A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Souag on Arabic Colloquial Folk Etymologies

 Scholars routinely lament the lack of a really good, scholarly, dictionary of etymology for Classical and Modern Standard Arabic. Even more wanting are decent studies of etymology for the spoken colloquials; there are many dictionaries, but few that are very helpful for etymology of distinctive dialectal terms. Instead there are many websites that offer assumptions with no sourcing cited, and many of these are popular folk etymologies. Linguistics blogger Lameen Souag has a very interesting post at Jabal al-Lughat on this theme: "Arabic Substrate Etymologies as Urban Legends."

As he notes:
In Arabic as in English, social networks have a constantly flowing undercurrent of poorly sourced, manipulative stories being shared and reshared by people who vaguely think they sound right. Over the past, say, five years, I've noticed the emergence of a linguistically interesting new subgenre within this miasma of lies and half-truths: etymological tables purporting to prove the massive contribution of Berber, or Syriac, or (more rarely) Coptic, or perhaps some other pre-Arab substrate to the local Arabic dialect. These tables, in my experience, never cite an academic source, and rarely cite anything at all; closer examination generally reveals a farrago of correct etymologies and bad guesses. 
He links (included in the post, and all in Arabic) to social media posts for Berber, Coptic, and Syriac, and then examines some of the assertions, finding some of them valid, others unsubstantiated, or just plain wrong, concluding:
The optimistic take on this is that it shows that there's a real public demand in the Arabic-speaking world for information on etymology and on substrate influence. The pessimistic take is that people just want "information" confirming what they want to believe - in this case, that they're not really that Arab after all. (The converse case also exists, of course - recall Othmane Saadi - but I haven't seen as much of it circulating on social media, though that may just reflect my own bubble.) The reality is probably somewhere in the middle.
But read the whole thing, especially the case studies. I should note that Dr. Souag himself started a blog on the historical origins of Algerian colloquial (الأصول التاريخية للدارجة الجزائرية), but there have been no posts since last year.

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