Fight for Arabic? But which Arabic?

arabic dialectsWith the current concern for the loss or weakening of the Arabic language among some scholars, one question pops to mind….which Arabic are they talking about? Egyptian? Yemeni? Oh but is it Sana’ani or Southern Yemeni? And even within the south which dialect, which style? Which words? Or is it Syrian or Saudi Arabic? Which Arabic really is deserving of being saved?

should we ignore dialects just because they are unwritten (at least most of them, but egyptian Arabic and others can be found in print)? Should  we only concern ourselves with the Fusha (Classical or Quranic Arabic) or MSA (Modern standard Arabic) which many people in day to day conversation do not use (unless they are teaching, reading the news to viewers etc….). Arabic is a complex language, as I am sure you already know that, but if there are claims it is weakening the obvious thought is, “well let’s strengthen it then”. Yes but which Arabic?

While I sit here with all these hundreds of people passing by me, others sat down near me, others saudi dialectseating and talking, each is using language in one way or other. Through conversation (some even being annoyingly loud!), some texting, or blogging, or writing they are communicating and their only wish is to send a message across effectively, so should the type or style of the language matter? Is not the most important thing that the other person (recipient of the message) understand the words, meanings and inferences of the speaker (or communicator)? I think yes. That is key to language, and how it has evolved in history to what we understand it to be today. People have always to a huge extent affected language use, through contact with other people and their languages or through their own natural development and movement through time, their use of language has become accepted and standardised.  Should we apply the same principle and reasoning to the Arabic language, and consider all dialects as worthy of being part of the Arabic language, and therefore worthy of being fought for? I think yes, we are our languages! What do you think? Do you think that dialects weaken Arabic in any way? Something to think about, a matter I think about a lot…..

Just thought I’d share a quick thought that I’ve just had because of sitting somewhere where so many people from all parts of the world are surrounding me….naturally language, its dynamics and role came to mind and more specifically the case of the Arabic language.


12 thoughts on “Fight for Arabic? But which Arabic?

  1. Jessica

    Lovely post, and yes why not all Arabics, I like your line of discussion. Thanks for always sharing interesting thoughts about Arabic and linguistics, keep blogging shoran.

    1. I’ll answer your question through the colours of the varieties, so,
      Red= MSA or Standard Arabic
      Purple= Egyptian variety
      Green=Levantine variety
      Blue= Gulf variety

      Hope that helps, thanks for stopping by!

  2. Zuwaynah

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, at last someone speaking up for dialects; I’d be lost without my Arabic (Gulf), there are things I can only express in my Al ‘Ain Emarati Arabic, not even English or fusha or other dialects in my own country will do justice to it. I love English and Fusha but like when I wanna argue or say something really nice to someone my spoken, non-written Arabic works the magic. I like your take on it, don’t worry about what people say and I hope to see you talk about this more. I have nothing against Fusha we should fight for it, but like you say we should also fight for our spoken dialects, mashkooorah….keep writing. I have also sent an email to you please look out for it….Z

    1. Thank you Zuwaynah for stopping by, I appreciate your remarks…yes it’s just about understanding and appreciating the relationship between Standard Arabic and spoken Arabic. Thank you for the email too…keep reading.

  3. LailA

    Thanks so much for the post I always beleived it was bad to speek ‘ammiyah but yes we should fight for it too. I don’t want to write it I thinks it’s magic is further maintained because it’s something in the mind and heart and it can be anything we want it to be 🙂 thank you very much please on writings

  4. Ameen

    If you look at east Asia, there’s a plethora of languages, but most Westerners are going to decide to learn Japanese, Korean, or Chinese. Of those, most will choose Chinese, because it opens the door to over 1,000,000,000 people. South Asian languages don’t get much attention because there are so many, each for a small population.

    For people learning a Western language, it is the same way. Almost all foreigners will learn either French, German, Spanish or English. Of those, obviously English is the overwhelming favorite in today’s world. Swedish? Italian? The other languages are too many and too narrow to be worth one’s time compared with English.

