Is Arabic like Greek? Diglossia and other things

Language and identity and its speakers
Language and identity and its speakers

In June (2013) I blogged about Arabic dialects and the post received much interest from readers either through comments or emails. But one contributor in particular (SLC, you can view his Wiki page here on the Greek diglossic situation) to the comment section was perhaps the most interested in the topic of dialects and their relationship to Classical Arabic (CA) or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, or whichever way one may wish to label it). That interest began a series of emails and comments (you can read the comments here). These comments have become so interesting (and much longer each time) that I asked him if I could blog them as a post and ask other readers to join in and discuss the situation of Arabic dialects as they relate to Classical Arabic (or any other similar diglossic situations).

The questions are quite simple really, 1. is the relationship between the Arabic dialects and the CA or MSA the same as Greek was to its dialect? (see previous comments and the Wiki page above)  2. Are the dialects so different from CA or MSA, so as to say that they are different languages?

You can read the details below ( I have re-blogged the comment without editing) to get a better idea of the Greek situation. SLC has done a great job and selected relevant excerpts and quotes from books he’s read about Arabic and Greek and he attempts to draw parallels.


Thoughts on the parallel between Arabic and the Greek Language Question, part 2 …

Well, I’ve read a bit more and thought a bit more, and first I’ll try to come back on some of the points in your reply. To start with:

“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 its other varieties.”

Hmm. Well, with my own few words of Arabic I couldn’t possibly judge that myself. But here are some quotes about Egyptian Colloquial Arabic suggesting that MSA and ECA, at least, are different enough to be mutually incomprehensible.

I’ve just finished reading ‘Sacred Language, Ordinary People’ (2003) by Niloofar Haeri (she is from a Persian-speaking Muslim background) about the language situation in contemporary Egypt. In her preface she describes arriving in Egypt after learning MSA in graduate school. “Eventually, I went to Egypt to begin my first period of research in 1987-88, and was stunned to discover, like many researchers before me, that I was unequipped to have even a rudimentary conversation in the language. Of course I had been briefly told that the language I was taught was the language of writing and that it was different from the spoken language. But what I had not quite grasped was just how great the differences are.”

Of course Haeri was learning MSA and ECA as second languages, so she was unused to the mixtures of the two that Egyptians grow up with. But the quote does suggest that the two ends of the spectrum are far enough apart to be mutually incomprehensible.

In general Haeri comes across very much like the Greek demoticists of a century ago. In her ‘Conclusion’ she writes: “Preventing it (ECA) from becoming a language of writing and self-expression shows a highly uneasy relation to the self. Children grow up hearing at school and other places that their mother tongue is “weak”, “corrupt”, “has no grammar”, “is the language of donkeys” and so on. ” (p.149) Now that really does sound like Fotiadis and the Educational Association! And on the next page: “But the obligation to disown a central defining aspect of their identity – their mother tongue – when it comes to writing, to creating and evaluating what is or is not knowledge, mediates and intervenes in their relations to themselves and to the world. The censure of Egyptian Arabic from official and national culture, seem to prevent Egypt from tapping its many potentials.” And that sounds exactly like Psycharis and the Greek political demoticists.

Of course you could say that Haeri is an outsider, as a non-native Arabic speaker, and despite her years of study and research might not fully appreciate the Egyptian situation. So my second set of quotes is from ‘Arabic Sociolinguistics’ (2009) by Reem Bassiouney, born and bred in Egypt. On her p.267 she explicitly challenges Haeri’s “highly uneasy relation to the self” description, and concludes that: “Given the cases studied in this book in which the diglossic situation provided an opportunity for speakers to project their identity and leave an effect on their audience, I would consider diglossia, once more, an asset rather than an impediment. … diglossia itself is linguistic diversity, and by eliminating it we are suppressing a linguistic richness in Arab societies.”

In 1880s Greece, then, Bassiouney would fit among the defenders of the status quo like Vernardakis and Hatzidakis. And they did have a point of a kind; to those talented and well-educated enough to really master katharevousa (Papadiamantis, for example), the situation gave an opportunity to interweave narration in the written language with reminiscence in the spoken language and create some great literature. But realistically, there were very few, even among the cultural elite, with the talent and education to exploit this “linguistic richness” in writing, and the result, with its archaic-sounding narration, was not to everyone’s taste.

Bassiouney’s argument for the “linguistic richness” of the current situation would also be far more convincing if all children were taught to read and write their spoken colloquial language as well as the ‘official’ MSA. Everyone could then enjoy the “richness” in writing as well as in speech. (All the positive examples she gives of people “projecting their identity and leaving an effect on their audience” are taken only from spoken Arabic – code-switching between ECA and MSA in TV talk shows and so on – and not from written materials.) It is hard to see how preventing children reading and writing their own spoken native language can enhance the “linguistic richness” of their reading experience.

