No Specific Word for Species.

Robert Irwin has an interesting TLS review of Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950, by Marwa Elshakry, about the reception of Darwinism in the Arab world (thanks for the link, Paul!). Most of it is not of particular LH interest, but I was struck by this:

For a long time, the reception of Darwinism was bedevilled by the need to find either neologisms or new twists to old words. As Marwa Elshakry points out, there was at first no specific word in Arabic for “species”, distinct from “variety” or “kind”. “Natural selection” might appear in Arabic with the sense “nature’s elect”. When Hasan Husayn published a translation of Haeckel, he found no word for evolution and so he invented one. Tawra means to advance or develop further. Extrapolating from this verbal root, he created altatawwur, to mean “evolution”.

Who cares if there’s a “specific word in Arabic for ‘species’” (an infelicitous phrase, it seems to me)? Russian, for example, gets along without one perfectly well: вид [vid] means ‘species’ and род [rod] means ‘genus,’ and both are ordinary words meaning ‘kind, sort.’ Context, as always, is all. I note that English does not have a “specific word” for family (the rank above genus); we make do with an ordinary word for a group of people affiliated by consanguinity, and nobody seems the worse for it.

Incidentally, Darwinism was popularized quite early in Russia, in an 1864 article by the radical critic Pisarev, Прогресс в мире животных и растений [Progress in the world of animals and plants]. (By “popularized” I mean “introduced into the tiny world of the intelligentsia”; relatively few Russians would have heard of Darwin’s theories for decades, and most of those who did disapproved of them, just as in other countries.)

Update. It has been brought to my attention that the struck-out statement is simply not true; a well-informed correspondent writes:

Darwin was widely publicized and very popular in Russia (which already had a well-developed pre-Darwin evolutionary tradition). Leftists liked him for the obvious reasons, and even liberals and conservatives almost all praised his scientific theory (even Dostoevsky accepted the part about evolution). What Russians did not like was the Malthusian elements of Darwin’s theory — the notion of constant population pressures upon limited resources and of individualist struggle. This they often saw as a transparent projection of British cultural values upon nature.

Live and learn!

Comments

  1. Why should the origin of the word “species” be linked to Darwin and Darwinism?

    Oh, he wrote “On the Origin of Species”, of course – silly me. And on top of it I can’t even remember what he said about the origin of the word species.

  2. вид [vid] means ‘species’ and род [rod] means ‘genus,’

    Russian words were directly calqued from Latin words Darwin used, rather than randomly selected from the ordinary words:
    Although vid means generally “kind / sort”, it’s etymologically a “look, appearance”, just like “species” <= Lat. “specere” “to look”. Likewise Russ. rod generally means “kind / type” but specifically arose as “born [from the same stock / ancestor]“, precisely calquing Lat. “genus”.

    I would be surprised if Arabic lacked the same two types of notions of kind / type / sort / variety: the one which looks alike, and the one which was born from the same lineage.

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    In Soviet times the Russians were very keen on Darwin. I went to Darwin’s school (Shrewsbury School) and was there in 1959 for the centenary of his book and the 150th anniversary of his birth, two events that passed virtually unnoticed by his old school, but not by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, which sent a commemorative medal.

  4. Note that Darwin didn’t use the term evolution in the modern sense, because in his day it was a technical term for ‘development of an embryo’. In the grand peroration to the Origin, he uses the word non-technically in the sense of ‘unfolded, unrolled’:

    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

  5. Russian words were directly calqued from Latin words Darwin used, rather than randomly selected from the ordinary words

    Right, I didn’t mean to imply they were chosen at random, my point was simply that Russian did not create specialized terms but used what it had on hand.

  6. Before being a biological technical term, “species” (like “genus”) was a technical term of Aristotelean logic – I suppose it still is, for anyone who still studies Aristotle. As such, it had a firmly established technical translation in Arabic, namely nawʕ – Aristotelean logic was as much a mainstay of Arab higher education as of European (as I briefly discussed some time ago on my blog).

    As for the translation of “evolution” as “taṭawwur”, it has helped perpetuate the same serious misunderstanding that bedevils popular ideas about evolution in the West: the idea that evolution implies some kind of progress or advancement.

