A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Reminder that Classical Arabic ≠ Modern Standard Arabic

The always interesting linguistics blogger Lameen Souag has a post, "Anachronistic Arabic in Algeria", reminding us that our tendency to equate "Modern Standard Arabic" and "Classical Arabic," though both can translate as fusha, can be misleading, since today's literary Arabic has much new vocabulary not found in the Classical language.

He offers a case in point:
The following sentence, which I was shocked to read in "The Language Planning Situation in Algeria" (Benrabah, 2007, in Language Planning and Policy in Africa), is a perfect example:
"For example, [in Algerian Arabic] common Arabic words such as mekteb ("office"), tawila ("table"), mistara ("ruler"), and siyara ("car") were replaced by their French counterpart pronounced [biro], [tabla], [rigla], [tomobil] respectively." (p. 49)
The automobile was invented in 1886, 56 years after the French conquered Algiers - and the word sayyārah سيارة wasn't proposed to describe it until 1892, by the Egyptian Ahmad Zaki Pasha. There was no pre-existing Arabic word in Algeria for ṭumubil to replace. A quick look at a dictionary of Algerian Arabic from 1838 reveals that the word ṭabla طابلة was already being used for (tall) tables then, so there's no reason to assume it came from French rather than some other Romance language (it's attested in Andalusi Arabic as ṭablah طبلة "table"). More to the point, Standard Arabic ṭāwilah طاولة is not to be found in pre-modern Arabic dictionaries, and in fact is a later borrowing into Egyptian Arabic of Italian tavolo. There is no reason to suppose that it ever existed in the Arabic of Algeria. Only the other two are real cases of replacement, and not precisely from the Modern Standard Arabic forms either: the 1838 dictionary gives "m'sèteur" مسطر for "ruler", and "makhzenn" مخزن for "office".
As Lameen notes as well,
Algerians often assume a dialectal word is non-Arabic when in reality it's easily found in the classical dictionaries, simply because it's fallen into disuse in Modern Standard Arabic (for an egregious example, see my post Les Algériens qui ont oublié les dictionnaires de leurs ancêtres). Cases like this one illustrate that the converse is also true: we tend to assume that at some ill-defined point in the past Algerians were speaking to each other in the Arabic we learned at school , and forget that Modern Standard Arabic includes many words and expressions that were invented within the past century.
Let me add an Egyptian note to the whole issue of "table": the standard Egyptian colloquial word for table (though tawla will be understood) is actually tarabeza, a word which is obviously not Arabic. It is in fact from Greek trapeza, but the most common meaning of that word in Modern Greek is "bank." The original meaning seems to have been something like a counting board, leading through many paths to "table" on the one hand and a bank on the other. (Think of the similar link in English between a checkerboard and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.) (Oh, and Greek trapeza also gives us English trapeze, but I'll let you figure that one out yourselves.)

Why is Arabic so fond of borrowing other people's words for "table"?  I'm not sure. There are perfectly classical words, and one of the Qur'an's Suras (the fifth) is even entitled Al-Ma'ida (المائدة), "The Table." I'm pretty sure even linguists would count that one as Classical Arabic.


benedict said...

Still on the topic of tables, Iraqis use the word mēz, which comes from Persian (miz in standard Iranian pronunciation). I was under the impression that ma'ida meant 'table' in the sense of a place where food is laid out, which could be on the ground, rather than an item of furniture (I may be wrong).

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Thanks for the note on Egyptian Arabic. In Algeria, mayda is different from ṭabla: mayda is a low table that you sit on the ground to eat from, while ṭabla is a Western-style high table. Only the former is really a part of traditional culture; I guess when the latter arrived, people felt it deserved a different name.