However, the statement that really struck me in Bassiouney 2009 was on the previous page (p.266) where she writes:

“In a hypothetical world, if each Arab country started using its own colloquial in domains in which SA was used, then in fifty years, all Arab countries would be detached from SA, and the common SA literature which was read by all Arabs would be incomprehensible for a young generation trained only in colloquial.” (Bassiouney uses SA, Standard Arabic, to cover both CA and MSA.)

Here is a plain admission, from an apparent supporter of the use of MSA, that it is so different from colloquial as to be “incomprehensible” to a colloquial speaker. Take this together with Haeri’s evidence from the other direction, that ECA is in practice incomprehensible for a well-educated speaker of MSA, and it does seem that the two are in fact different languages, using mutual incomprehensibility as a common-sense definition of ‘different’. This is exactly the same as the Greek situation, where Ancient Greek and demotic are now different languages.

Of course I know that this is not the official Ministry-of-Culture position. If you challenge such a Minister with Haeri’s statement, that Arab children are all forbidden to read and write their own native language, he will simply reply that MSA really is their native language, just in a more formal register. (I’ll come back to the idea of registers in my next post …) But I think Bassiouney’s picture of a hypothetical colloquial-only future is a very effective touchstone for revealing what people really think. If you then ask the Minister why the schools don’t do what they do in every other country, and teach the children to read and write in the language and register they speak and use every day (in other countries they don’t usually pick up the more formal registers of their own language until their mid-to-late teens, as they begin to encounter social situations in their own lives where those registers are appropriate in speech as well as writing), he would probably say (or at least think) something like: “Are you crazy – if we teach them to write both ECA and MSA, they’ll choose ECA every time, and never learn MSA at all! MSA would be lost in a generation!” This is the point at which my imaginary Minister reveals that he – like Bassiouney – really thinks of ECA and MSA as different, competing languages, and not as complementary registers of the same living language. At heart, he thinks a gain for one would inevitably be a loss for the other.

On your point about there actually being a polyglossic spectrum rather than two separate languages: yes, I know about ‘Educated Spoken Arabic’ and its variations, and about all the practical code-switching that goes on in everyday conversation. Speakers move up and down the ‘spectrum’ all the time, as Bassiouney describes and documents very well. But that’s just in speech, and just among adults. There, spoken Arabic is following exactly the same common-sense path as spoken Greek demotic, and gradually adopting many technical words and turns of phrase from the Classical language.

But in writing, everything seems much more restricted. Most of the polyglossic spectrum (apart from the CA and MSA end) is missing or forbidden, so Bassiouney’s diglossic “linguistic richness” is not available to writers or readers.

And very significantly, it’s in the first 7 years of life (the crucial formative period in which we all learn to love reading – or not) that the diglossia is most clear-cut. Young children speak hardly any MSA yet, so it actually does seem to be true that their spoken dialect is a completely different language from the written MSA they are taught at school (or CA if they attend a local kuttaab, as described by Haeri). There is no useful overlap at all (useful in the sense that they could use their knowledge of the spoken language to predict how the written language will behave). I’ll leave it to others to speculate about the effect this has on literacy learning. My own experience as a teacher suggests that it will make it very difficult for the children to form new written sentences themselves, even with lots of encouragement, and even if they can read quite well.

So, there may be a lot of talk about registers and code-switching and polyglossia in adult life; but in the primary school, where it matters most of all for literacy, Arabic really does seem to be completely diglossic.

This was also true of Greek primary schools before 1880, and for exactly the same reasons. For centuries Greek-language primary education had been run by the Orthodox Church. The only language taught was the Ancient Greek used in the Gospels, and the learning materials were almost all religious texts. The most able went on to work for, or at least with, the Orthodox Church, while the less able who dropped out early would at least know the alphabet so that they could read prayers (though they might not understand the Ancient Greek language of the words they were reciting). This seems very like the traditional Egyptian situation as described by Haeri, where ‘learning to read’ is practically the same thing as ‘learning the Quran’. Although the languages and religious beliefs are quite different, the social frameworks are exactly the same.

