[lg policy] Arabic: A language with too many armies and navies?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jun 29 13:53:24 UTC 2013

 A language with too many armies and navies? Jun 21st 2013, 15:39 by R.L.G.


  JOHNSON has touched on
its variety quite a few times over the years, but we have never really
addressed a critical question directly: what is "Arabic" today, and is it
really even a single thing?

A short and simplified version of the story follows: the prophet Muhammad
wrote (or received from Allah directly) the Koran in the seventh century.
He then conquered nearly all of Arabia as a political and military leader.
His successors—four "rightly guided" caliphs and then the Umayyad
caliphs—spread Islam further still, until the Islamic world stretched from
Spain to Pakistan. Arabic-speaking soldiers and administrators settled in
all of these places, and their language gradually took root among local
populations, who up until that point spoke languages from rustic Latin to
Berber to Coptic to Persian.

That was almost 1400 years ago. The Arabic of the Koran remained a
prestigious and nearly unchanging standard throughout the Islamic world.
This is what most Arabs consider "Arabic". But all spoken languages change,
all the time, and the Arabic people actually used on the streets and in
their homes, predictably enough, changed quite a lot in those 1400 years.
Today, the Arab world is sometimes compared to medieval Europe, when
classical Latin was still the only "real" language most people wrote and
studied in—but "Latin" in the mouths of its speakers had become early
French, Spanish, Portuguese and so on.  Today, we recognize that French and
Portuguese are different languages—but Arabs are not often sure (and are
sometimes at odds) about how to describe "Arabic" today. The plain fact is
that a rural Moroccan and a rural Iraqi cannot have a conversation and
reliably understand each other. An urban Algerian and an urban Jordanian
would struggle to speak to each other, but would usually find ways to cope,
with a heavy dose of formal standard Arabic used to smooth out
misunderstandings. They will sometimes use well-known dialects, especially
Egyptian (spread through television and radio), to fill in gaps.

In Europe, we call "French" and "Spanish" "languages", but in Arabic, we
call these varieties "dialects", despite the lack of mutual
intelligibility. Some linguists make the point bald: these *are* different
languages, they say. But Arabs themselves consider Arabic a single thing,
with local variety. All educated Arabs learn the Koranic-based language
that linguists call "modern standard Arabic". It is used in political
speeches, news broadcasts and nearly all writing—but nobody speaks it
spontaneously in the marketplace or over the dinner table. Most people
struggle to write it correctly.

Some pan-Arabist thinkers have called for codifying a "middle Arabic",
based on the written standard, but stripped of much unnecessary complexity
and including the most common dialectal features. But there is no single
authority to hammer out such a middle Arabic that would be acceptable to
all. And of course the allure of pan-Arabism has waned, in competition with
local nationalisms, pan-Islamism, the Shia-Sunni sectarianism and other

It's a riot of a situation that is hard to describe accurately without
annoying somebody. But fortunately, we have the internet, which allows the
riot of voices to speak without the need for any one to prevail. And in
that spirit, some Arab users of Reddit, a social sharing and discussion
website, have simply decided to give voice to their
dialects<http://www.reddit.com/r/arabs/wiki/dialects>by recording a
short humorous story, intentionally stressing the dialectal
features, perhaps imagining an old uncle telling it. Here is the story as
written in standard Arabic.

في يوم من الأيام كان جحا وابنه يحزمون أمتعتهم إستعداداً للسفر إلى المدينة
المجاورة، فركبا على ظهر الحمار لكي يبدأوا رحلتهم. وفي الطريق مروا على قريةٍ
صغيرة فأخذ الناس ينظرون إليهم بنظراتٍ غريبة ويقولون "أنظروا إلى هؤلاء
القساه يركبون كلهما على ظهر الحمار ولا يرأفون به" ، وعندما أوشكوا على
الوصول إلى القرية الثانية نزل الأبن من فوق الحمار وسار على قدميه لكي لا
يقول عنهم أهل هذه القرية كما قيل لهم في القرية التي قبلها، فلما دخلوا
القرية رآهم الناس فقالوا "أنظروا إلى هذا الأب الظالم يدع إبنه يسير على
قدميه وهو يرتاح فوق حماره"، وعندما أوشكوا على الوصول إلى القرية التي بعدها
نزل جحا من الحمار وقال لإبنه إركب أنت فوق الحمار، وعندما دخلوا إلى القرية
رآهم الناس فقالوا "أنظروا إلى هذا الإبن العاق يترك أباه يمشي على الأرض وهو
يرتاح فوق الحمار" ، فغضب جحا من هذه المسألة وقرر أن ينزل هو وابنه من فوق
الحمار حتى لا يكون للناس سُلْطَةً عليهما، وعندما دخلوا إلى المدينة ورآهم
أهل المدينة قالوا "أنظروا إلى هؤلاء الحمقى يسيرون على أقدامهم ويتعبون
أنفسهم ويتركون الحمار خلفهم يسير لوحده" ... فلما وصلوا باعو الحمار

