of the sensation caused by food, the name of “taste” is metaphorically used for it.

Furthermore, it is something intuitively observed by the tongue, just as food is something sensually perceived by it. Therefore, it is called “taste.”

The non-Arabs, such as Persians, Byzantines, and Turks in the East, and Berbers in the West are strangers to the Arabic language. They do not possess such taste.

They have too small a share in the (linguistic) habit the significance of which we have established. They formerly had another linguistic habit - their own language - and part of their lives had gone by (before they got to know Arabic).

Now, the most they can do is to occupy themselves with the individual words and word combinations in current use in the conversation of the (Muslim) urban population in their midst and which they are forced to use. The (ancient Arabic linguistic) habit is lost to the urban population, and they are strangers to it, as mentioned before. 1387 They have another linguistic habit, which is not the desired linguistic habit (of the Arabs).

Those who know the (Arabic linguistic) habit (merely) from rules codified in books are in no way in the possession of (that) habit. They merely know the laws governing it, as one knows (now after our preceding discussion). The (linguistic) habit can be obtained only through constant practice, becoming accustomed to Arab speech, and repeatedly (using and listening to) it.

One may hear it said that Sibawayh, al-Farisi, azZamakhshari, and other authorities on Arab speech were nonArabs and yet possessed the (Arab linguistic) habit. 1388 Then one should realize that these people one hears about were non-Arab only by descent.

They grew up and were reared among Arabs who possessed the (Arabic linguistic) habit, or among people who had learned it from them. Thus, they were able to master (Arabic) speech to a degree that cannot be surpassed. In a way, in their early childhoods they were in the position of Arab children who grow up among Arab Bedouins and thus achieve a knowledge of all the finesses of the language and become speakers of (pure) Arabic. 1389 Although these (scholars) were non-Arab by descent, they were not non-Arabs as far as language and speech are concerned, because they lived in a time when Islam was in its prime and the Arabiclanguage in its young manhood. The (linguistic) habit had not yet entirely disappeared, not even among the urban population. They assiduously devoted themselves to the constant study and practice of Arab speech. Eventually, they mastered it completely.

(However,) nowadays, when a non-Arab has contact with Arabic speakers in, the cities, the first thing he finds is that the desired Arabic linguistic habit is completely" gone, and he finds that the (linguistic) habit peculiar to them is another one and different from the Arabic linguistic habit. Assuming that he proceeds with persistence to study and memorize the speech and poems of the Arabs, in order to obtain the (linguistic habit), still,. he will rarely be successful, because, as mentioned before, 1390 a habit the place of which was originally taken by another habit, will be defective and mutilated. Assuming (further) that he is non-Arab by descent but has had no contact whatever with a non-Arabic language, and that he now sets out to learn the (Arabic linguistic) habit through memorizing and studying, he may occasionally be successful. This, however, is rare, a fact about which the previous remarks will have left no doubt.

Those who have studied the stylistic norms (of Arabic) occasionally claim that they have given them the “taste” (of the Arabic language). This, (however,) is an error and a deception. If they have obtained any habit, it is the habit of the stylistic norms. That habit has nothing whatever to do with the habit of (linguistic) expression.


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