I also suspect that this social situation actively discouraged Greek primary-school children from producing new written sentences of their own (quite apart from the technical difficulty of doing that in – effectively – a foreign language). If the only teaching materials were religious texts which it would be blasphemous to alter or even summarise, how could the children ever practise writing original sentences? I don’t suppose the teacher (in those days usually a priest or a monk) was likely to set homework tasks like “Make up a story about Jesus performing a new miracle” or “Invent three new Commandments”. Even re-telling a Gospel story in their own words might well have been regarded as blasphemy (cf the Gospel Riots of 1901). I suspect that ‘writing’ in a pre-1880 Greek primary school was actually confined to just copying out the texts, or writing them out from memory.

Again, we can only speculate about the effect this had on literacy learning, but it can’t have been good. It’s only when we write our own thoughts for ourselves that we really start to feel ownership of our written language. Of course in Greece the more talented did grow up to express their thoughts in written katharevousa, but that was when they were much older. To really own a written language you need to start writing in your own words during the language-acquisition years (roughly ages 1 – 7). If you start doing it later, it will always feel as if you’re writing a language belonging to someone else. It’s a bit like the way learning a second language later always feels different from learning your native one(s) in those early years.

Of course the Orthodox Church was well aware of this. After all, the teachers had all been through the same system themselves. But they were quite happy to turn out generations of students who felt that writing itself belonged to the Church and not to the people; that policy had helped the Church maintain its political position for centuries.

Later on in their education the brighter pupils would meet the pagan writers of Classical Greece, but that doesn’t seem to have given them any more sense of ownership. They just felt that the written language now belonged to Homer, Sophocles and Plato as well as to the Church, and still not to them. Writers felt alienated from their own written language, but hated to admit it because that language had such a glorious past. It was only the inconsistency and incompetence of their use of katharevousa that revealed that it still felt like a foreign, second, language to them.

For the first few decades of Greek Independence (say 1830 – 80) the authorities were content to leave this system in place, quite logically, because it was official policy that katharevousa (and maybe even Ancient Greek itself) would soon become the universal spoken language of Greater Greece. In that case, the children would again be writing in school the same language they spoke at home, and the alienation problem would disappear naturally. It was only around 1880 that it became generally recognised that none of this was really going to happen, and that the educational system was therefore seriously flawed.

I’ll leave it to you and your other readers to judge how much of this also applies to Arabic today.

I think it’s also worth pointing out just how unusual the Arabic and pre-1917 Greek primary education situations are. Four things are happening:

a) Pupils are forbidden to read or write the language they speak themselves.

b) They are taught to read and write a different, learned language.

c) This learned language has no living native speakers.

d) The materials for new readers are often religious texts that cannot serve as models for the children’s own writing.

This is quite an extreme situation. For example, the teaching of Latin in Western, Catholic Europe was never like this, because (a) and (d) didn’t apply. As for (a), literacy in one’s native language always went hand-in-hand with learning Latin. And for (d), the model texts have always been non-religious things like history (Caesar and Tacitus), letters and speeches (Cicero), and poetry (Virgil and Horace), not one of them Christian, and all chosen for their purity of style, which students were encouraged to emulate. Even though the Catholic Church might have sponsored much of the teaching, written Latin was never felt to be the property of the Church.

As for point (a), perhaps “forbidden” is the wrong word. Bassiouney (p.267) makes it clear that Egyptian children do not experience this as any kind of prohibition; it’s not as if they were constantly sneaking off to write ECA and being punished for it. Instead, children generally take the adult world as they find it, and just accept that spoken ECA belongs in one “domain”, while writing belongs in another different “domain” (Bassiouney’s word for it). They then retain this attitude throughout their lives; it seems natural to them, even if it seems extraordinary to non-Arabic speakers who have grown up reading and writing their own spoken languages, and take for granted the freedom to do so.

This again is exactly the same as the situation in Greece in 1830-80. People thought of writing as part of a “domain” belonging to the Orthodox Church and the Ancients, and even professional writers felt like intruders there, constantly afraid of getting into trouble for making grammatical mistakes. Less talented school pupils must have felt even more excluded. It was a completely different world from that of everyday demotic speech where everybody felt at home.

Well, I’ve only come back on one point so far, and this post is already much too long. But there is so much to say …

What I would really like is some more feedback. As you know, I’m very much a beginner in the Arabic side of things, and I need to know if I’m getting that about right. To an Arabic speaker, does the Arabic situation feel like the Greek one?



Functions and domains of each variety in a diglossic situation
Functions and domains of each variety in a diglossic situation

Thank you SLC for that wonderful and very informative response, I am learning a lot about Greek! Thank you also for quoting from my two favourite books (Bassiouney and Haeri). I will not make this response too long, as I would really like others to join in, and yes there is always too much to say, and I always say when it comes to language we will blog forever- quite literally.

