Meet Linguist Abderrahman Hadj-Saleh, first to call for an Arabic Google

Algerian linguist Abderrahman Hadj-Saleh. (Archives)

Algerian professor and linguist Abderrahman Hadj-Saleh who passed away on Sunday was the first to call for an Arabic Google in the 1980’s and the mastermind behind the Arabic Language Heritage Program.

Born in 1927 in Algeria’s Wahran, he left to Cairo in 1954 to resume his studies in neurology. However, he learnt about the heritage of the Arabic language while visiting Al-Azhar Mosque and decided to study Arabic language instead of medicine.

Before his death, he was one of the most prominent linguists in Algeria and the Arab world thanks to his analysis of al-Khalil’s linguistic theories.

Although he was born during the era of French colonization in Algeria and had studied in French, he specialized in Arabic linguistics and also mastered other foreign languages.

He immigrated from Algeria to Egypt because the French police was pursuing him for his activities against colonization. He then resumed studying medicine in France and attained a bachelor degree in Arabic language, a postgraduate degree in French Philology and Linguistics from the University of Bordeaux and a Certificate in Arabic Language from the University of Paris. Afterwards, he went to Morocco to resume his studies.

His students narrate that when he met with Jewish American linguist Noam Chomsky, he asked him whether the Hebrew language depended on Arabic syntax to develop, to which Chomsky replied with a yes.

This was in 1968 when he lived in the US and worked as a visiting professor at the University of Florida. His students say that back then, a debate between Hadj-Saleh and Chomsky left the latter impressed.

Following independence in 1962, Hadj-Saleh returned to Algeria and worked as a scholar and researcher at the University of Algiers. In 1964, he was assigned as head of the Department of Arabic Language and the Department of Linguistics. He was then elected as dean of the faculty of arts. In 1980, he established a Masters’ program in linguistics.

At the same time, he worked on his PhD which took him ten years to finish. This was during the 1970’s. He worked on a new theory called the Modern Khalili School which is based on reviving the heritage of linguistic thought, subjugating it or developing so it harmonizes with the demands of the modern vision. His new theory touching on modern concepts of al-Khalil’s linguistic theories earned him a PhD from the University of Sorbonne.

His theory could be the reason he called for establishing an Arabic Google in 1988, when few Arab communities heard of the internet. It’s through this theory that he launched his massive project the Arabic Language Heritage Program. Many Arabic countries adopted this project which headquarters is Algeria and which aims to provide an electronic database to save everything that’s been said in the Arabic language since the era of inscriptions until 2018 – whether it’s a poem or a novel. This word bank includes the word and its writer and details how the word developed. It also provides the meaning of words in English and French and makes them available via the internet to all people.

In 2000, Hadj-Saleh headed the national commission to reform the educational institution and then headed the Arabic Language Academy.

In 2010, he won King Faisal International Prize for Arabic Language and Literature. He won for his studies on Arabic Grammatical Thought. This shocked some Arabs who believe the Algerian people have a French character. Someone even surprisingly told him: “You are Algerian but you speak Arabic and you won an international award!”

Hadj-Saleh was an academic figure but he engaged in an experience that was slightly political when Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika assigned him to head the commission to reform the educational institution. However he silently resigned from this post shortly after assuming it. During an interview with the Algerian newspaper Echorouk, he said: “Among an entire movement calling for giving a French character to all the phases of education, I realized I was the only one – among 150 members – calling for Arabizing education. I realized I cannot alter how things were so I resigned and worked on finishing the Arabic Heritage Program.”

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:53 - GMT 06:53