The “Ah” Effect

By Noura Al Noman

Geeks have always lived on the fringes. In schools, they were not part of the popular groups, in fact, they were shunned and laughed at. It didn’t help that they were socially awkward. And sadly, this extended to their adult lives. However, thanks to a handful of geeks who gave us computers and social media, geekdom has finally been accepted, and in some places, celebrated.

As a child I was a geek. And as an adult geek, I still watch too many science fiction and fantasy shows. One show which I was never very fond of, but have watched the occasional reruns is Star Trek.

In the 60s and 70s show, Captain Kirk would say: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
I have no idea when this statement was modified or why, but now, the latest movies of Star Trek would always say “Where no one has gone before.” I’d like to think that this was done because both men and women have been to space now. Both genders work on the space program and both genders have contributed to humanity’s past and future, not only in space but in all fields. Yes, I know “man” stands for mankind as a whole, but I think that this rule was made by a man. I’m pretty sure no woman was consulted on the subject.

Along the same lines, I noticed that Arabic has been dealing with genders in positions and ranks in a rather skewed manner. Years of climbing up the professional ladder have shown me that there are certain administrative positions which can only be used in masculine. Like “Ra’ees”, “Mudeer”, “Ameen Aam” and “Na’ib”. Yes, some people have used the feminine version, but linguists are quick to tell you that these are common mistakes. And some would like to remind us that adding “ah” to “Na’ib” transforms the meaning of the word into “calamity”. In the military, ranks are all masculine: “Mulazim”, “Naqeeb” and “Muqaddam”. These are strictly masculine and no one has ever dared to add “ah” to them.

I have often pondered on this linguistic rule, and I can’t help but ask if this is language influencing culture, or a misogynist culture influencing language. Of course, when Arabic was being formulated and canonized, such positions and ranks were non-existent, and the equivalents were never filled by women. Could this have been the reason? It is one possible answer, and the safer justification in modern times.

Well, things have changed, and women are now chairs, directors, lieutenants and generals. Might we follow the path of the geeks and pave the way for a fairer, more inclusive language?