التأويل ﻓﻲ كتاب سيبويه / The Hermeneutic Aspect of Sibawaihi's Grammar


Nasr Abu Zaid



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أبو زيد, نصر حامد; Abu Zaid, Nasr

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Research Article

Publication Title

Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

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[The article reveals the unrecognized hermeneutic mechanisms underlying linguistics, and analyzes as an example the work of the famous eighth-century Arab grammarian Sibawaihi. The analysis is based on a close reading of Sibawaihi's The Book, which uncovers the relationship between methodological principles and concepts, on the one hand, and worldview and ideologies, on the other. The article demonstrates that description and analysis of language is neither neutral nor objective. It requires processes that are necessarily interpretive, and thus indicative of the researcher's position vis-a-vis the universal order. Arab grammarians recognized the collective and systematic nature of language. Their research had the ultimate goal of understanding the wisdom of the creator of the universe. Language, like the rest of the world, was a "sign" to be read and interpreted. The Quran, as the text of reference, with its seven modes of recitation, has contributed to reflection on the varieties of readings. From the early coinage of grammatical terminology, we can observe words from the language transformed into words about language. Three of these terms studied in this article indicate that metalanguage carries within it a hermeneutic lining. An examination of the major grammatical issues indicated by the terms "regent" (āmil), "analogy" (qiyās) and "anomaly" (shudhūdh) demonstrate the hermeneutic nature of the analytical concepts as well as their intimate relation to worldview of the grammarians. Underlying Sibawaihi's principle of "regent" is his conviction that each act must have an agent, each effect a cause. Thus, when this was not manifest in a sentence, he assumed ellipsis. The argument between the two prominent grammar schools of Kufa and Basra over "regent" corresponds to theological debates on the "agent" of human act. As for "analogy", it is related to reasoning. "Analogy" was required in understanding the application of Islamic law (Sharī'a), and in interpreting different aspects of the sacred text. It was, equally, an indispensable instrument in organizing variations and repetition in language into an order and a system. "Anomaly", on the other hand, is the negation of the principle of "analogy": it is the exception. Sibawaihi himself did not use this term, but distinguished between the "agreeable" and the "disagreeable" in usage (al-qubḥ and al-ḥusn), two terms borrowed from dialectical theology. A close reading of the grammatical work of Sibawaihi shows that the "agreeable" and "disagreeable" correspond to the popular versus rare usage. This is to be expected in a culture whose center is one uncontested text.]

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