I will take the points you listed about Greek and try to compare those to the Arabic situation today, I am listing my response right next to your original points (italicised here):

a) Pupils are forbidden to read or write the language they speak themselves: Like you said “forbidden” is a strong word, it is generally frowned upon and not encouraged. I don’t think the “suppression” of the spoken forms is like that of Greek, it’s all a matter of ideology, and how native Arabic speakers come to view and consequently treat their language. Those who wish to write their variety do so, and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have allowed that to become widespread. Before the advent of social media, songs in Arabic were/still are almost always in one variety or another with only very few exceptions in FuSHa (CA/MSA).

b) They are taught to read and write a different, learned language: “Different” again is too strong a word, but let’s not forget that learning Arabic in school in Morocco is not like learning it in Damascus or in Dubai! Each case is different, and I for one cannot generalise I can only go with what I know, through experience and study. For some students (depending on their dialect) it might well be a NEW language, and to others a very similar one, it would be great to do research on each case, the we’d really be able to answer this question well.

c) This learned language has no living native speakers: This is exactly like Arabic.

d) The materials for new readers are often religious texts that cannot serve as models for the children’s own writing: Yes and no, there are great materials in CA for children due to recent efforts to make the language accessible to learners and young children. Many people learning Arabic (MSA or CA) usually watch children’s cartoons to improve their diction and grammar, and these are in pure CA. Religious texts are almost always in Classical Arabic, though there are both texts and religious speeches now in both CA and spoken Arabic (See for example, Bassiouney’s (2013) new article here on code-switching in religious talk).

But as I said previously this is one of those very complex issues, as you are just discovering, and people (both laymen and academics) can argue for both sides. I see some similarities between Arabic now and Greek pre-1917, however, I am not sure that Arabic is so precisely the same.

I think that negative attitudes are changing, and the reference to these being the languages of “donkeys” is not shared by all, and perhaps in part due to satellite television and other factors (I am deliberately avoiding “education” as a reason for positive attitudes, because I think that it’s too essentialist to assume that). Satellite TV  has allowed millions of Arabs to be exposed to other Arabics they never knew of before, and before the advent of TV it was only the well-travelled Arabs who would return to their native lands and recount among other things, the discoveries they made about the Arabic of other Arabs. But now that has changed, there are even shows that teach non-dialect speakers how to speak in such and such a dialect. Surprisingly though, that teaching takes place through CA or MSA, for instance, a sentence is presented in MSA and its equivalent in ECA or Levantine Arabic is given.  I can see Bassiouney’s point about the “richness” of the dialects, it is what makes Arabic, what Arabic is. It is a language that has a unique, even if a contentious, relationship with its dialects, but that’s how it has been for many centuries.

Did you know that CA as we know it today (and in going with the fact that it is based on Qur’anic Arabic) was once a dialect itself? It was the Qurayshi dialect, that became standardised for the obvious reason that it was now a sacred language, language of the Qur’an (see Mustafa Shah’s 2008 informative essay on this here). So, Arabic philosophically is not against dialects and varieties per se, as long as CA or MSA remains in tact untouched and free of mistakes (referred to as ‘Lahn’ in the grammar books).

I think if Haeri had taken her trip to Damascus instead of Egypt, her experience would have been so different, she would have perhaps said that her CA improved. She might have gone as far as claiming that CA actually does have native speakers! This is because it all depends on ideology, national language policies, agendas and how people eventually form opinions about their languages. Some Arabic speakers are comfortable with the fact that their variety is not written or used for official purposes; whilst others prefer to use their variety, and would welcome a change.

What do other readers think? Is the Arabic diglossic situation like that of Greek? Can we say the dialects are so different from FuSHa (CA/MSA) that they are different languages altogether? Comments are welcome, thank you for reading, and thank you SLC once again.


17 thoughts on “Is Arabic like Greek? Diglossia and other things

  1. Ruwaishid

    Really a nice topic , and hot debated as well , I will be back again and read it more carefully , but what iam going to say coming from atheoretical perspective , they look different . The lack of case marking and the word order , plus the creation of new inflectional morphology all suggest they are different or at least heading to be distinct. But i will be back with more careful reading thanx

