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Globalisation- a problem or solution for Arabic?

30 Dec

Globalisation Last month I posted a comment written by SLC with regards to the similarities between the Arabic and Greek diglossic situations, today I post the third and final part of our discussion below. This part delves into the role globalisation may play in the current situation (confusion, uncertainty) of the Arabic language, and it is in response to a point I made……

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Now on to your next point, about whether globalisation is to blame for the current problems of Arabic:

“One may argue that globalisation has nothing to do with it, you just have to look at China, Russia, Germany and all the other very modern, very successful countries who have maintained their mother tongues …”

Yes, I agree, and I’d like to add Japan to your list of examples. Japan has been fully engaged with globalisation for several generations now, including an American military occupation with enough cultural influence to make baseball and American football into popular sports with a mass audience. Japanese has also adopted thousands of loanwords from English. Yet if you are Japanese you can describe yourself as a “sarariman” with a “modan-na gaarufurendo” (a salary-man with a modern girlfriend) without feeling your language is under threat at all. Indeed more than half of the Japanese vocabulary already consists of loanwords from Chinese, but even over many centuries the Japanese have never seemed in any danger of being culturally overwhelmed by China. The Japanese language has simply evolved structures that enable loanwords to fit comfortably into a Japanese sentence. (The “-na” in my example is one of these. It gives the loanword “modan” that distinctive halfway-to-being-a-verb quality that Japanese adjectives have, and works equally well with loanwords from any language.) The Japanese language is in no danger at all despite military disaster, occupation, globalisation, and tens of thousands of loanwords.

So, for example, the Japanese took ‘pocket’ and ‘monster’, adapted them to Japanese phonology as ‘poketto’ and ‘monsutaa’, abbreviated them to ‘poke-mon’, and sent them back to us as the global Pokemon franchise. This is how language exchange should be: playful and relaxed, both sides gain, and both languages are enriched. Language exchange is definitely not a zero-sum game, where a gain for one is by definition a loss for the other.

The same thing applies to the rest of culture in general. The Japanese took Western comic books and cartoon films, gave them a uniquely Japanese flavour and sent them back to us as manga and anime, now global in their turn. This is what a healthy linguistic culture is like; it doesn’t cower away from foreign influences, blaming them for everything that goes wrong in the country. Instead it embraces those cultural imports, improves them and sends them right back out again.

The often cited ‘globalisation fact’ that “Computer manuals are all in English” is not too much of a problem for the Japanese either, since their language has already assimilated all the technical vocabulary as loanwords. The Japanese for “error log” is “eraa rogu”. So when a Japanese computer engineer reads an English manual, he is already familiar with all the technical terms. Together with some basic English grammar remembered from school, this is usually enough to get by. Notice how much more difficult all this would have been if some purist National Language Academy had enforced the use of invented words based on Japanese roots for things like “error log”.

So the Japanese language, full of loanwords though it is, still feels completely Japanese, and one of the things that gives it that quality is its uniquely rich system of registers, or politeness levels. (This is where I come back to the idea of registers …) I won’t describe any of the details here, just point to the Wikipedia article on Keigo. But the important thing is that wherever you are on the politeness spectrum, from barking a reprimand to a military subordinate at the bottom, up to formally congratulating the Emperor at the top, the basic sentence structure doesn’t change. As you go up the scale the vocabulary changes (often in several steps, and even for quite basic words like “I” and “do”), and the phrasing grows longer and more flowery, but there is never a step-change in the grammar like a different way of expressing “not”, or the sudden introduction of a new set of inflections (as there would be in switching up from ECA to MSA). This means that you have quite a fine-grained control of politeness level; whatever nuance of social position you want to assert, there will be suitable language available.

When you’ve seen the way Japanese handles such an elaborate system of levels so smoothly, you realise that code-switching in Arabic is doing something linguistically quite different (although of course with the same social purpose); it is mixing two different languages, with nothing in between (or at best embedding chunks of one language in sentences of the other). There’s a simple way to demonstrate this. In Japanese, about halfway up the politeness spectrum, there is a ‘Neutral Polite’ style. This is the one that foreigners always learn first; everyone will understand you, you won’t offend anyone, and native-speakers won’t feel awkward replying to you at the same level (this is the only level I personally can use with any competence). Of course all languages with registers have a neutral polite level like this; it’s just particularly well-defined in Japanese.

But is there anything similar in, say, Egypt? A well-defined language level that foreigners can learn, and everyone can use, half-way between the formality of CA and the alleged street-slang of ECA? Well, if the ‘official’ position were true, and CA and ECA were simply different registers of a single all-embracing fuSHa, there would be. But there isn’t. A foreigner like Haeri (or me) has to learn CA and ECA as two different languages, and then learn how to mix them.

