Posted on Sun, Jun. 08, 2003

In Mideast, language of compromise does exist

Like all difficult negotiations, the Mideast talks that began last week will require some careful delicate footwork -- a point that became clear when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took the step of referring to the Israeli ``occupation,'' and then issued a statement ``clarifying'' the remark the following day.

In that context, no word is more charged than ``compromise,'' a notion that's easier to disavow than embrace. ``There can be no compromise with terror,'' Sharon said in his English-language speech at the Middle East summit in Jordan on Wednesday, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas vowed to fight terrorism in words that were translated as ``without compromise.''

But neither leader seemed inclined to talk about compromise in a positive way. If the Israelis and Palestinians are willing to make compromises in the interest of a settlement, they're not about to put it that way just now.

According to some people, in fact, Arabs find compromise literally unspeakable. That was the conclusion of an article that appeared in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram in September 2002.

Its author was an Egyptian businessman and writer named Tarek Heggy, who claimed the Arabs have never developed a ``culture of compromise'' -- in fact, he said, Arabic doesn't even have a word for that notion. For the Arabs, he said, compromise is associated with submission, retreat and weakness, whereas the Anglo-Saxon nations value the ideas of compromise and a respect for the opinions of others.

Heggy's article was widely circulated on the Web, and several writers were quick to attach a political significance to the absence of an Arabic word for compromise -- as one put it, ``No wonder there are problems negotiating peace.''

Heggy's claim has a familiar ring. I'm always hearing people say, ``The so-and-so people don't have a word for such-and-such,'' where the absence of the word is supposed to shed a telling light on a people's culture.

Claims usually false

When it comes to the crunch, though, those claims usually turn out to be either false or uninteresting. Back in 1985, President Reagan asserted that the Russian language didn't have a word for freedom. Actually, it does -- svoboda -- but Reagan was never one to let details get in the way of a good story.

There isn't much more truth to the other claims of this sort that you encounter -- French doesn't have a word for ``nice,'' German doesn't have a word for ``fair play,'' Chinese doesn't have a word for ``privacy.''

It's true that other languages sometimes don't have any way of talking about things that are important to English speakers (and vice-versa, of course). But that's usually because the concept itself is one they can live without. You wouldn't be surprised to learn that Tibetan doesn't have words for ``squeeze play'' or ``happy hour.''

But it's hard to imagine how any people could conduct the commerce and politics of a major civilization without having a way of talking about compromise. What's going on in all those souks -- is everybody paying retail? And how would a people with no concept of compromise manage their domestic life? ``She wanted to spend all our holidays with her family, and I wanted to spend them all with mine. So we never left the house.''

In fact, Arabic linguists confirmed for me that Arabic has several expressions that translate the English ``compromise,'' though none is a single word. (The phrase that Abbas' translator rendered as ``without compromise'' actually contained a classical Arabic word that came closer to ``relenting,'' but then the English ``uncompromising'' really means something like ``unrelenting,'' too.) When speakers of colloquial Arabic want to talk about compromise, they use phrases like ``we reached a middle ground.''

In this regard, Arabic is no different from English: We talk about reaching a meeting of the minds, striking a balance, finding a happy medium, or meeting someone halfway. Before Shakespeare's time, in fact, English lacked a single verb for compromise, and was none the worse for it.

The fact is that people have many more concepts than can be expressed in a single word in their languages. Take the German word Schadenfreude, which denotes the pleasure we take in the misfortunes of others. True, it's a nice item to have handy in a pre-packaged form. But Red Sox fans don't have to learn German before they can enjoy watching the Yankees drop eight straight at home.

And even if their language lacks a single word for ``cozy,'' Germans aren't insensible to the pleasures of an armchair by a warm fire on a winter's night.

So why do people find these factoids about missing words so alluring? One reason, no doubt, is that they can serve to garb old-fashioned ethnic stereotypes in respectable linguistic attire.

Westerners have always attributed an unwillingness to compromise to the Arabs and the other Semitic peoples. T.E. Lawrence, of Lawrence of Arabia fame, claimed that the Semites ``had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour.'' And the English historian Elizabeth Monroe explained the failure of the British government's 1937 partition plan for Palestine by saying that the British were ``full of capacity for compromise'' and couldn't understand that they were dealing with ``two peoples belonging to the most uncompromising race in the world.''

The only difference is that back then, nobody felt the need to say that the Jews or the Arabs lacked a word for compromise -- people just assumed that obstinacy was bred in the Semitic bone.

Multifaceted word

But every people has conflicting views of compromise, however they express the notion. The vaunted flexibility of the Anglo-Saxon peoples wasn't much in evidence in the months before the Iraq war, when the United States was adamantly refusing to strike a deal that would allow the United Nations inspectors more time to seek out Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. At the time, the administration was describing the Security Council's position as ``appeasement,'' the word we English speakers use when we want to equate compromise with submission and weakness.

One could even argue that the English language betrays a strain of ethnic obstinacy, as well. Take the way we tend to see ``uncompromising'' as a morally complimentary term nowadays. ``She's an uncompromising perfectionist'' -- why is that necessarily a good thing?

And why is it that the adjective ``compromised'' can only have a negative meaning -- ``The ambassador was too compromised to serve as an intermediary''?

But all that that shows is that languages provide their speakers with many ways to talk about compromise, depending on whether they're in the mood to strike a deal. Someone who is seen as uncompromising on Monday can come to seem inflexible or stubborn by the end of the week, when the negotiations come down to the wire.

If the players really want to reach a compromise in the Middle East, they'll find the words for it.