It involves Joha (or Goha or Jiha, depending on the region). He is a
simpleton, though sometimes a kind of "wise fool" who delivers comeuppance
to the pompous. In this case, the joke is on him.  Here's my translation:

One day Joha and his son were packing their things in preparation for
travel to the nearby city, and they climbed onto the back of their donkey
in order to start their trip.  On the way they passed a little village, and
the people came to look at them with strange looks and said "Look at those
cruel people, both of them riding on the back of the donkey and having no
mercy on him."  And so when they were close to arriving to the next
village, the son got down from the back of the donkey and walked on foot,
so the people of the village would not say what the people in the last
village had said. And when they entered the next village, the people saw
them and said "look at that unjust father, letting his son walk on foot
while he rests on his donkey." And so when they were nearly at the next
village after that one, Joha got down from the donkey and told his son,
"You ride the donkey."  And when they got to the village the people saw
them and said "look at this ingrate of a son, letting his father walk on
the ground while he rests on the donkey."  Joha got angry about this, and
decided that he and his son would both get down from the donkey so that the
people wouldn't have any power over them.  And when they reached the city,
the people of the city saw them and said "look at these two fools, walking
and wearying themselves, and letting their donkey behind them walk alone."
 So they sold the donkey.

Listening to the different dialect-speakers tell the story, or even looking
at the Roman-alphabet transliterations, we quickly get a sense that—if
"dialect" makes you think Liverpool versus Newcastle—we are taking about
much more than dialect here. Here's the first bit transliterated from
modern standard written Arabic, ie, the text above:

Fii yowm min al-ayaam kaana Joha wa ibnuhu yahzimuun amta'atahum
isti'daadan lil-safar ila al-madiina al mujaawira fa rakibaa 'ala dhahri
likay yabda'u rihlatahum. Wa fii al-tariiq marruu 'ala quriya saghiira fa
akhadha al-nas yandhiruun ilayhim binadharaat ghariiba wa yaquuluun:
"andharuu ila ha'ulaa' al-qusaah yarkabuun kulluhumaa 'ala dhahri
al-hamaari wa la yaraa'afuun bihi.

Here's an Algerian
version<https://soundcloud.com/belsams/u-borrowed-algiers> from

Qallek wa7ed ennhar kan Djou7a w wlido y7addro besh yro7o lwa7ed mdina,
wkan 3andhom 7mar. Alors, tal3o fi zoudj foq el 7mar w qall3o meddar.
Fettriq djazo 3la un petit village, w ghir dekhlo bdew ennas ta3 had el
village ykhozro fihom "yokha 3la hado, rakbin zodj 3la 7mar wa7ed meskin.
Wallahi la 7ram"

Here is an Egyptian
<https://soundcloud.com/roa1084/alexandrian-egyptian>from Alexandria:

fi youm min el ayem, kan go7a we'bno bey7addaro 7aget-hom 3ashan yeroo7o el
balad elli gambohom. farekbo el etnein 7omarhom 3ashan yabtedo yesafro. we
3a'sekka marro 3ala balad soghayyara keddaho. ba7ala2o el nas feehom we
2alo:  ayoh! bo99o el nas el 2asya elli mabter7amshi rakbeen kollohom 3ala
el 7omar.

(Both dialect transcriptions use common Arabic borrowings of numbers to
represent Arabic sounds. 7 is an "h" pronounced at the back of the throat.
3 is a tricky, throaty consonant called the "voiced pharyngeal
And 2 is the glottal stop, like the catch in the middle of "uh-oh".)

It takes a sharp eye to see the few words in common between the dialects,
among them *kan* ("was"), *(be)y7addaro* ("preparing", "packing"),
7mar/7omar ("donkey"), and *nas *("people"). Even allowing that speakers
were told to retell the story in their own words (and not to "translate"
strictly), the differences are stark.

For those who revel in linguistic diversity, this is all good fun. For
those who want languages in general to "behave", and for those in
particular who want Arabic to be a single, graspable thing, this is a mess.
For the language learner, it's a daunting task. To be competent in "Arabic"
means to learn one language to read and write, and a related but rather
different language (like Latin and then Italian) to be able to speak. On
top of that, the poor foreigner will be limited to understanding only a
fraction of the Arab world. Speaking of the decline of pan-Arabism, it's
likely that the inability of Arabs to move around the region, speak
naturally and be easily understood is a big reason they do not always feel
themselves to be one.

