Stanford scholar explores Arabic obsession with language

Medieval Arabic scholars developed a sophisticated philosophy of language that can teach us much today, says comparative literature professor Alexander Key.

Through a study of metaphor in medieval Arabic literature, Stanford comparative literature professor Alexander Key finds that the Arab world had a head start on the West when it comes to understanding how language works.

More then a millennium ago, scholars in what is now Iran were reading, thinking and writing books about how metaphors work. Eleventh-century polymaths Raghib al-Isfahani and Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani worked to understand and explain what happens to readers when a poem compares a flash of lightning to a book being opened and closed.

They wrote complex theories that detailed how our brains connect something our eyes read to something our hands touch, while at the same time processing the words on the page to help us imagine what lightning looks like.

According to Alexander Key, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Stanford, these ancient academics were essentially "giving an account of human cognition through an analysis of what happens in your brain when you read a metaphor."

A scholar of literature and the intellectual history of the medieval Arab and Persian worlds, Key is fascinated by how 11th-century Arabic thinkers developed successful theories about metaphor and language.