  2. witchylisa

    I think that ultimately there is going to be at least country in the Arab World who is going to abandon MSA as the official language but still teach it as a literary language just for passive use (especially Lebanon, because that’s where I live). It’s just that, even though I myself am not a native speaker, I can tell while interacting with my Native Arabic speaking friends that there isn’t much of a natural or native-level written/oral fluency in MSA for them unlike in French/English or the local dialect. The worst part is that many of my friends are people who work in education and have Education B.A.’s and get to be qualified to teach everything in an elementary classroom except Arabic, so the schools they work for then hire a teacher who only teaches Arabic subjects throughout the elementary division. There’s just a lot less effort from the local government into making the children as fluent in MSA as they can be in Academic French/English because maybe there seems to be too much of a hurdle to move from the dialect to MSA than from cartoon English/Friends to TOEFL-level English for children and teens. As for the connection with the Greek question (I’ve only taken an undergrad course in Socio-Ling so be gentle), I think that there are enough parallels between them to make Greek something of a future indicator of MSA in Lebanon, but the role of the pan-Arab media and ‘urban’ religion in using MSA are probably going to make the transfer from MSA to Lebanese/French/English a lot slower than with Greek (and I emphasize urban because by personal experience I’ve found that villages tend to maintain the core of sermons and preaching in the local dialect unlike the more metropolitan Protestant sermons that are very MSA-like with only minor elements form Lebanese)
    All in all, I think the future of Arabic isn’t clear for the Arab world as a whole but that at the very least MSA will probably be continued to be used throughout the region with the worst case being that MSA might just become an ‘extra’ language that people will know just for the sake of knowing (about) like in future Lebanon.

    1. Thank you Witchylisa for your refreshing and insightful comment to the discussion. I like that you are only talking about one country, one that you are familiar with, which is exactly what I said previously, that each country is different. And it’s even more complex when we consider that different parts of a country (as you mention) also use language differently from other parts! Villages don’t use language in the same way that urban dwellers do, therefore to forecast or predict becomes even more difficult. Natural level fluency of MSA is rare and very few people have that command and yes, as you point out their education plays a role in that. In countries where children and students must be proficient in Arabic up to degree level are usually brilliant at their MSA despite the fact that they don’t speak it or use it outside the educational or official setting.

      The Arabic situation is also different to the Greek one because Arabic is studied as a subject in nearly all the Muslim countries as an important language,and these children (due to not having a spoken form of Arabic) master the Classic as the (only) Arabic they know. I have met non-Arabic speaking students who are fluent in MSA and they even pronounce all the markings at the end of the word (including all moods), which at first is comical, but is amazing. They read and write very well and some even go on to be teachers themselves of Arabic (you just have to look at some of the most illustrious Arabic faculty around the world, you’ll find that more than half are non-Arabs). We could talk about the context and significance of their language (use and study) but that’s another subject. I simply wanted to cite that example to show the unclear and complex situation of the Arabic language (in a general way).

      I agree the future is unclear for the reasons cited above, and others too, and you are right that the Greek situation ought to be an indicator or at least a marker of what might possibly happen to Arabic in the future in one or two countries. Thank you Witchylisa once again!

