Richard Dawkins is at it again.
The famous atheist and bestselling author of The God Delusion tweeted on Monday a picture of himself sitting on a park bench and enjoying a sunny day in Winchester, England. For many people, this moment might have been a chance to just kick back and relax. But apparently not for Dawkins.
“Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great mediaeval cathedrals,” he tweeted to his nearly 3 million followers. “So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding ‘Allahu Akhbar.’ Or is that just my cultural upbringing?”
Yes, actually, it is, replied thousands of people. Many flat-out accused him of racism, xenophobia, bigotry, or Islamophobia. News outlets from The Independent to Newsweek reported on the public outrage. Even by Dawkinsian standards of provocation, this latest statement felt to many like a shock.
In fact, however, it’s pretty common for native English speakers to perceive Arabic sounds as “aggressive.” So much so that American accent reduction coaches make money off Arabic-speakers by warning them that their native language “may cause [them] to sound harsh or aggressive.” Another adjective often applied to the language is “guttural.” Many people characterize German in the same way.
Sociolinguists, who study the ways people’s cultural beliefs affect their beliefs about various languages, say this is no coincidence.
“A lot of times people’s negative or positive attitudes about a particular group get transferred onto the language,” explained Christopher Lucas, a professor of Arabic linguistics at SOAS in London. “They start to believe that it’s just the linguistic content of the language that is the bearer of those features that they experience as negative or positive, when that is almost never the case in actuality. … Sounds are just sounds. They don’t have any objective content that you can map onto specific emotional states.”
That’s not to say the perception of sound is entirely socially constructed. “There is some non-arbitrary link between sounds and the meanings people associate with them,” said Morgan Sonderegger, an associate professor of linguistics at McGill University. For instance, he said, it’s pretty well established that words with higher-sounding vowels tend to denote smaller objects, while words with lower-sounding vowels tend to denote bigger things; this is true cross-culturally. He cited a 2016 study that examined words from nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages and found that people everywhere often associate certain sounds with certain meanings. And an earlier cross-cultural experiment found that when people are shown a curvy shape and a jagged shape, and are asked which one is a bouba and which one is a kiki, they overwhelmingly associate the curvy shape with bouba and the jagged one with kiki. Sonderegger noted, however, that although human beings do seem to have some built-in associations, even these are just “raw materials that can be overwritten by cultural biases.”
The linguist Vineeta Chand argues that there’s actually nothing inherent in the sounds of a language that make it more or less enticing. Instead, people tend to find a foreign language attractive when the group it’s associated with enjoys economic or sociocultural prestige—think of the popularity of French as “romantic.” And the linguist Guy Deutscher argues that people tend to find sounds or sound combinations grating when they appear rarely or not at all their own native language—like the consonant cluster lbstv in selbstverständlich, which is German for obvious.
Lucas added that he believes Dawkins’s “vague soup of negative ideas [about Islam] is bleeding into his transcription.” The author’s tweet refers to “Allahu Akhbar,” but the proper transliteration would be Akbar, because this Arabic word contains no kh sound (as opposed to, say, the word sheikh). “He’s transcribing it as if it’s a kh, and for people who are native speakers of a language that lacks a kh sound—like most dialects of English—that is very often felt to be a harsh, ugly sound. People here in the U.K., when you ask them what’s your opinion about German, will say ‘Oh, it’s ugly! You’ve got all these kh, kh, kh sounds.’ But there are many other languages with these sounds, like Dutch. And no one in my experience says that Dutch is ugly.”
Dawkins posted a new status on Twitter on Wednesday, after a barrage of intense media attention: “The call to prayer can be hauntingly beautiful, especially if the muezzin has a musical voice. My point is that ‘Allahu Akhbar’ is anything but beautiful when it is heard just before a suicide bomb goes off. That is when Islam is tragically hijacked by violence.”
The tweet, which seemed meant to defuse criticism from the left, reinforces the linguists’ point: The words sound “aggressive” to Dawkins, not because of some inherent acoustic harshness, because he associates them with suicide bombers.
Earlier this year, Dawkins made headlines for giving away free copies of The God Delusion to Muslims after discovering that millions of copies had been illegally downloaded in Arabic translation in Muslim-majority countries. Yet for the atheist provocateur, taking issue with the Arabic language seems to be something of a pattern. He did it in 2013, 2014, and 2015. His 2014 tweet is especially striking for its similarity to this week’s remarks: “I’ve read that Arabic is the most beautiful language,” Dawkins wrote then. “I questioned that aesthetically & was bizarrely accused of racism. So I deleted it.”
But Dawkins keeps repeating himself. And many of his followers seem content with that: His “Allahu Akbar” tweet collected more than 16,000 likes.
“The people who get away with simplistic ideas about languages are people who don’t speak them and haven’t lived the experience of those languages being used to express love and anger and hilarity and sadness,” Lucas said. “If you’ve been exposed to a language a lot, that pretty much guarantees you’re not going to have simplistic ideas about it.”