Middle East

When Every Letter Becomes Political

Word to the wise lawmaker: Stay away from linguistics.

Nope, no P here.

Photographer: Mahmoud Zayat/AFP/Getty Images

There is something obviously preposterous about Anat Berko’s suggestion on the floor of Israel’s Knesset that Palestine can’t exist because the Arabic language doesn’t have the “P” sound. But the use of amateur linguistics in politics isn’t restricted to arguments denying opponents’ legitimacy -- it can also be used for salutary purposes. Barack Obama, for example, visiting a U.S. mosque for the first time in his presidency, recently said that “the very word itself, Islam, comes from salam -- peace.”

From a technical standpoint, both Berko and Obama are wrong. The president’s philological expertise is no greater than the Israeli lawmaker’s. But both statements shed light on the deep relationship between language and politics -- and suggest that being technically correct often isn’t as important as you’d think.

Before considering the well-meaning president, let’s start with ill-meaning lawmaker. What could Berko have meant by saying that “there isn’t even a P in Arabic so this borrowed term” -- Palestine -- “is also worth scrutinizing”?

It’s accurate, of course, that Arabic doesn’t have the “P” sound. But the word Palestine doesn’t come from Arabic. It comes (via Latin) from Greek, which does.

To be precise, Greek sources refer both to people called Philistinoi -- the Philistines of the bible -- and to the place “Palaestina” of Syria. Both phi and pi are therefore used to refer to a geographical region and/or some of its people.

The Hebrew word to designate the Philistines is also ambiguous between P and Ph. Hebrew doesn’t have two different letters to designate these two sounds, and can’t be certain how the ancient Hebrew word was pronounced.

Even the medieval pronunciation convention, still in use today, varies the sound of the Hebrew letter based on where it appears in a word: Sometimes it’s P, sometimes it’s Ph. If you look in a Hebrew Bible that’s been pointed according the medieval convention, the word for Philistines will sometimes read “pelishtim” and sometimes “phelishtim,” depending on what precedes it in the sentence.

It’s also worth mentioning that we really don’t know how the Philistines themselves pronounced their name, and their tiny number of remaining inscriptions don’t seem to be alphabetic.

All this linguistic analysis, of course, is irrelevant to whether the Palestinian identity is somehow illegitimate because its advocates formulated their arguments for their identity under modern conditions. The Arabic newspaper “Falastin” -- the contemporary usage and pronunciation -- started publishing in 1911 in Jaffa. (The first Hebrew newspaper in Ottoman Palestine was started in 1863. Its name was “Ha-Levanon,” which means … wait for it … “The Lebanon.”)

The point is that Berko, hoping to use her incorrect language analysis to suggest that Palestinian identity is newer than Jewish identity, managed instead to cast the origins of Palestine back to ancient times. In particular, she unintentionally focuses our attention on the people who, according to Exodus 13 at least, were living in the land before the Israelites got there.

Obama, in contrast, meant well. But unfortunately he wasn’t entirely correct either. Arabic -- like Hebrew -- builds words out of three-letter roots. The root of Islam is s-l-m. The same root is also the basis for the word salam, meaning peace. In that sense, and only in that sense, could it be said that the word Islam “comes from” the word peace.

But the way Arabic makes words is to take the three-letter root and put it into a specific linguistic shape that changes the meaning, often drastically. The different meanings can’t be said to derive from each other.

“Salam” derives from the first form of the root, which designates peace or safety from danger. “Islam” comes from the fourth form of the root, which means to surrender or commit oneself. A Muslim is, grammatically speaking, one who surrenders or commits himself to God. The word “Muslim” is the participle construction of the fourth-form verb.

The upshot is that Islam doesn’t “come from” peace grammatically -- but the two words are nevertheless closely associated. Obama was trying to emphasize that association. In so doing, he sacrificed linguistic accuracy for moral suasion: He wasn’t saying what Islam comes from, but what he wants it to be.

To his critics, Obama’s mistake matters: Islam, they say, isn’t a religion of peace, and it’s a naïve and dangerous error to say so. Obama thus unwittingly opened the subject of whether Islam is violent, historically or inherently.

The truth is that Islam has both peaceful and warlike features, much like Judaism (remember those Philistines?) and Christianity (crusades) and Hinduism and Buddhism and just about any religion that has become the faith of states with armies. Language won’t make it otherwise, no matter what the politicians say.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.