Orientalism and linguistics

I think I’ll preface this by saying that my passion is linguistics. Linguistics is the study of languages, their history, their development, and many, many other things that don’t necessarily matter to this post. Of course, the reason I bring this up is because I always look for interesting linguistic facts with which to fill my brain in every class I take. And naturally, being that this class is heavily focused on culture (and culture and language are inseparable from each other), there are plenty of linguistic observations for me to make.

Now in regards to Orientalism, I just want to make a few observations about stereotypes and our own preconceived notions of “Oriental” culture. I am basing these observations off of both my personal research as well as my own experiences in my Sanskrit and Arabic classes. To start, when you see a word like this:           باكستان

You would automatically think Middle Eastern, right? Obviously people who use this script all live in that cozy little area of the world that has a clear border around it marked “Middle East.” And what about this script:     पाकिस्तान

Clearly this is what Indians all use (or maybe even people who do a lot of “exotic” soul-searching), again nicely contained within that clearly bordered area of southern Asia marked “India.”

But in real life these lines are blurred and overlapping! There are languages like Urdu, which is written with (the first, above) Arabic script that are spoken in much of India, including having official language status in New Delhi. Or there are languages like Sindhi that use the Devanāgarī script (the second script) that are spoken in Pakistan — a country usually considered to be a part of the Middle East.

Of course there are examples that confirm our biases as well, but my point is that there aren’t just groups of people that are separate from each other, labeled “Africans,” “Indians,” “Whites,” “Middle Easterners,” etc. There are so many blurred lines and smooth transitions between cultures (and languages!) that it becomes impossible to lump cultures into anything more than a broad non-inclusive category.

Bonus fact! The stereotypical Indian accent (think Apu from The Simpsons) is characterized by consonants called “retroflexes,” where the tongue curls back in on itself during the articulation of consonants like t, d, and g.


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