KGOU

How Arabic’s Three Dozen Dialects Help (And Hinder) Middle East Peace

Sep 5, 2014

The beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the radical group the Islamic State, and continued tensions in Gaza reignite long-standing questions about why there’s so much tumult in the region.

In his book Language, Memory and Identity in the Middle East, Boston College historian and political scientist Franck Salameh reconsiders the root causes of Middle East conflicts and argues the perception of the region as a place with a certain culture and language ignores the array of different cultures that developed over the course of history.

Salameh discussed some common misconceptions about the Arabic language in a conversation with KGOU’s World Views host Suzette Grillot.

“There are many kinds of Arabic,” Salameh says. “There are 36 different languages; some are mutually intelligible, others are not.”

Salameh compares the differences between Arabic dialects to the differences between Latin-based languages like Spanish, French and Romanian. Although the languages have the same root, over time they evolved in different distinct directions.

“Romans who acquired that language [Latin] distorted it over time and made out of it what we commonly refer to as French and Spanish and to a certain extent English,” Salameh says.

To account for the array of different dialects, people currently learning Arabic in schools are often taught what is called Modern Standard Arabic,  or al-fuṣḥá.

“It's a learned language, it's a ceremonial language, it's a language of literature,” Salameh says. “But it's nobody's natively spoken language it's a language that is acquired through years and years of schooling.”

That means only the highly educated can communicate with people who speak a different dialect, leading to a lack of regional unity. Salameh argues this is one reason why Arab Nationalism never took off in the 1930s and 1940s.

“You have a situation in which upwards of 50 to 55 percent of the population is unable to function in that language,” Salameh says. “How can you enforce it when you have to engage a literacy campaign before you engage a Nationalist campaign?”

A complicating factor in the evolution of Arabic is its ties to the Quran. Many Muslims consider Arabic the language of God – the language through which He told the prophet Muhammad his message.

Salameh again compares Arabic to Latin, referencing Dante’s struggle to convince the church of the merits of his book The Divine Comedy.

“He was fought at the academy by his colleagues because he wrote it in his vernacular,” Salameh says, “‘That lowly language,’ he said, “is your language, is my language, is the language of my mother is the language of our prince. It is the language that we use on a daily basis.”

Salameh supports writers in the region using their own dialects, but believes that it is important to continue teaching Modern Standard Arabic.

“We should teach it. It has a very important function; it is still the language of literature. You amputate people from their literature when you tell them ‘Don't use that language anymore’," Salameh says. “But what I suggest is that we learn and teach it the way we learned it in the Middle East: first the mother language and then the scholarly language.”

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On the many dialects of Arabic

I argue that there are 36 different languages that are mutually unintelligible; most of them are mutually unintelligible, that we refer to generically as Arabic and there isn't a bonafide Arabic language. Arabic is referred to as al-fuṣḥá, which is an English modern standard Arabic and that is the Arabic that we teach in the academy. So to give you an analogy that would be comprehensible to a Western audience, when I say I'm teaching you Arabic, and then I'm telling you "here take 3 years of Arabic and then go to Egypt and speak to the Egyptians," in a Western context this would be as if I had given you three years of Latin and telling you to go to Naples or Milan and communicate with the people.

Some of them are mutually intelligible. Others are not and this would be comparable to say again in a European context to Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian and the relationships that these languages have among each other and with the mother language, Latin.

On whether Modern Standard Arabic can be instituted

I'm just saying that it's a daunting project. Arab nationalists have attempted it. It started in the 1930s and 1940s and it still hasn't worked. When you have a situation in which upwards of 50-55% of the population is unable to function in that language. How can you enforce it when you have to engage a literacy campaign before you engage a Nationalist campaign?

On the religious importance of language

I want to go back to a point that I think is very important because people especially nationalists are emotionally attached to their linguistic loadstar. The Arabic language for Arab nationalists, French for French et cetera and we feel that language is this holy organism that we shouldn't tamper with especially in the case of Arabic language given its religious importance.

In the 13th century Dante published something you're probably familiar with La Comedia, The Comedy. That was the title of the book, The Comedy. It wasn't divine yet. He was fought at the academy by his colleagues who told him, "How dare you write" because he wrote it in his vernacular. Dante was accused of using the language of the lower classes the language of servants not the language of academicians and this was a veritable debate and Dante's response was very similar to what goes on in the Arab world today. It was that, “you are fighting my language choice in the language that I have chosen.” They were not debating him in Latin, they were debating him in that lowly language and that lowly language he said is your language is my language is the language of my mother is the language of our prince. It is the language that we use on a daily basis. A similar debate is ongoing today in the Middle East.