    So now look at the Middle East: We say they are all “Arabic speaking countries”, but how does one learn this Arabic that all these countries speak? You would have to learn MSA, but then you still can’t talk with the mechanic on the corner about your radiator, that’s all dialect. You can’t say more than Assalaam aleikum before you will be discovered as an outsider. Keefik? Shlonik? Keifa Halika? The dialects already diverge.

    So one decides to learn a dialect. They can talk with anyone in Iraq now, Shlonich ya warda, Shlonik akhuya, but they meet a man from Sudan or Morocco and can’t even say “Would you like to get coffee?” The dialects are mutually unintelligible without a solid MSA education as well. So what this means for an outsider learning Arabic, is they must learn TWO languages in order to be as competent in a conversation as someone learning only English or only Chinese.

    This is a huge problem! It’s part of the reason the Middle East is still so isolated from much of global economy. It makes for a more exclusionary society, which can feel great if you’re on the inside, but doesn’t encourage international commerce or scientific collaboration. Fighting for MSA isn’t the cure, either. No one in the Middle East grows up speaking MSA with their family.

  5. SLC

    Hi FatmaS,

    First, thank you for Arabizi! It really is a great resource for someone like me, coming to Arabic from the outside and thinking of learning a little. I found my way here from That Article last year (which I read in the International Herald Tribune of 11th June 2012 – I’m assuming it’s the same as the NYT version) and I’ve read my way through most of the site. I really like the good-humoured, fair-minded way you present everything. Thank you again!

    And now I have a sociolinguistic question. You’ve mentioned Welsh and Norwegian among other languages, but I don’t think you’ve touched on Greek. So what do you think of the parallels between the current state of Arabic and the Greek Language Question?

    I have to declare an interest here. I’m part-way through re-writing and expanding the Wikipedia article on the Greek Language Question myself. (If you read it, please excuse the missing bits! I’m only half done. As you’ll see from the references, I’m essentially just summarizing Mackridge 2009 and Horrocks 1997.) But again and again I come across things in 19th century Greece that are exactly like the situation of Arabic today, with katharevousa (revived but simplified Ancient Greek) then corresponding to MSA now.

    For example, here’s a quote from ‘Myths about Arabic’, Charles A Ferguson’s essay written in 1959, a decade after many Arab countries gained their independence from colonial powers:

    “Most Arabs seem to feel that the Arabic language of the future is going to be unified, standardized, universal in the Arab world, used for both speaking and writing, and appropriate for all kinds of literature. What is of interest is the nature of this ideal Arabic of the future, the way this new linguistic state will come into being, and the length of time which will suffice to bring it about.

    On the first point, there is almost full unanimity. The Arabic of the future will not be a form of COLLOQUIAL Arabic. It will be a “modern”, slightly streamlined form of Classical Arabic, purified of all regionalism or of excessive foreign vocabulary, and ignoring some of the subtleties of traditional Arabic grammar.

    On the second point, the increase in the education of commoners and in the use of radio and the greatly increased mobility of Arabs are usually felt to be the decisive factors. It is generally felt that educated Arabs are actually beginning to use in communities a form of this future ideal Arabic, and that it will be a process of national development.

    On the third point, opinions vary. Some believe it will take about ten years, others have estimates ranging up to fifty years. I have never heard a higher estimate than this.”

    ————- (End of Ferguson quote. I got my PDF copy of the essay by googling “Myths about Arabic Charles Ferguson”. The essay as a whole might make a good subject for an Arabizi post, though I don’t know about the copyright issues.) ———————-

    What strikes me is that this is exactly how the Greeks regarded katharevousa in the 1830s, the decade after they had won their independence from the Ottoman Empire. Many were quite convinced that all Greeks would be speaking some form of revived Ancient Greek within decades.

    Now fast forward by Ferguson’s longest estimate of fifty years. Still nobody in the Arab world uses MSA as a language of everyday conversation, even less as a native language learned from parents, just as in the 1880s all the Greeks still spoke and thought in demotic Greek and not in katharevousa.