  3. therili

    يا فاطمُ إسمع، وقيت شراً
    أولاً شكراً جزيلاً جدا على المعلومات القيمة
    ثانيا، أنا أؤمن أن اللغة هي فلسفة حياة تتأثر بالفلسفة البشرية وتؤثّر فيها، فاللغة هي الطريقة التي ننقل بها فلسفتنا للآخرين وخصوصاً أولادنا
    يمكن في العربية التعبير عن كل الفلسفات الممكنة دون أن نجد أننا نحتاج لكلمات جديدة! وإن عجزنا عن ذلك فهو نتيجة لضعفنا اللغوي فلا يجب أن نقول أن العربية لا تلّبي التطورات الجديدة، بل نحن الذين لا نفعل!
    المشكلة أن العربية أصعب مما نتخيل وطريقتنا في تعلّمها هي طريقة سخيفة مقارنة مع التقدم العلمي
    وما يقدّمه الذين عيّنوا أنفسهم مسؤولين عن اللغة لهذه اللغة ليس شيئاً يذكر كل حروبهم مازالت في الفعل والمفعول به والهمزة والمد
    إن تخلّف الفلسفة العربية راجع إلى اللّهجات، محاولة العرب تسريع وتيرة الكلام من أجل قضاء حاجياتهم وإقصاء كل الكلمات التي لا تخدمهم جعلهم يتأخرون لغوياً مما تسبب في بطئ نموّهم العقلي مقارنة بالشعوب التي كانت تعيد ملء لغتها باللغات القديمة التي أثبتت قوتها يعني اللغة اللاتينية تكاد تموت لكنها تثبت يوماً بعد يوم قدرتها على تحمّل فلسفة البشر مهما تراكمت وتزاحمت.
    فالعرب في فترة ما لم يعلّمو إبنائهم الكثير من الكلمات الأصيلة التي لها معاني مرتبطة بالفلسفة العميقة للبشر التي كوّنها وإكتسبها أجدادهم مما جعلهم يصلون لمراحل بدائية وتحت الصفر! وحتى العلماء في تلك الفتراة كانو مجرّد حفظة لأنفسهم ولم يكن أحداً يقبل عليهم وعليه توقفت الأبحاث والتطورات في الميدان.
    السبيل الوحيد للنهوض بالعربية أن نتوقف عن نعتها بالتخلّف والبساطة ، فهذا ما نحن عليه وليس اللغة، العربية أحسن من اللاتينية في مسألة تأليف الكلام والإشتقاقات وعدد الإحتمالات التي يمكننا صناعتها باللغة العربية قد يفوق اللاتينية بالفعل، لهذا علينا أن نركّز على مسالة فهم العربية على المستوى الذّري والجزيئي وكأنها فيزياء أو كمياء (من الكمية) وتعليم الأطفال كيف يفهمون أصل الكلمة وكيف يصنعون كلمات جديدة ويشتقون بأنفسهم كلمات ربما لم تكن أصلاً موجودة بنفس الطريقة التي قام بها القدماء إشتقاق وتأليف الكلمات.
    وكما يفعل اليوم العلماء في الغرب بالإشتقاق وتأليف الكلام باللاتينية.
    كأبسط مثال، في قوله: إن الأرواح تفداك، والقلوب تتأوه .. هنا قد نفهمها كالتالي: هذا يخاطب شخص عزيز، ويحزن عليه. لكن الأصل أن نميّز هذا التصوير المجازي وكيف حتى تشكّل ومع مرور الزمن تصبح عملية تحليل الكلام العربي في أذهان العرب تتم بصورة سريعة جداً بطريقة مختلفة تماماً عما هي عليه اليوم وتعيد لهم قدراتهم العقلية المفقودة، ولا يعودو يحتاجو للإنقليزية من أجل توسيع العقل والإدراك، بل يسهل عليهم تعلم حتى اللغات الأخرى كما كان سهلاً على العرب القدماء لأن العربية أوسع من كثير من اللغات وخصوصاً الإنقليزية. فكيف بالله، يتمكن العربي من التعبير عن نفسه بكل إستفاضة وتوسع وراحة بالإنقليزية ويجد أنه لما يحاول التكلم بالعربي يعجز أو أنه محاصر في عقله؟

    ليست مشكلة في العربية بل في قاموسه العربي أولاً وفي طريقته في تحليل النص العربي ثانياً، بالنسبة لي كنت لفترة طويلة أعبّر عن نفسي وأتكلّم بالفصحى فقط، ولما تعلّمت الإنقليزية (بمفردي من الإنترنت بطريقة التعايش) أحسست في بادئ الأمر أن الإنقليزية بالنسبة لعقلي مثل شخص يقول لك أكتب فقرة من عشرين سطر بإستخدام 10 كلمات، كان الأمر فعلاً معيقاً لي، ومع مرور الوقت أصبحت أتمكن من التعبير عن نفسي بشكل جيد لكن بطريقة سخيفة مقارنة بجودة النص العربي الذي يمكنني كتابته، ومرّت الأيام، وزادت قدراتي في الإنقليزية، لكنني في تلك الفترة بدلت ديني بخصوص اللغات، فكنت أؤمن أن اللغات هي ترجمة فقط لبعضها البعض، لكنني إكتشفت أنها فلسفة كاملة وقائمة بحد ذاتها فلما آمنت بهذا سهل علي الأمر وبدأت في تعلّم التفكير الإنقليزي مما جعلني في أجد أن التعبير بالإنقليزية سهل ومريح، فهم لا يتكلمون عن الأشياء كما نفعل، فأنا كنت لأتكلم بالإنقليزية أفكر بالعربية وأترجم، وهذا كان الخطأ، التفكير بالإنقليزية مختلف، وهم لا يرون الأشياء بمنظورنا، ومع هذا فلغتنا تشمل لغتهم وتفكيرهم وفلسفتهم، لهذا إن كانو يتطورون فلا داعي لأن نتكلم بلغتهم القاصرة لكي نلحقهم فهذا يجعلنا نفقد فلسفتنا، ونفقد لغتنا ربما للأبد، ونفقد حتى طرق تعبيرية وأفكار ربما العالم بحاجة إليها ونحن نهملها. الكلام عن هذا يطول، والمسألة متأزمة والمدارس هي الوحيدة القادرة على إنقاذ الموقف ولكن نحتاج لشعب واع متقبل ومستعد لمساندة المدارس والطلبة الجدد والتلاميذ لكي نعيد تصميم العربية من السكتشز.
    ثالثا/ دمت بود، وسلام