On the future of Modern Standard Arabic:

My argument is that we should teach it. It has a function, it has a very important function, it is still the language of literature. You amputate people from their literature when you tell them "don't use that language anymore" but what I suggest is that we learn and teach it the way we learned it in the Middle East. First the mother language and then the scholarly language.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Franck Salameh welcome to World Views.

SALAMEH: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GRILLOT: Your work as a professor of Arabic language is very, very interesting. You've written a book. You have several things coming out but most recently one that was published "Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East" and in this book you talk about modern standard Arabic and how the teaching of modern standard Arabic is somehow intellectually stifling because it is not a living spoken language. Can you tell us what you mean by that being intellectually stifling?

SALAMEH: When we say Arabic in the Academy when we teach Arabic we say, "we teach Arabic, we're forming Arabists, we're forming people who we say speak Arabic," but in reality these are people who use Arabic. We're usually talking about one kind of Arabic and there are many kinds of Arabic. I argue that there are 36 different languages that are mutually unintelligible most of them are mutually unintelligible that we refer to generically as Arabic and there isn't a bona fide Arabic language. Arabic is referred to as fusha (pronounced fs-hä), which is an English modern standard Arabic and that is the Arabic that we teach in the academy. So to give you, an analogy that would be comprehensible to a Western audience, when I say I'm teaching you Arabic, and then I'm telling you "here take 3 years of Arabic and then go to Egypt and speak to the Egyptians," in a Western context this would be as if I had given you three years of Latin and telling you to go to Naples or Milan and communicate with the people. So that's the Arabic that we teach. So it's a learned language, it's a ceremonial language, it's a language of literature but it's nobody's natively spoken language it's a language that is acquired through years and years of schooling. On the other hand you have these 36 different varieties that are referred to as dialects. Some of them are mutually intelligible. Others are not and this would be comparable to say again in a European context to Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian and the relationships that these languages have among each other and with the mother language, Latin. Stifling I'm not sure I used that term. Limiting, perhaps, because people don't use it natively, don't use it spontaneously. It is used in conversation among the educated but it's almost always out of a prepared text. It is not a spontaneously spoken language.

GRILLOT: So maybe the stifling, the limiting nature of it perhaps is that it's misleading to think that there is any kind of modern standard Arabic that is inclusive of the entire Arab world and that this somehow limits our understanding of this part of the world and leads to certain perceptions, some sort of monolithic whole and isn't diverse and full of many different kinds of cultures and languages and ways of life.

SALAMEH: The language that is common to all of the Arab defined countries, that modern standard Arabic is comprehensible to all of the users of this language as long as they have had formation in it. That's why I stress the fact that it is not a natively used language. You have to go through schooling. Linguists speak a lot in terms of the glossia – that is having two language personalities. One for certain events, certain situations and another for more colloquial situations. But in the case of the glossia, both languages are learned at the same time. Both languages are acquired at the same time. That is not the case with Arabic. Arabic is in a sense like Latin in that it was used by bona fide Latins, Romans as a Native language, but was also used by barbarians and peoples who were conquered by the Latins, the Romans who acquired that language eventually and distorted it over time and made out of it what we commonly refer to as French and Spanish and to a certain extent English.

JOSHUA LANDIS: But Franck, Arabic has a particular--it's loaded, it's very political in the sense that Islam connects to Arabic because Arabic, The Quran is God sends down his message, the third package in this Abrahamic tradition. The Old Testament, the New Testament and then the newest testament, The Quran to the Arab people in the Arabic language, so it is God's language and modern Arab nationalists said "Arabic is the first language." They made this sort of romantic notion of Arabic being God's language that Adam and Eve spoke Arabic. The bath party founders all say this that Arabic is God's language and Semitic is the first language, but this is still at the heart of Arab Nationalism it's at the heart of politics. I was just watching a video today of rebels going into the Latakia area of Northern Syria pushing out government forces and they are speaking this fusha Arabic that you are talking about and saying that they are raising God's word to the top. This is what they are doing, so this is a project that is still ongoing in the Middle East. You're saying this is a false project? 

