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the Complete Review
the complete review - linguistics / literature


The Tongue of Adam

Abdelfattah Kilito

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To purchase The Tongue of Adam

Title: The Tongue of Adam
Author: Abdelfattah Kilito
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1995 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 97 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Tongue of Adam - US
The Tongue of Adam - UK
The Tongue of Adam - Canada
La langue d'Adam - Canada
La langue d'Adam - France
  • French title: La langue d'Adam
  • Translated by Robyn Creswell
  • With a Foreword by Marina Warner

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nice little volume of interesting musings

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 10/10/2016 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "(B)oth poignant and relevant for contemporary readers. Fans of Kilito’s work should be pleased here, and those who have never read him should be intrigued this introduction." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Tongue of Adam is based on a series of lectures Kilito gave at the Collège de France in 1990, and consists of seven fairly short pieces, with a final chapter, from 2016, making for a (new) afterword. The pieces focus on questions of language -- singular (the primacy of one language over others; the idea/question of an 'original' language) and plural (Babel; the choice of languages (including Kilito's own, between Arabic and French)).
       Kilito looks at the idea of an 'original' language from a variety of vantage points -- including noting that the ancient Greeks didn't seem much bothered by it (the primacy of Greek so obvious to them that nothing else really mattered). The biblical story of Babel -- that there was one original language, and that, because mankind blew it, there were than many, widely dispersed -- is the obvious starting- and focal-point, and Kilito examines it in a variety of interesting ways -- the first chapters titled: 'Babblings', 'Babels', and 'A Babelian Eden'. Original sin -- Adam and Eve's fall from grace -- is also considered, another path to multilingualism.
       The (literal) idea of a single 'original' (and/or 'natural', perfect) language is, of course, quite silly -- the development of language is considerably more complex -- and Kilito acknowledges that: "No one bothers to ask about the tongue of Adam any more". But the myth is a popular and appealing one -- and was long taken very seriously. As Kilito notes, the answer had serious implications.
       Kilito is a scholar, and he knows his sources, but he presents this material accessibly and entertainingly here -- more casual conversation that scholarly treatise (even as he cites very widely), and all the better for it. With a perspective employing much Arabic source material, his vantage point is also slightly different than those that might be more familiar to most readers. With Arabic itself touted by many as 'the language of paradise', Kilito considers its status and use (also for 'creative' writing -- arguably profaning). There's also Adam's funeral elegy for the death of Abel, "the first elegy (ritha') in Arabic poetry", and Kilito uses it (and its reception and discussions of it) as a case-study.
       Finally, in his new afterword, Kilito considers his own example, speaking and writing both Arabic and French, a revealing little autobiographical bit. Among the points of interest: that in teaching French literature for forty years: "I never spoke a word of Arabic to my students, nor did I mention the ame of a single Arab author". Yet he also suggests: "I learned French, paradoxically, so that I could write in Arabic".
       While focused on a single (albeit mythical), primordial or über-language, Kilito nevertheless completely embraces and encourages multilingualism, recognizing the value of the multiplicity of means of expression. There are many fascinating observations in the book, but perhaps none is more valuable than his recognition that:

Plurality and heterogeneity are the conditions of knowledge.
       In these times, with the global rise of limiting absolutism and attempts to enforce national-cultural homogeneity (most notably by keeping 'others' out), Kilito's small book is a welcome look at cultural change and interpretation -- an example of how lucky we are not to be limited to simply 'the tongue of Adam'.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 March 2017

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The Tongue of Adam: Reviews: Other books by Abdelfattah Kilito under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Moroccan author Abdelfattah Kilito (عبد الفتاح كيليطو) was born in 1947. He teaches at Muhammad V University in Rabat.

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© 2017 the complete review

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