An experimental study of iconicity in the Arabic vocabulary of the Qur’an

Al-Haadee, Ahsan (2022). An experimental study of iconicity in the Arabic vocabulary of the Qur’an. University of Birmingham. M.A.

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This thesis begins with two interests: a personal desire to expand upon and apply modern scientific linguistic study to Muslim holy writ, and a more general desire to work with and study the growing field of iconicity in applied linguistics. As a Muslim, the Qur'an is a book close to my heart, and so, initially, when beginning, I had wished to complete a comprehensive series of iconicity experiments, studying large swathes of the Qur'an, utilising this Qur'anic stimuli for participant studies, administering entire verses of the Holy Book to non-Arabic speakers and analyzing their perception of linguistic iconicity from said verses. As the thesis moved along, it became clear even with a word limit of 40,000, this was impossible, thus, the paper focuses on not the entirety of the Qur'an, or even complete chapters or verses, but 100 words. The Qur'an is used as a text of study, but also a platform from which we compiled the stimuli for experimental work on, fundamentally, words from (Classical) Arabic, as they are found in the Qur'an from the 7th Century. That is the brief summary of how the thesis sculpted itself into what it is today, with a very specific substrate of stimuli studied. But now with this general outline in place, the questions remain, why the Qur'an? And equally saliently, what is iconicity?
The Qur'an is the Muslim Holy book, and the most memorized book in the modern world (Graham, 1993:80). What is perhaps more striking, and attractive for linguistic and philological study, is that the vast majority of people who have memorized the Qur'an are not fluent in Arabic, let alone the classical language that the text employs (Ariffin et al., 2000, 2015). The average Muslim who typically does not understand Arabic will attain proficiency in rote reading/reciting of the Qur'an in absence of semantic comprehension (Riddel et al., 1997). Despite the above, studies indicate the Qur'anic script is largely memorized with ease (Boyle, 2000; Slamet, 2019; Yusuf, 2010), with a number of studies finding the meaning vivid and easy to visualize for non-native speakers and readers (Boyle, 2006; Nawaz & Jahangir, 2015). Additionally, the Qur'an itself claims uniqueness in its stylistic marvel, its eloquence and its brevity (Armstrong, 1999; Lings & Barrett, 1983; Versteegh, 2014). There have been countless studies of the Qur'an in multiple languages, but what has not been done completely, is to apply modern applied linguistic methodology to the lexis that comprise the book. And so, whilst the idea of Qur'anic memorization or visuality will not be the focus of this paper, the ultimate goal of this thesis is to connect the Qur'an with one potential cause of these phenomena and its claimed linguistic marvel: iconicity.
In linguistics, broadly speaking, iconicity is the understanding that a word can ‘sound like what it means’, or more specifically that the form of a word can in some way resemble its meaning (Dingemanse et al., 2015; Perniss & Vigliocco, 2014; see Chapter 1.1 for a detailed definition). As such, the current paper is centred around the Qur'an and iconicity. Does iconicity, a concept that has been studied in Japanese, Korean, English, Dutch and other languages, exist in Classical Arabic? If so, to what extent? And how can iconicity in the Qur'an benefit the ones learning the Qur'an, or perhaps learning Arabic as a whole? These are the main questions that this paper asks and aims to address, namely through drawing on previous studies in linguistic studies of sound-symbolism, and motivated by the Qur'an, taking words from the Qur'an and placing them under the microscope for thorough linguistic analysis.
It should be clear now that the Qur'an is the subject of analysis insofar as iconicity research as modern empirical methods of iconicity research have not been applied to the Qur'an whatsoever. We will therefore learn something about this text first and foremost, but can then extend the findings to make comparisons between parts of speech and second-language vs native-speaker perceptions of iconicity. We see how different groups gauge iconicity in the Qur'an, and this then leads us to isolate specific words that are more iconic than others, which in turn can be tuned for language-learning of Arabic later down the line. The motivation to link these is that it allows for an objective analysis of some Qur'anic linguistic traits while also providing practical benefit to language-learners.
Chapter 1 will discuss previous literature in regards to iconicity as a phenomenon, with the aim of building a case for the existence of iconicity in the Muslim holy book. Chapter 2 and 3 will then move on to exploring a combined task-set constituting the present study of Qur'anic words: a pair of mixed-method experiments examining the extent to which iconicity is perceived by different groups of participants when present with Qur'anic words. The paper will conclude with Chapter 4, tying together how findings may be considered in light of other literature and how the study may inform our current understanding of both iconicity, iconicity testing, and the

Type of Work: Thesis (Masters by Research > M.A.)
Award Type: Masters by Research > M.A.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: School of English, Drama and Creative Studies, Department of English Language and Linguistics
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics


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