  7. Russian did not create specialized terms but used what it had on hand

    it’s probably not so much about new vs. existing word, but about Latinisms (prevailing in English) vs. translations / calques from Latin (prevalent in German and Dutch where species = Art / Soort resp., and genus = Gattung / Geslacht). Natural sciences and scientific terminology in Russia were transplants initially from the Netherlands and later on, Germany, and widespread translation of Latin terms followed in the same vein for a very long time.

    (Since the system of genera and species originated with Linnaeus in the XVIII c., his terminology, as well as all the entire collection of his species names, ended up Russified this way; Царство & Отряд there too). A century+ later, Darwinian terminology was being adopted when untranslated Anglicisms / Latinisms have already become acceptable, and therefore evolution became simply эволюция

  8. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    In the same way as English does not have a “specific word” for family, so does Italian lack “specific words” for genus and species, since genere and specie are both also ordinary words meaning (in that case pretty much interchangeably) “variety” or “kind.”

    I wonder, but don’t know where to check, if the Italian words derived separately from Latin their ordinary and their philosophical/scientific meanings, or if the ordinary meaning is a subsequent vulgarization of the philosophical one.

  9. relatively few Russians would have heard of Darwin’s theories for decades, and most of those who did disapproved of them, just as in other countries.

    Actually, ISTR at least in Britain, a lot of the people who heard of Darwin’s theories approved of and agreed with them. The Origin sold tremendously fast and most of the reviews were positive.There was a lot of opposition but I’m not sure it’s fair to say that most people disagreed…

  10. I didn’t mean in every other country; I was just pointing out that Russians weren’t alone in their negative reaction.

  11. I still can’t grasp the possibility that even during Darwinism time, Arabic didn’t have appropriate words for species and genus. Given that Linnaeus, when he first embraced the binomial nomenclature in his 1753 Species Plantarum, was following the footsteps of Aristotle (who already categorized living forms as species and genera, although his list of genera was much shorter than Linnaeus’s) and Damascene’s De Plantis and Theophrastus’s Historia Plantarum, and these Roman and Greek works largely came us through the Arab world?

  12. Actually Russian mixes calques and transliterations of scientific terms pretty easily. For example, тяготение and гравитация (gravity) are used more or less equally. Relativity (as in theory of relativity) can be относительность or релятивизм depending on the context, but sometimes interchangeably. And you can find such doublings here and there outside science like Возрождение/Ренессанс (Renaissance) . Maybe there is a distinction between old adoptions as calques and new adoptions as transliterations, but you need someone with better knowledge than me to tell you that.

  13. As for the translation of “evolution” as “taṭawwur”, it has helped perpetuate the same serious misunderstanding that bedevils popular ideas about evolution in the West: the idea that evolution implies some kind of progress or advancement.

    Same problem in Japan — the word here is “shinka” 進化, newly invented from Sino-Japanese morphemes meaning “advance” + “change”. I bet that languages who have a (non-transliterated) word for “evolution” that doesn’t imply some kind of progress or advancement are in the minority.

  14. Dmitry: As I said, it did have such terms: respectively, nawʕ and jins (the latter being a Greek loanword, of course). Indeed, both terms remain in use within biology. However, both terms also had and have other non-technical senses, which I think is what Marwa Elshakry is alluding to.

  15. “Incidentally, Darwinism was popularized quite early in Russia, in an 1864 article by the radical critic Pisarev…”

    Six years later, A.K. Tolstoy, an anti-nihilist among other things, wrote An Epistle to M.N. Longinov on Darwinism ridiculing his friend, a censor, for attempting (allegedly) to ban a translation of Darwin.

  16. Thanks Lameen, I think I’m finally getting it – so of course the science-educated Arabic speakers would have had no problem with the well-established words for species and genera, but for the general public, the words sounded unscientifically and perhaps arbitrarily picked (“this word could mean anything!”) and this ambiguity of meaning didn’t make the task of explaining evolution any easier? Perhaps Darwin himself came across as “unscientific” because of the lack of high-flying words associated with his work (like todays “string theories” in physics or “translation” in genetics).

  17. Compare the perceived need to render common German words for ‘lift’ and ‘it’ by Latinisms like sublate and id.

  18. Adding a comment to attract attention to the update: it’s not true that Russians were either ignorant or dismissive of Darwin.

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