Book review: In your tongue, words for coexistence

Dr. Sameh Fawzy, Sunday 14 Aug 2022

Italian Professor Giovanni Gobber’s fascinating book, Languages, Cultures and Experiences, shows how languages transcend political borders to co-exist and develop with one another, helping to explain why – for example – Arabic words can be found in European languages.

Languages, Cultures and Experiences, by Giovanni Gobber,
Languages, Cultures and Experiences, by Giovanni Gobber,


Loghat w Thaqafat w Tagarob (“Languages, Cultures and Experiences”), by Giovanni Gobber, Trans: Nesma Ibrahim, (Italy: Almutawassit), 160pp, 2022

More than twenty years ago, I was a post-graduate student at the University of Sussex, UK. As an international student, I was offered a room in a two-floor small building, sharing with other four students a kitchen, a living area and a small garden. Brighthelm, the name of the on-campus residence in which I stayed, was full of short trees, flowers, and most importantly rich cultural exchanges between students who came from almost every corner of the world. Among the lessons, I learned; languages, albeit different, have some similarities.

Once, I overheard a conversation between my Maltese housemate with a fellow native. Amazingly, I could catch some words we normally use in the Arabic language. I asked them to list Arabic words embedded in their own national language. To my surprise, I found many words in the Maltese language similar to what Egyptians use in colloquial Arabic.

This occasion was not, for me, the only encounter with the world of languages. More than 30 years ago, I attended a lecture inside a church, in which the speaker draw the attention of audience that many words still used in our daily life date back to the ancient Egypt. When we think deeply, we realise that it is not just words, but also a culture, as every single word carries an interpretation of something or a way of thinking. For me, it is obvious, that successive generations keep, memorise and inherit words, because they eagerly want to immune their life from any kind of change.

My observations about languages and cultures in ancient and modern times have been enriched by reading the fantastic book of Professor Giovanni Gobber, the Dean of the Faculty of Linguistic Sciences and Foreign Literatures in the Catholic University in Milan, titled “Languages, Cultures and Experiences”. The medium-sized book, which was introduced first in Italian and later translated into Arabic, is fascinating for its illumination of the world of languages.

Dr. Giovanni Gobber

Before I read the book, I had last May a conversation with Professor Gobber in his office in the Catholic University, the largest private university in Europe. He perfectly, in the presence of another professor, Dr. Wael Farouk, explained the very sophisticated relations between history, language and culture. It is definitely an interdisciplinary work, coming across multiple subjects; but it remains a specialisation of the few who can extract meanings and manifestations embedded in deep-rooted history, marred with military battles, mobility of peoples, and across borders primordial ties.

It is especially interesting to think about Gobber’s book in light of my early observation about the Arabic words inserted in the Maltese language. The author introduced magnificent collections of words and expressions used in a similar way in multiple languages in Europe, tracing their origins, and the way they developed.

I am not specialist in linguistics nor the history of languages, but I found Gobber’s book very stimulating in illustrating an important matter; languages in Europe are wider than its political borders.

These multiple languages co-exist, communicate, and to some extent develop something common. In addition, human multiplicity drives people to deal with languages in different ways. In one society, many languages live side-by-side. Some of its people speak more than one language, while others use only one language but retain the ability to understand others.

This means also that people are different in ability, attitude, and perception when it comes to the usage of languages, particularly in light of a fact that people use languages to express their feelings, needs and inspirations. Nevertheless, switching constantly from formal to informal interactions, and visa versa, creating multiple ways of expressions suitable to changeable social positions.

Furthermore, persons can speak many languages in a proper way, but remain unable to reflect their thoughts on paper. The diversity of languages reflect how people are different in their capacity and talents.

When I went through the book, I realised that my preliminary observation about the interaction between Maltese and Arabic languages was just a drop in a sea that encompasses different forms of communication between numerable languages. Gobber classified languages and illustrated how history of people strongly affected their languages.

As a capable scholar, Gobber treats language as a structure that full of meanings, symbols, and theories. Language is different from accent, and this distinction stems from political considerations. Also, a national language emerges from the articulation with a state or a nation, a process that influences local languages. As such, cross-border accents have some similarities, and are less different than in the language’s structure.

The book has many ideas and can be an amusing journey particularly for those who would like to see life in a different mirror.

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