    1. Thank you for stopping by Therili, I agree (and have made these in the past) with all the points you’ve made (in summarry):
      1. That a language captures the philosophy and world view of its speakers
      2. That the problem is not with Arabic, but with its speakers, the language can accommodate all or any new ideas speakers just have to work hard to find and use those words/ expressions.
      3. Methods of teaching Arabic need to be modernised and benefit from current findings on effective language teaching and acquisition. The manner in which Arabic is being taught is archaic and difficult for children to master the Arabic language.
      So yes it is all about the way the speakers view their language and how they choose to use it that will eventually decide the status and position of the language among the speakers,if it is viewed positively great things will happen, if it is viewed negatively well, I think that’s where we are right now…….. thanks for taking the time out to comment on the post.

  4. Heathcliffe Huxtable

    I take issue with some of the things said in the article and comments.

    As an Arab guy who has gone through a western education, I am thoroughly against the formalization of the colloquial dialects on the pretext that they are widely practice therefore they should be taught in schools or allowed to take the place of formal Arabic.

    To me, this would really be like formalizing the teaching of Ebonics in the US. Or formalizing the teaching of various English accents in Britain. Also, isn’t Italy a better comparison with the Arab world than Greece? In Italy you have mutually unintelligible dialects across the country, and Italian students learn MSI, or Modern Standard Italian in school. This is much more akin to Arabic today than Greek. Formalizing Ebonics on the basis that it is popular, or formalizing Milanese or Sicilian is unthinkable, and so should the formalization of colloquial spoken Arabic.

    I think that the issue here is very simple – education. The education system is garbage in most Arabic countries, and the illiteracy rate in countries like Egypt is vast. Some estimates put illiteracy in Egypt at 40% of society, which equates to approximately 35 million people! So no wonder you have a problem there with people choosing to use colloquial rather than MSA! I mean to me this issue is obvious, just revive teaching of MSA across the Arab world and stress the contact and communication between the countries. I would initiate classes in the curriculum to teach the various accents of the Arab world to students. Not so that they can become formalized, but to diminish the importance of the accent through communication. If students in Egypt are given a modern, rigorous teaching in MSA, and some lessons explaining the characteristics of Levantine or Peninsular accents, and the same is done in the Levant and Gulf, this will encourage an increased flow of communication and lingo between the regions through television and the internet, and encourage the creation of new terms that are used in common. As the level of education increases, so does the use of narrow colloquialisms decrease.

    In London, for example, you have vastly different native accents right across the city. And any English or British person can testify to the huge variation in accents across the British Isles. The difference is that the level of education is high enough so people are capable of understanding and reverting to different registers when the need arises.

    I see this whole conversation that is happening around Arabic and its dialects as futile. Instead of worrying about the accents and dialects and how many people use MSA, they should just invigorate the tired dusty forms of language teaching in the region.

    Personally, I see the Gulf countries as the saviours of MSA. I’m aware that Qatar and the UAE have problems with Arabic fluency, but they are also starting initiatives for its revival and protection, and we can be sure that MSA will never be given up in Saudi, even if simply for religious reasons. As these states place an emphasis on Arabic education, this will affect other areas that were historically the repositories of poets and authors, like the trinity- Egypt-Levant-Iraq.

    Lastly, I wanted to mention Scandinavia because I partially grew up there. How is it possible that countries like Norway with 4 million people and Finland with 5 million people can teach their children in their own language, but Arabs cannot? How is it that the entire Finnish curriculum from highschool to university is in Finnish, but Arabs cannot even muster teaching Engineering in their own language? Keep in mind that Finnish also has a diglossia between formal and spoken varieties.

