Mr. Szasz is Right About Language
I chose to write about Thomas Szasz’s quote, “Man is the animal that speaks. Understanding language is thus the key to understanding man,” because it reminds me of how learning my parents’ native language, Arabic, taught me more about my own culture. As a child, I mainly spoke, read, and wrote in English, and knew very little Arabic. I had to learn Arabic when I moved to Egypt at the age of nine. At that point of my life, I didn’t understand Egyptians or their culture; everything was foreign to me. Through communicating with people and learning to read and write Arabic in school, I started truly understanding our traditions.
Szasz’s quote briefly explains that language is fundamental to understanding humanity as a whole. Over the course of history, humans developed a system of communication known as language. In the past, each culture developed its own language; the Chinese developed Chinese and the Turks developed Turkish, for instance. Certain sounds and certain markings resemble a certain thing. Because each culture has different traditions and beliefs, sometimes words in one language cannot be directly translated into another. Therefore, I agree with Szasz’s claim that language is the key to understanding man’s actions and beliefs. When we learn another language, we gain a better sense of the culture of those who speak that language and, as a result, we start to understand those people more.
I started understanding my Egyptian and Islamic cultures more when I started speaking, reading, and writing in Arabic. When I started studying Arabic grammar in school, I learned that every word in the Arabic language has a root consisting of three or four letters. Each ‘root word’ has a certain theme. For example, the root word (كتب), spelt as ‘k-t-b,’ has a theme of writing. Adding letters or pronunciation marks to the root word would develop it into words meaning writer, library, or book. A tradition that I did not really understand as a child was the hijab, which is the head covering worn by Muslim women. The root word for hijab is (حجب), spelt as ‘h-j-b,’ which has the theme of covering. After further researching hijab, I learned that hijab is not just covering the hair; it is covering the body as well. Muslim women cover their hair and body in public in order to not attract negative attention; they want to be appreciated for their intellect and character rather than for their beauty. To fully understand why Muslim women cover their hair, I had to learn the Arabic term for the tradition, which explains the purpose of the hijab. I believe that there is no exact translation of the word hijab in English. Some people may refer to it as a veil, but that is a covering of the face such as that worn by brides, and others may refer to it as a headscarf, but that is merely a description of how hijab looks on a woman.
As a result of my experience studying Arabic, I agree with Szasz. If I didn’t know the word hijab and its origin, I would not fully understand its purpose.