A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Moncef Marzouki on Arabic; Souag on Marzouki

This blog has frequently had posts on the various debates about the future of the Arabic language; laments over the imminent death of Arabic, debates over the role of classical and colloquial, etc.; my Arabic language tag will provide lots of examples.

Recently, Moncef Marzouki, whose Congress for the Republic (CPR) ran second in the recent Tunisian elections, has unburdened himself of an essay on "What language will the Arabs speak in the next century?" At least, unlike some of these types of essays, this one is actually written in Arabic. He sees the mix of colloquial and French that is common among Tunisian elites as an ill omen, and favors a return to literary Arabic. His is not a new argument, though it is somewhat infused with the enthusiasms of the revolution and the identity of the Francophone elite with the old regime.

Linguistics blogger  Lameen Souag, who also addresses this issue from time to time, analyzes Marzouki's argument and raises some objections. If you don't read Arabic, Souag's piece in English will give you a sampling of the debate.

The reality remains that literary Arabic is, and is likely to remain, the language of a limited elite so long as literacy is not universal; purists and prescriptivists have been lamenting this fact for centuries, with all the effect of King Canute ordering the sea to retreat. (Elias Muhanna once noted that the great Arabic lexicographer Ibn Manzur issued similar warnings in the 1200s, so the death of Arabic has been a lingering one.)

But, as I say, at least Marzouki wrote his piece in Arabic. Often these warnings appear in English or French.


David Mack said...

The younger generation of Tunisians has a much better education in Arabic and, I suspect, less of an education in French than was true of the elite when I served there from 1979-1982. Coming from Baghdad, where intensive use had honed my Arabic and being years away from my one academic year of French, I though erroneously that I could get away with speaking Arabic. At my first diplomatic reception, a Tunisian lady put that idea to rest: "Monsieur Mack: Nous ne parle pas l'Arabe. Il n'est pas une langue serieuse." Even in those days, however, younger Tusisians veiled political criticism of the regime by allegations like, "All the ministers are married to French women, and they keep us down by not speaking to us in Arabic."

David Mack said...

correcting my French, still very poor after all my practice in Tunisia: "Nous ne parlons pas l'arabe...."

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Once, standing in front of the Koutoubiya in Marrakech, I got sufficiently tired of being addressed in French that I lectured a couple of pre-adolescent boys about speaking the colonial language in front of such an ancient and Arab/Muslim place. Since I did it in a mix of Fusha and Egyptian colloquial, they probably figured I was speaking some obscure European language. That was, admittedly, also in the early 1980s, and it has changed.