    And MSA now is showing exactly the same signs of breakdown as katharevousa then. Here are two more quotes, from the ‘Language’ essay in ‘Whatever happened to the Egyptians?’, a 2000 collection of essays by Galal Amin, professor of Economics at Cairo University:

    “The number of writers and university professors who appear from their writings not to think in Arabic, but in a foreign language, has increased over the years. This sometimes reaches such extremes that the reader has mentally to be able to translate what he reads in Arabic into the foreign language if it is to become at all intelligible.” (p. 87)

    Simply change ‘Arabic’ to ‘Greek’ and this could have been written in 1880s Athens. There were constant complaints about katharevousa passages that were impossibly obscure until translated word-for-word into French; they would then make perfect sense, in French.

    When I (or any other native English speaker) write in English, the words form themselves in my mind as ordinary spoken English. I might tinker a little with the wording before I write it down (to adjust the style, or register), tighten up the grammar to remove any ambiguity, and mentally say it back to myself to make sure it sounds grammatical and natural; but basically I’m just writing down English speech. In Greece, katharevousa was so different from the spoken language that this natural link between spoken and written language had broken down; nobody could sketch out their thoughts in demotic prose first and then just tighten this up into katharevousa. Instead, the thought had to be translated into katharevousa from scratch, using constructions learned in school. It was hardly surprising if other learned constructions, from the French lessons, found their way in. It was this realization that katharevousa and the spoken language were now two different languages, produced in different ways, that prompted Roidis to coin the word ‘diglossia’ in 1885.

    And the second quote from Professor Amin:

    “It seems to me that the main source of trouble lies not in a lack of ability, but rather in a lack of will; it is not that people are no longer capable of expressing themselves correctly in Arabic, but that people no longer want to do so, or are no longer willing to make the effort.” (p. 89)

    This too looks just like something from the 1882 Kontos controversy about the future of Greek. Katharevousa was so far from the spoken language that the everyday language instinct could not be applied to it (in the way that native speakers immediately correct themselves if they hear themselves saying something unnatural); there was no “it sounds right” or “it just sounds wrong” for katharevousa writers. Bad writing sounded just as natural as good writing to most readers (and some authors), so there was little incentive for bad writers to improve (few would notice any difference) and no embarrassment about being bad.

    And finally there is the question of primary education and literacy. Many Greeks recalled their dismay on going to primary school and finding that they now had to learn unfamiliar Ancient Greek words for everything. I’ve seen that echoed dozens of times on the Web by people recalling Arabic schooldays! And Greece at the end of the 19th century was facing a shortfall in popular literacy very like the one in Arabic today.

    So what do you think of the parallel so far? (For how the Greek story ended, you’ll have to read the Wikipedia article, or better still Mackridge 2009, ‘Language and National Identity in Greece, 1766-1976)

    Remember that I’m a complete newcomer to Arabic sociolinguistics, so for all I know, the katharevousa/MSA parallel might already be a much-discussed commonplace. But I’ve just read ‘The Arabic Language and National Identity’ (Yasir Suleiman, 2003), and although he spends a lot of time on MSA vs colloquial he doesn’t mention the katharevousa vs demotic split at all. In fact he only mentions Greek once (pp 135-6), and then only in the context of the 19th century Greeks using language as an ethnic marker rather than religion.

    I’d be very interested in your (and everyone else’s) views on all this!


    1. Hi SLC (SteepLearningCurve),

      Thank you for stopping by and making one of the most constructive comments on this blog! Thanks also for your patience and waiting for me to answer…I’m glad you find Arabizi useful, and yes THAT article is the NYT one! TO answer your question in one definitive answer is not wise not just because I do not posses the knowledge on diglossia, but also because Arabic is somewhat complex…..