SALAMEH: We're not saying it's a false project. I'm just saying that it's a daunting project. Arab nationalists have attempted it. It started in the 1930s and 1940s and it still hasn't worked. When you have a situation in which upwards of 50-55 percent of the population is unable to function in that language. How can you enforce it when you have to engage a literacy campaign before you engage a Nationalist campaign? That's a daunting project. What you described about the holiness of the Arabic language being the language of the Quran et cetera. To a certain extent that was the case with Latin as well but that monopoly was broken because ultimately it's people who decide what they want to speak. What is their mother language they say in French "langue maternelle" the language that you learn from your mother. I don't see how this is going. It may succeed but I don't see any signs that say this is going to succeed. There will be a great deal of opposition. This happened with Latin. Latin did not switch over night to French and Italian and Spanish. The purists the Latinists the people who wanted to maintain the superiority of Latin fought vehemently. You had groups in the 15th century France who refused to use Latin who wanted to write exclusively in the Vulgar language, in French.

LANDIS: It is also the case in Lebanon isn't it and not just in Lebanon, throughout the Middle East. You have churches, Christians in particular whose liturgy is not in Arabic. There are some like the Greek Orthodox whose liturgy is in Arabic but many others whose liturgy is not in Arabic. Where does this leave them? Is this Arabic language stifling for these minorities who hold up other languages?

GRILLOT: Just to add to that Franck. The subtitle of your book is "The Case for Lebanon" so you obviously take a particular focus on Lebanon particularly for this reason that it doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the Middle East and that the language that we understand everyone speak it kind of shapes and misshapes our perceptions of that country and of that region.

SALAMEH: Well the case for Lebanon the reason for "for" in the subtitle is that my approach is that Lebanon could be looked at as perhaps a template. As perhaps an experiment and it's always been a kind of a barometer where new ideas were tested and spread elsewhere, but to go back to your question Josh. The churches that you mention, there has been a great deal of Arabization within churches whose liturgical languages who had not been Arabic. The Maronite were the leaders in introducing Arabic into church rituals and prayers but there is a movement now either going back to Aramaic so you will see a return back to Syriac in the Maronite church and others are following suit but I want to go back to a point that I think is very important because people especially nationalists are emotionally attached to their linguistic load star. The Arabic language for Arab nationalists, French for French et cetera and we feel that language is this holy organism that we shouldn't tamper with especially in the case of Arabic language given its religious importance. In the 13th century Dante published something you're probably familiar with La Comedia, The Comedy, that was the title of the book The Comedy, it wasn't divine yet he was fought at the academy by his colleagues who told him "How dare you write" because he wrote it in his vernacular. I use Dante because he is in a way the child of Virgil. He is the prince of Latin. Nobody has beautified Latin as Dante has and yet he writes in this vulgar language but then everybody knows the book, everybody understands the book even people who can't read the book could be read to them and they could understand it and over time La Comedia became La Divina Comedia, The Divine Comedy, due to its subject matter perhaps but certainly the divinity of it is attributable to the language because it was a beautiful vulgar language he used and when his colleagues at the academy fought him there's a parallel to this in the Middle East today among those literati who are writing, Egyptians who are writing in the Egyptian dialect, Lebanese who are writing in the Lebanese dialect Syrians who are writing in the Syrian dialect publishing. Dante was accused of fusing the language of the lower classes the language of servants not the language of academicians and this was a veritable debate and Dante's response was very similar to what goes on in the Arab world today. Was that you are fighting my language choice in the language that I have chosen. They were not debating him in Latin, they were debating him in that lowly language and that lowly language he said is your language is my language is the language of my mother is the language of our prince. It is the language that we use on a daily basis. A similar debate is ongoing today in the Middle East. Of course you are going to have those that are emotively religiously attached to the language who approach it from a different aspect, a different corner, but the debate is ongoing and you have respectable literati who are attempting to normalize that tendency to write in the spoken language. Najib Mahfousz' stance, if you read his books in Arabic he is also one of the princes of the Arabic language, a Nobel Laureate. All of his internal dialogues in his novels are in spoken Egyptian and that is because like Dante he feels that he could not express the innermost feelings of the masses the subject of his book unless he makes them speak in their spoken languages.

GRILLOT: So just very quickly tell us, should we not be teaching modern standard Arabic?

SALAMEH: That is absolutely not my argument. My argument is that we should teach it, it has a function it has a very important function, it is still the language of literature. You amputate people from their literature when you tell them "don't use that language anymore" but what I suggest is that we learn and teach it the way we learned it in the Middle East. First the mother language, and then the scholarly language.

GRILLOT: Well Franck Salameh, thank you so much for joining us today. You have given us a lot to think about.

SALAMEH: Thank you for having me.

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