A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Backgrounder: Google's Arabic Efforts and the Diglossia Issue

An interesting piece in yesterday's Financial Times on Google's attempts to increase Internet and web penetration in Arabic (requires a free registration to read) has set me off on a range of musings on the Arabic language and the issue known as diglossia.

First, the article itself. As the article states the challenge:

When it comes to the internet, the Arab world punches well below its weight.

Less than 1 per cent of the internet’s content is in Arabic, while the world’s approximately 370m Arabs form more than 5 per cent of the global population.

Internet usage has jumped 1,000 per cent over the past seven years in the Middle East, yet it still lags well behind other regions. Overall internet penetration has reached 10 to 12 per cent, although with the region’s large number of shared connections, up to 50 per cent of the population is estimated to have access to the net.
Among other Google innovations, they mention ta3reeb, a cool application I've played with before which lets you type Latin transliteration characters (they call them "English characters" but you know what they mean) and it then gives it to you in Arabic script. The "3" character is a popular Internet way of transliterating ‘ayn (ع), and sure enough if you use ta3reeb to convert its own name you get تعريب, just as you should. [NOTE: I've discovered these are showing up as separate letters on some browsers, though just fine on the laptop I posted from. I obviously am doing something wrong. If it doesn't look like a connected word, I'll keep working to fix it.] (On this blog I follow the scholarly convention of transliterating ‘ayn with the little single open quote you see here, but 3 is seemingly catching on. It looks a bit like a reverse of the Arabic character, using 3 for ع.) (Transliteration is a whole different issue, and I'll address it another time.)

This is great stuff. Back in the 1970s, I typed my doctoral dissertation on a manual typewriter and had to write the Arabic text by hand, though later I acquired an East German Arabic typewriter cheap. (Good thing I don't need it anymore as I imagine finding East German ribbons is hard these days.) You young whippersnappers have so many cool tools available today . . . why when I was a boy . . .

Although most Google applications, plus Facebook and other media now have Arabic language front-ends that allow people to blog, e-mail, etc. in Arabic, there are still many challenges to fuller Internet penetration. One is the simple one of illiteracy in the Arab world, which is still high by global standards, especially among women. Another is the problem the linguists call "diglossia": the fact that Modern Standard Arabic, the language of newspapers, university instruction, public speeches, etc., is actually no one's first language; Arabs grow up speaking their own local dialect (usually referred to as ‘amiyya or lahja in the East and darija in the Maghreb), which they learn at their mother's knee. They don't just have to learn to read the language they already speak: they have to learn a related but more complex and formal language that no one speaks today, or may ever have spoken as such. It's a deterrent not only to literacy but to entering the public sphere as a journalist, politician, or academic expected to perform in Modern Standard Arabic.

There are some parallels to the European situation in late medieval times when Latin was the language of scholarship, but the romance languages were the spoken language of Western Europe. The differences are considerable though, because the Qur'an's influence is so great that Modern Standard (essentially a simplified classical Arabic) enjoys enormous prestige over the spoken dialects, which lack a standard spelling system and are, in fact, usually taught using Western transliteration or the International Phonetic alphabet. The late Tawfiq al-Hakim and others have written plays in dialect, but they had to invent their own ways to spell things. (Other than some TV soaps, the one printed medium that routinely uses dialect is the political cartoon, interestingly enough.)

The Egyptian author and psychologist Mustapha Safouan, (writing in French to underscore the irony), has argued that diglossia contributes to why the Arabs are "not free," in that only the elites can handle the learned language of power. Here's an article about his work, and here's an excerpt; I haven't read his work other than what you see there. Here's a more scholarly treatment of the subject of diglossia.

Which allows me to mention that MEI's Language department plans to hold a conference on diglossia this fall. I'll post more as the schedule firms up.

I was fortunate to learn a spoken dialect (Egyptian) quite early on, and am an enthusiast for learning the language people actually speak to each other, though a serious student must also know the literary language, of course, and I also had to learn the classical/Qur'anic form, though I'm rusty in it now. When I know how to say something in the local dialect, I do so; when I don't, I'll use Egyptian first, before Modern Standard, because Egyptian films and TV, and Egyptian expatriate workers, mean most Arabs have heard Egyptian. I think everyone learning Arabic should learn both a spoken dialect and the literary language, but that view is not universal. There is an added problem here: it's often hard for Westerners to learn a specific dialect because the Arabic teachers often disdain teaching them: I've had Egyptians tell me that Egyptian dialect is not Arabic, it's just "slang." If so then most people speak "slang" at their mother's knee. If you speak only Modern Standard you're going to have trouble conversing with taxi drivers, doormen, and others who may not be the most literate.

And I have a "flipside" anecdote as well: while many Egyptians are startled when an American or other Westerner uses colloquial instead of Modern Standard to them, and they disdain (officially, while speaking it) the dialect, I once took a newly-arrived scholar in Egypt out for a drink. The waiter, a galabiyya-clad baladi sort who looked remarkably like the mummy of Ramses II, knew me well, and I introduced him to the newcomer, a Ph.D. who hadn't spent much real time in the region. I told the waiter, "my friend can read Arabic but doesn't speak it." The response from the waiter, who probably had the reverse problem, was mish ma‘'ul ("unbelievable": itself colloquial: ma‘'ul is Classical ma‘qul), since to him the literary language was a mystery but the spoken language a necessity of daily life.