      I think from my little understanding of what I know that, the Greek situation is so much like the Arabic one, of course there is still so much more research to do, but the similarities between the two are too many for the two language situations to be too dissimilar. But having said that, I would not go as far as to say that spoken Arabic is so different from Classical Arabic (CA) or MSA, in the way that Greek differs from it’s other varieties. Spoken Arabic can be written in the same way that CA is written. The difference is that the grammar is much more relaxed (spoken Arabic does have a grammar!), nothing is incorrect as long as meaning can be communicated to the audience, and it is very popular with those not schooled from an early age (which may be a bit stereotypical because there are those schooled who like the writing of spoken Arabic too). It is highly discouraged even taboo in some circles to write in spoken Arabic, and it offends so many people. But I think your quote (from Professor Amin),

      “It seems to me that the main source of trouble lies not in a lack of ability, but rather in a lack of will; it is not that people are no longer capable of expressing themselves correctly in Arabic, but that people no longer want to do so, or are no longer willing to make the effort.” (p. 89)

      sums up the reason for the regression in modernising Arabic or at least making it a language of today, as it were, for its speakers. Which you point out was a similar observation for the Greek situation too….it is something I am constantly trying to understand and unravel here on Arabizi, what is the future of Arabic?

      Yes, the education settings and situations are exactly the same and readership in Arabic (and consequently printing) are embarrassingly low, which was not the case 100 years ago; though you’d think with technology and more students in school Arab (and Arabic) readership would have increased (that’s another post in itself). We could blame globalisation, but I wonder what the social situation of Greek was at the time, did the non-Greek influences affect the Greek language situation? One may argue that globalisation has nothing to do with it, you just have to look at China, Russia, Germany and all the other very modern, very successful, very educated countries who have maintained their mother tongues despite the influence and unprecedented impact of the English language in many aspects of their lives.

      You are right Yasir Suleiman (and later Reem Bassiouney in “Arabic Sociolinguistics”) does not delve into the Greek language situation (and for that matter all of us as Arabic linguists do not dwell too much on the Greek situation), perhaps because we do not see the exact similarities or that we do, but do not possess enough information and knowledge to make a definitive comparison and claim that the two language situations are exactly the same. But such a detailed connection is never made because it is not the aim of the book and diglossia is mentioned for it’s importance only. You may or may not know that there are scholars who suggest that maybe there is a triglossia or quadriglossia when it comes to the varieties and functions of Arabic language, and not just the two varieties that many people know. Some go as far as to suggest that diglossia was used as a blanket term and that Arabic is much more than that? (I’ll try and get some references for you, I don’t know anything off-hand right now).

      I think the similarities are many, but they end at a certain point, which is what we have to discover as Arab linguists, but making the comparison nonetheless is essential if we are to understand something about how a diglossic-like language may develop in the near future.

      Thank you again, I’ve put the link to your page so others can read it and can contribute to the discussion.

      Greek Language question page on Wikipedia can be found here:

  6. Dearest Fatma,

    I have been following you and reading you since I started my MA 3 years ago and this is the first time I feel that you expressed my ideas. Yes, Spoken Arabic (SA), is our identity. MSA is great but nobody will ever use it to say how are you… or I love you… or I miss you… what about an intermediate Spoken Arabic? for all Arabs and all dialects? Do you think we can achieve that one day and teach it for non-Arabic speakers?

    1. Hi,

      Thank you for commenting, I’m glad you’ve followed by blog since the beginning, and for me Arabizi is always a work in progress something I do out of interest and passion for language. The relationship between MSA and spoken Arabic will always be one of contention and it’s interesting that you say “Spoken Arabic (SA) is our identity” other Arabs disagree and others claim only MSA is their identity. Do you see the problem, it is a fight between the sophisticated, educated and poetry filled Arabic and the everyday communicative code, I don’t think we will all ever agree on how to see the issue, and even further how to resolve it. Which brings me to your question, do I think we can have a spoken Arabic for all Arabs? I can’t see that happening, I can see more people trying to master MSA and that has become even more popular post-Al Jazeera age, where sophistication is associated with a more standard Arabic. Language is something that cannot be planned or dictated to the people, it just happens, and is often influenced by what people think about their language and how they perceive the benefits of speaking one over the other. So as you can see not quite a straight-forward answer….what do you think?

  7. Pingback: Is Arabic like Greek? Diglossia and other things | Arabizi- اللغة العربية

Leave a Reply Thank you

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s