A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, February 21, 2011

Saif''s Speech: "I Will Speak in Dialect," Fails

In the emerging theme of how Arabic diglossia is playing out in the fall of dictators (earlier posts on Tunisia here and Egypt here), the linguistics blogger Lameen Souag caught a great example. In Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi's speech last night, he started out with this:
Today I will speak with you... without a written paper, or a written speech. (N)or even speak to you in the Classical (fuṣħā) Arabic language. Today I will speak with you in Libyan dialect, and address you directly, as an individual member of this Libyan people. And I will speak extempore. Even the ideas and the points are not prepared in advance. Because this is a speech from the heart and the mind.
And then he didn't. Lameen looks at that opening paragraph:
əlyōm saatakallam maʕākum... bidūn waraqa maktūba, 'aw xiṭāb maktūb. 'aw natakallam maʕakum bi... luɣa ħattā ʕarabiyya fuṣħa. əlyōm saatakallam maʕakum bilahža lībiyya. wa-sa'uxāṭibkum mubāšaratan, ka-fard min 'afrād hāða ššaʕb əllībi. wa-sa'akūn irtižāliyyan fī kalimatī. wa-ħattā l'afkār wa-nniqāṭ ɣeyr mujahhaza u-muʕadda musbaqan. liʔanna hāðā ħadīθ min alqalb wa-lʕaql.(YouTube - first minute; conspicuously dialectal bits bolded)
That's right: a prefix here, a vowel quantity there. It's hardly dialectal at all. As he notes:
Now the explicit association between dialect, extempore speech, and speaking as "one of us" is fairly obvious, if interesting. But the odd thing is that this paragraph, like the rest of the speech, isn't very dialectal at all; it seems far closer to Standard Arabic than to any dialect. Some dialectal features are present, but a lot of unambiguously Classical constructions are used; even something as basic as the first person singular oscillates between Libyan n- and Classical 'a-. What it looks more like is some sort of intermediate ground between dialect and standard - or, if you prefer, like the highest level of Arabic that he is capable of extemporising in at short notice.
At least he didn't have powerpoint slides. One of his commenters offers a magnificent parse (mild language warning):
John Cowan said...

Here's my suggested revision of your translation:

Today I'll speak with y'all... without a written document or a written text. I ain't even verbalizing to y'all in the Classical Arabic language. Instead today I will make my oration to you in Libyan colloquial dialect, and address you unmediatedly as an individual member of this Libyan populace. And I will speak out of my ass. Even the conceptualizations and the bullet points have not been prepared in advance. Because this is a presentation directly from the emotional side of me.

(In Ireland, this is called the "cúpla focal", the couple of words in Irish at the beginning of a speech otherwise entirely in English.)

And to think, Saif was the one popular in the West. Until last night.

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