A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lamenting Ignorance of Modern Standard Arabic

Here's a piece from The National from a few days ago, lamenting how poorly many Arabs speak Modern Standard Arabic. It opens with the oft-cited problems Lebanese Prime Minister Sa‘d Hariri had in addressing Parliament.

We've had occasion to discuss the diglossia issue several times on this blog, and I refer you to those earlier posts for background and details. I suspect that this article (which is, of course, published in English) somewhat overstates the case. Yes, many Arabs do not have a fluent command of Modern Standard Arabic, for the well-known reason that it is no one's native tongue. It is a learned tongue, a classicized form of the colloquial Arabics everyone really speaks. The problem may be worse in Francophone countries such as Morocco, Algeria, and Lebanon, where the colonial language enjoys great influence, or in the Gulf, where English is the language of business, and large numbers of expatriate workers speak little Arabic.

But it has long been true that most Arabs other than radio and television presenters, journalists and college professors, really had more need to read MSA than to write it. I'm sure Sa‘d Hariri speaks colloquial Arabic fluently (though probably Saudi rather than Lebanese dialect); King ‘Abdullah II of Jordan had the same problem when he ascended the throne after only a short tenure as Crown Prince; born of an English mother and educated abroad, his military career had presumably not required regular communication in literary Arabic.

But it seems extreme to suggest, as the editorialist does, that Modern Standard Arabic will die out if not emphasized more. The fundamental thing that has bound the various dialects of Arabic together, so that they do not separate as the Romance languages did from their Latin roots, is the Qur'an and the fact that the dialects are not themselves normally written (except for occasional plays or political cartoons). While that has impeded the spread of literacy, it has maintained a certain unity for the Arabic language, intimately tied, as it is, to Islam through the Qur'an.

And this is not a new circumstance. A century ago the colonial languages, English or French, would have prevailed; a bit earlier than that, Ottoman Turkish. But Arabic has not died out.


David Mack said...

If nothing else, Arab world politics often puts a premium on a good command of modern standard. While Nasser used colloquial Egyptian often and with good effect when addressing the Egyptian crowds, he showed a fine command of more literary Arabic when speaking in pan-Arab gatherings. Sawt al-Arab min Al-Qahira (The Voice of the Arabs) also had a huge audience during Nasser's time and set a standard for political discourse from the Gulf to the Ocean. It's noteworthy that Iraq's President and Foreign Minister, both Kurds educated in Arab universities, speak fluent modern standard Arabic, better in fact than many Iraqi Arab politicians.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


I vividly remember being on a train from Istanbul to Athens, somewhere in northern Greece, in a crowded compartment in the middle of the night, and suddenly hearing from a nearby compartment, familiar music and then "Sawt al-Arab ... min al-Qahira." I think I could still repeat the intonation 38 years later. It certainly had a reach ... even in Greece.