There's a saying among linguists that "a language is a dialect with an army
and a navy." This usually means that languages without a state of their own
are belittled as mere patois, argot or dialect. But here we see a rare case
of the opposite problem: the Arabic language, spread over more than 20
countries, has too many armies and navies.

*Addendum*: Even more than usual, I encourage readers to scan the comments
below. A number of native speakers think that the account above exaggerates
the dialect differences. Given a thousand more words (in an already long
post) I could have added a lot more detail and shading to this account.
Perhaps most importantly, I didn't fully spell out that the western
dialects (particularly Moroccan) are separated particularly starkly from
eastern ones (Egyptian, Levantine and so forth). Within the eastern
dialects—which exist on a continuum, with no stark lines separating
them—cross-dialect communication is easier. And some dialects are spoken
across multiple countries, like the Levantine continuum spoken in Syria,
Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Readers should not get the impression that
most Arabs cannot talk to each other across borders. They can, particularly
those who have the metalinguistic knowledge to minimise the unusual
features of their own dialects and consciously use widely-used phrasings.

Here is a typical vignette regarding teenagers who have not yet mastered
these strategies. It is relayed by a Tunisian linguist, Mohamed
about a sixteen-year-old from Tunis named Khaled, visiting his cousin in
Saudi Arabia:

Khaled and Sourour don't speak the same Arabic dialects. Khaled understands
most of what Sourour says when she speaks in Arabic, but she does not
understand (Tunisian) Arbi. He has to use Fusha or French in order to speak
to her. They finally settle on a mixture of the two, because her French is
not as good as his. When he returns to Tunis, he wants to write her
letters, so he writes them in Fusha but throws in words in French and

Mr Maamouri's entire
interesting (and non-technical), for readers who want more detail on

Language-learning software: Review: Babbel and Duolingo

Language identity in India: One state, many worlds, now what?

 Featured comments
 View thread <http://www.economist.com/comment/2068571#comment-2068571>
Ustaaza <http://www.economist.com/users/ustaaza/comments> Jun 25th, 21:46

As a native speaker of Arabic, and a professor of Arabic myself, I attest
to the accuracy of this writer's views.I do realize that to the native
speakers of Arabic that have no background in linguistics or the teaching
of Arabic as a second language, this issue may not be clear. We were all
raised with the false notion that we "Arabs" are one, and to believe that
all dialects of Arabic, therefore, are also just simply different ways of
pronouncing the same thing. It is essential to believe so, in order to
preserve this image of "oneness". Additionally, it is difficult for the
average native speaker, who was raised with enough exposure to the
Levantine and Egyptian dialects, as well as MSA to the extent of being
skilled enough to modify ones's speech automatically when confronted with
the task of communicating with another Arab, to understand that this
"talent" is not readily available to the non-native speaker. Most of us are
so skilled at doing this, that we take it for granted and do it almost
sub-consciously, and think that we're communicating because our dialects
are similar enough.the speakers of Egyptian or Levantine don't even have to
modify anything, since the rest of us understand them perfectly, thanks to
their domination of the media world.I elected to teach Egyptian in my
classes, in addition to MSA, for this exact reason. I know that it would be
far easier for me to teach them my native "dialect", but it would be a
disservice to them to limit them that way.

   - Recommend<http://www.economist.com/vote/recommend-comment/2068571?nid=21579807&page=0&sort=0&token=8421f6e916fee39a796462cca6e6efe4>
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   - Permalink <http://www.economist.com/comment/2068571#comment-2068571>
   - reply <http://www.economist.com/comment/reply/21579807/2068571>

 View thread <http://www.economist.com/comment/2064458#comment-2064458>
guest-liomemi <http://www.economist.com/users/guest-liomemi/comments> Jun
22nd, 23:04

I am a native speaker of Egyptian Arabic and cannot understand 2 native
speaking Algerians or ‎Moroccans speaking in a natural spoken Arabic with
each other. That is a fact.‎
The vitriol, anger, or disbelief that some of the Arabic speaking
commentators are displaying in their ‎comments to the very real and
accurate linguistic issues addressed in the article is worthy of study. It
‎took a lot of ideological brainwashing ingrained in schools all around the
Arab world, which vulgarizes ‎and belittles the spoken vernaculars from
Morocco to Iraq and elevates modern standard or classical ‎Arabic is the
highest most perfect language. Linguists have long been aware of the stark
difference ‎between the various “dialects” and between the written
classical and the spoken vernaculars. ‎However these very real issues are
rarely discussed in an open manner in the Arab world. Most are so
‎blind/deaf they can’t even see it. ‎