    In Scandinavia, the Sami language of the north is protected, and is actually reported to be on the rise! This is a language with a few thousand native speakers. The state funds Sami tv programs and Sami curriculums, and voila, the language begins to grow again after centuries of degradation. It’s that simple. The same happens for Finnish-Swedes. Finnish-Swedish is a dialect of Swedish spoken in Finland by about 5% of the population. Again, the state funds tv channels and schools, and again, the language stays alive and well. If these people had our attitude they would’ve given up teaching Sami or Finnish decades ago and simply reverted to English since what’s the point, everyone sort of speaks English anyway. And south-central LA would have formalized the teaching of Ebonics since no one speaks ‘high english’ in their day to day lives anyway, only on TV and in writing.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, and I am sorry that you take issue with some of the points raised in the post. I don’t think the post championed the standardising of dialects, the discussion was working through the complexities of the Arabic language and seeing if there are any similarities between it and the Greek language situation. If you read any other post on this site, you will see that education is the number one mechanism that, I think, will be able to sort out the current unsure and panic state speakers of Arabic find themselves in. That, and of course a change in ideology and how we view Arabic in comparison to other languages and its own various dialects. As a native (British) English speaker I know exactly what you are talking about with regards to the different dialects, registers and uses of the available Englishes we have here in London and Britain in general, but we cannot compare the English language situation to the Arabic majority speaking countries’ situations, I have learned that over the years of research. Their histories are different, their economies are different and they do not share much in common. I agree the efforts of Gulf countries may in the future be saviours of MSA, but I suspect that they will need more than religion to save the language, they have religion now, what’s that doing to save Arabic? I think the situation in other areas such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq is very different to that of the Gulf states and much more stable right now as most people still use Arabic effectively for everyday communication. The questions you raise with regards to Scandinavia & Norway and why Arabic speaking countries cannot do the same, are all valid and these are the same questions I have been asking, and I have been researching, but there is no simple answer. It is a mixture of many different elements that if the people, the education system and those responsible get right, then the situation will be much improved. Thank you again for the comment.

  5. Dan

    Great points raised, i think arabic is like greek in some ways and that who knows maybe it will like that in the future? I am a student of Greek (though it is my mother tongue too like Arabic) and I find your discussion fascinating, keep up the good work!

  6. Andy

    I’ve just rediscovered this wonderful website and am kicking myself for having forgotten about it until your latest post popped up in my emails! What a treat. Thank you Fatma.

    I’m an English-speaking lifelong student of Arabic. I’ve never studied the language formally but having lived many years in Egypt consider myself to be a fairly fluent speaker of ESA and can also read literary Arabic (novels). I work in publishing and education.

    I agreed with the point that Heathcliff Huxtable made about Italian and its dialects. The analogy with MSA and dialects is pretty close in many ways. Diglossia, or register, or however we want to characterise it, is an issue but it is not on obstacle.

    For me, the main issue is this: there has never been (as far as I know) a single serious and sustained attempt to overhaul the teaching of Arabic in government schools in any country in the Arab world. There have been curriculum reforms to Arabic, such as the one recently introduced in Egypt, but they only scratch the surface. What we need is a pioneering decision-maker who really cares, and who is aware of the yawning gulf between the teaching of reading and writing in e.g. UK, Finland, Singapore, and what happens in schools across the Arab world. Millions of children around the world, when asked what their favourite subject at school is, will say, ‘French’, or ‘English’, or ‘Finnish’. I don’t think any child in the Arab world would say this. That’s where we have to start.

    1. Andy

      Just to qualify what I wrote … Hanada Taha is doing extraordinary things at the Teacher’s College in Bahrain (she speaks on a video in this very blog). Who knows?!

    2. Thanks for the message Andy, discussions like these keep the blog moving thank you! I agree it is a problem and apart from people like Hanada Taha at Bahrain teacher’s college there is not so much happening in as far as changing the teaching of the Arabic language in schools is concerned. There are attempts by publishers most notably Kalimat Publishing House in the UAE to introduce innovative books in Arabic with the aim to support literacy, language acquisition, content knowledge, and to be used as materials to teach the Arabic language in schools. As far as I know there are some schools that are using these books consistently so it would be very interesting to see what changes, if any, they have made to the learning of Arabic.

      I agree there needs to be a decisive and unified solution to this given Arabic’s diglossic nature, which is often an excuse, but I think it doesn’t have to be. It is the nature of the language, it needs to be recognised and a frank dialogue needs to take place as to what today in 2015 constitutes a good Arabic language education. At the same time educators also need to take into account the importance and position of English in Arabic speaking countries, globally and in the world of education and innovation and the necessity of the language whilst at the same time ensuring that the standard of Arabic teaching is at it’s best.

      This is one discussion that can go on forever and I think there are people working hard to bring solutions (without blaming teachers or students or parents),and what would make it a success would be if they all worked together for the sake of Arabic language education. Let’s see what the future holds….thanks again.

  7. Lisa78

    You are really an inspiring linguist and that’s made me want to pursue my PhD in language maintenance. I had an interest in it but then got side-tracked and the rest etc,, But recently ive replugged into all the linguistics and I came across this and it is one of the best things I’ve read on Arabic, wow thank you so much.
    Keep writing please…I also sent you an email. Ciao!

    1. Thank you Lisa for stopping by and for your kind words. I’m glad the blog has re-ignited your passion for linguistics. I hope your project will be on Arabic ;), wishing you all the best with that. Yes, I will respond thank you again.

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