A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 9, 2014

Lameen Souag Chimes in on the Disney/MSA/Colloquial Debate

Algerian linguist blogger Lameen Souag joins in the ongoing debate on Modern Standard Arabic versus colloquial Arabic in the dubbing of Frozen at his Jabal al-Lughat blog: "Standard Arabic and cartoons." (For background, see Elias Muhanna's original New Yorker piece here, Arabic Literature (in English)'s symposium of responses here, and my own comments here and here, and the comments threads to all of these. It's a lively debate, and still growing.

Lameen expresses the sentiments he already posted in comments to my first post: MSA is preferable in North African since the Egyptian dialect used by Disney in previous movies is not understood there. And he argues it's an educational tool:
Let's start by looking around us. We see that younger generations understand Standard Arabic rather well, and have a much larger Standard Arabic vocabulary than earlier generations did at the same age. A cursory search suggests that cartoons have played a role in this; for example, Weyers 1999 shows that American students of Spanish improved their listening comprehension and used a larger vocabulary after watching a Spanish-language telenovela, and Blosser 1988 that Hispanic children, once they've mastered the basics of English, improve their English by watching more TV (although this does not seem to work below the age of 2). So parents are probably right to think that Standard Arabic cartoons are helping their kids learn Standard Arabic.
However – let's be honest – those same younger generations remain largely unable to write a grammatically correct paragraph in it, and normally speak in Standard Arabic only to quote prestigious texts or to parody TV presenters or politicians. This suggests that what they're gaining from it is limited to what Weyers 1999 identified for learners of Spanish: better comprehension and a larger vocabulary, but not better production. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, in Algeria at least, Standard Arabic is effectively a read-only language: everyone under a certain age can understand it and read it, practically no one can express themselves in it correctly or confidently. So, as an educational tool, cartoons have their limits.
The debate about Arabic diglossia and whether to stress MSA versus colloquial never goes away, and while I feel both have a role I also think the dialects are under-emphasized, but I am not a native speaker or a trained linguist, so I defer to the experts. If you listen to TV talk shows and discussions, in real life most Arabs (except perhaps in the Maghreb), if addressing Arabs from multiple countries, tend to speak what is sometimes called "Middle Arabic," a sort of simplified MSA with some colloquial admixture.

I must give Elias credit for hitting a nerve here (as well as for an enviable byline in The New Yorker),but this is also a reminder of the enormous global power of Disney. People pay attention, and Frozen is Disney's hottest (well, wrong adjective in this case, but most popular) animated feature in years.


Anonymous said...

I second the MSA call. As a non-Egyptian Arab there is nothing 'neutral' or 'natural' to Urban Egyptian Arabic. If anything, the Rural dialects of Egypt (صعيدي) are closer to what my family speaks.
I would much rather have a 'pan-dialect' of sorts that is used in our textbooks and when we pick up newspapers in Disney than one that favors a particular region. That my two cents of language ideology. - Gwayrav

David Mack said...

The pan-Arab effect is of great political importance. "Ash-sha'ab yuriid isqaat am-nidhaam" is an example of a fusha phrase that started in Tunisia and swept across the Arab world.