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 View thread <http://www.economist.com/comment/2063678#comment-2063678>
ahascha <http://www.economist.com/users/ahascha/comments> Jun 22nd, 10:38

Nonsense! Arabic is actually the bridge that brings all Arabs together and
all Arabs are proud of their language and would never claim the dialects to
be different languages. Especially with the arbitrary lines and political
fragmentation, our common language keeps us together and the dialects
reflect our diversity and rich cultures. Plus, the dialects all use Arabic
words regardless of the difference, that's what makes them dialects, not
languages. We use different Arabic words to describe things and communicate
meaning which is largely influenced by local cultures and interactions but
they remain Arabic nonetheless even if the pronunciation of those Arabic
words makes them hard to understand sometimes.

The Arabs are a lingual group and not a race so Arabic is foundational to
Arab identity and civilization. No need to play around with that and no
need to fit Arabic or Arabs into your own lingual categories because it
obviously doesn't work.

   - Recommend<http://www.economist.com/vote/recommend-comment/2063678?nid=21579807&page=0&sort=0&token=dc85d4131e284f8e7b87e3039f6a91f4>
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   - reply <http://www.economist.com/comment/reply/21579807/2063678>

 View thread <http://www.economist.com/comment/2063005#comment-2063005>
IDRIS81 <http://www.economist.com/users/idris81/comments> Jun 21st, 21:34

The differences between the Algerian and the Egyptian versions are indeed,
as JOHNSON said, ‘stark’, but this does not mean that a speaker of either
dialect, or any other dialect for that matter, will necessarily find the
other or both largely unintelligible. There are at least two reasons for

1- Most of the words used in both versions are Arabic words. They just
happen to be, well, DIFFERENT Arabic words. Looking at the Algerian
version, most speakers of other dialects of Arabic will only have trouble
with ‘besh’ and ‘ykhozro’, in addition to the French words of course. We
can even find synonyms in the two versions; wlido/'bno, zoudj/etnein,
fettriq/3a'sekka, djazo/ marro. A native speaker of Arabic will recognize
either one of them, even if he uses only one of them, or a third form,
because they are taken from the same pool.

2- Even though the content of both versions is basically the same, some
details in one are different in the other. For example, ‘lwa7ed mdina’
translates into ‘a town/city’, while ‘el balad elli gambohom’ is ‘the
nearby town/village’. Moreover, some details given in one are actually
missing in the other. Consider this: “tal3o fi zoudj foq el 7mar w qall3o
meddar” = “Both mounted the donkey and left home”, whereas “farekbo el
etnein 7omarhom 3ashan yabtedo yesafro” = “Both mounted their donkey to
start travelling.” Of course these small details do not make the story
itself different, but they give the impression we are dealing with two
different languages here.

Now all the same, I myself as a speaker of Sudanese Arabic find only
Algerian and Moroccan dialects (and probably Mauritanian Arabic as well)
partially unintelligible, and only if their speakers talk among themselves,
not to me. That’s basically because of the pronunciation (they use less
vowels than speakers of most other dialects), and of course because of the
French words. The rest of the dialects are usually easy to understand. And
even when I speak with an Algerian or Moroccan, we just tone down on
dialect-specific features that we think are unlikely to be found in the
other dialect, with most of the toning down done by the Algerian or
Moroccan, and not me (speakers of Maghrebi dialects understand Mashriqi
dialects more than vice versa). We do not use ‘Fusha’ to facilitate
comprehension, maybe because the words we use are Arabic anyway, but with
less vowel endings than is the case in Standard Arabic.

Which brings me to the last point, which is this; Arabic dialects written
in Roman letters are bound to be different, because the Arabic diacritics
(Harakat) would be rendered as letters. Example: the word ‘7imar’ (donkey)
is transliterated in the two versions as ‘7mar’ and ‘7omar’. If we use the
diacritics for the Standard Arabic form, it could be rendered as ‘7imaru’,
‘7imara’, ‘7imari’. We can also add an ‘n’ if we use the so-called
‘Tanween.’ Now if we are to write the word in Arabic, there will be only
one version, which is [حمار]. The diacritics are usually only used if
confusion may arise; it is assumed that a speaker of Standard Arabic will
know which one to use in speaking even when the respective diacritic is
left out in writing.
So, probably because a speaker of Arabic has a mental image of words in
Arabic letters, not their Romanized version, it would not be too difficult
to recognize words in a different dialect. However, I can imagine that even
an illiterate speaker of Arabic would be able to recognize most different
spoken versions of a word like ‘7imar’.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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