For non-Arabist readers, it's hard to explain how much the "dialects" differ, but it can be as much as between Romance languages (and I don't mean Spanish and Catalan here; I mean Spanish and French.) But let me try to offer some examples.

I remember many years ago standing in line at a newspaper kiosk somewhere in Morocco. A Saudi — or other Gulf Arab in full Gulf regalia — was ahead of me in line. He asked the Moroccan how much something was, and the Moroccan replied "kham-SIH," to which the Saudi responded "Khamsin?" ("Five," and "fifty," respectively. The Saudi would say "five" as KHAM-sa.) Since even Arabs can't always understand each other's dialect, it's hardly surprising diglossia is a problem for them and for foreigners learning the language. (Morocco and Algeria long have been wrestling with a different problem: the generation who grew up under French colonial rule spoke only the local dialect and a bit of French: only the post-colonial generation grew up with a capacity for Modern Standard. Time and age are slowly eliminating this problem.) [UPDATE: Check out the first comment below, from the Algerian Blogger The Moor Next Door, on the contemporary Algerian situation].

Consider something so simple as asking, "How are you?" In Modern Standard Arabic, which no one would ever actually use except in an international meeting or a language course, it would be Kayfu haluka? An Egyptian will say, izzayak?; a Lebanese Kifak? or Kifak inta? or Kif Halak?; an Iraqi may ask Shlonak? and a Moroccan La Bas? (Forms will differ if addressing a female or a group: these are singular male forms.) The answer could be kwayyis, zayn, mnih, tayyib (that one is cognate with Hebrew tov), or in Morocco, La Bas again, not to mention lots of other possibilities. Practically every dialect has a different way of saying "what do you want?" as well, and even such a seemingly essential word as "now" can vary from dilwaqti to hala to the classical al-an. The differences are actually greater for the simplest greetings and daily conversation; when one is talking about computers or political economy, the literary language naturally gives a certain unity, but when one is talking about ordering a meal, the words may differ. Even so basic a vocabulary word as bread (khubz versus ‘aysh) or milk (halib or laban, with the added complication that in halib countries laban means yogurt) varies.

"Isn't it so?" that essential question that French handles with n'est-çe pas?, Spanish with ¿Verdad?, German with Nicht Wahr?, and American English with "idnit?," would be a laysa ka-dhalika? in Classical Arabic, but mush kida? in Egyptian, mush hayk? or mu hayk? in Levantine, and so on.

One of the reasons there are so many ways of tranlsliterating Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi's name is that Libya itself straddles a dialect line, with eastern Libya (Benghazi and surroundings) tending towards Egyptian, western Libya (Tripoli) tending towards Tunis and the Maghreb, and the area in between (where Qadhafi comes from) tending towards a Saharan dialect. So it can be pronounced as Gazafi or Qaddafi or several other things even in his own country. (Many of us call the cultural line that divides Libya the "couscous line," since it's also where the standard grain changes from bulghur wheat to couscous.)

In the Levant and elsewhere, the cities' dialects are similar to each other, but the rural and bedouin dialects are quite different. Someone from ‘Amman and someone from Damascus will sound pretty similar, but a tribesman in a black tent in between them will speak something quite distinct.

I imagine this subject will come up again. It's one that some Arab scholars (such as Safouan cited above) are becoming more cognizant of. It isn't limited to Arabic — diglossia is also a problem for Greeks, Chinese, and a number of other peoples — but it's one that isn't usually well appreciated by Westerners who don't know Arabic, in part because Arabs themselves don't talk about it that much.


Anonymous said...

Good backgrounder on the trouble. I'd argue, though, that at least in Algeria knowledge of French is more widespread than ever before. Where as the older generation spoke Algerian Arabic with very little French borrowings and idioms, today Algerians speak a dialect that is somewhat more infused with French words and sayings. This is the natural result of an increase in literacy in both Arabic and French. Nowadays, still people question the utility of Arabic, because if one wants a job in government or business (or even media) he needs French as an absolute necessity. The only doors open for Algerians without a knowledge of French are the Arabic media, religious work or teaching in Arabic or history/religion. Elite Algerians may not even have a command of Standard Arabic but will without variance have a good grasp of French (maybe even the hyper proper "African French"). I'd bet that Lebanese and Egyptian Arabic have considerably more English today than they did previously. For example, take some music in Algerian Arabic. In the chaabi music of Dahmane el Harrachi you hear just about no French. In the "Rai-N-B" music that is popular now, also sung in Algerian Arabic, you hear all kinds of Franco-Arabic constructions. This is especially true of Algerian rap which is usually in darja. Here are two examples:

A chaabi song from the War generation:


A popular Rai song from maybe 2 or 3 years ago:


Interesting aside: The fellow who sings the chorus ("Reda Taliani") has classical training in Arabo-Andalusian music.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Thanks for the comment; Algeria is one country I've never had the pleasure of visiting; my Maghreb experiences are Moroccan and (mostly) Tunisian. So I welcome the input.

Arabo-Andalusian music: wonderful stuff. I wish I knew it better. Love what I've heard.

Anonymous said...

Here is a site that might be helpful in brushing up your classical Arabic