Again, I can think of only one parallel for this situation, and it is 1880s Greece, when even the most talented writers like Roidis and Xenopoulos struggled in vain to find a usable formality-level in between katharevousa and demotic. It’s not coincidence that Roidis was driven to coin the word ‘diglossia’ in 1885 to describe this unusual – and in his opinion, thoroughly unsatisfactory – split between the two forms of his language.

Right then, that’s the end of my digression on the register-spectrum vs separate-languages question. Now back to globalisation!

Despite the wealth of counter-examples provided by other countries, I know that some people do still claim that globalisation is the threat. Here’s one from bikyanews.com on 8th May 2013:

“DUBAI: United Arab Emirates Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan said on Thursday that the greatest threat to the Arabic language, as well as Islam, was the rising influence of globalization and the shrinking of the world.”

If I’d been invited to the conference he was opening (on the theme “Arabic Language in Danger: All Are Partners in Protection”) I would have asked: “Other countries have been much more exposed to globalisation than the Arab world, until recently at least, without their languages being weakened. Indeed some of them (like Japanese) thrive on it. The influence of English is the same for everybody. So if globalisation really is the threat, what makes Arabic so much more vulnerable to it than all the other languages?”

I’d then have presented the best counter-example of all: the Arabic and Muslim culture of the Abbasid Golden Age itself, when Islam and especially the institution of the Hajj promoted international links, which shrank the world, facilitated trade, and allowed Islam in turn to spread along the trade routes. Islam, Arabic, trade, and the globalisation of the Old World all reinforced each other with a kind of cultural feedback. How else did Islam reach Indonesia, and Zanzibar, and Xinjiang? They were far beyond the reach of Umar’s armies.

And the Arabs of the Golden Age did exactly what the Japanese do today: they took the best of foreign culture, improved it, and sent it back out again. They took chess and decimal numerals from India and sent them on to Europe; they took mathematics and astronomy from Greece, added algebra and hundreds of star-names and technical terms, and sent them all back out again. It was a “healthy linguistic culture”, as I said of Japan a few paragraphs ago, and all sides gained. So surely globalisation was always an integral part of Arabic culture at its strongest and best? Whatever is wrong with the Arabic language, it’s not going to be globalisation.

I’m actually very puzzled by the whole tone of the Minister’s statement (at least as reported by bikyanews.com), and especially by the slogan “Partners in Protection”. He sounds as if he is speaking for a tiny Amazonian tribe under threat from global logging and mining companies. For a small tribe whose safety has always depended mainly on isolation and keeping out of sight, then yes, the shrinking of the world would indeed bring threats. They would need “protection”, probably in the form of reinforced and managed isolation.

But what on earth does this have to do with Islam, which always used to be so outward-looking? Surely long-distance trade and pilgrimage were a way of life for the very first Muslims, even before Umar’s conquests? Why should Arabic and Islam (please note that it’s the Minister who is bracketing them together, not me) suddenly need isolation and “protection” now, when for so many centuries they didn’t?

Anyway, that’s enough about globalisation. And I’ll leave the question of whether a “threat to the Arabic language” is the same thing as a “threat to Islam” (as implied by the Minister’s statement) for another occasion.

In the next post I’ll get back to the parallel with Greek.

SLC

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globalisation and language

Thank you SLC once again for a detailed response and a wonderfully-informed discussion on the topic. I will not make the response long, So I will address your response in a point-by-point format so that I address the issues I think may help us understand how similar or different to one another Arabic and Greek are in their diglossic natures, and the role of globalisation:

1. You are right, globalisation usually receives much negative press mainly due to the role it has played in the “killing off” of minority languages around the world. Hence, it becomes a charged word and cannot be viewed for its benefits (if any) and it that carries the connotations of taking away but not of giving positively. Your example of Japanese is perhaps one of the positive effects globalisation may have in certain situations. The way the Japanese have embraced English (and before that Chinese) is not only practical, but may even be seen by some as a revolt against English. How? Well, instead of speaking English, they bend, change, transform and manipulate English words into their own language and grammar so that they remain authentically Japanese. But by embracing and using English in this way, they modernise themselves and are able to then discuss and express ideas about modern-day phenomena in their own tongue. Arabic did that with Persian, Hebrew & Abyssinian words (some of which are in fact in the Qur’an itself), and English did the same with Arabic, French, Latin and Spanish words and so on because it is a consequence of language contact. This way children, and new learners of Japanese still have to learn the strict grammar regardless of whether the word has English or Chinese or indeed origins from any other language. Arabic speakers still have to decide how they will embrace English words, they have, and the process is being done, but I don’t think to the level of how Japanese has done it.

2. You are right again, and I have said this before- that during that time of the Arabian Golden Age Arabic thrived in a multilingual, multicultural and definitely a globalised environment. It did take what it saw as beneficial and good from other cultures and languages and adapted it to suit its own needs. There are also other historical, cultural and political aspects of language and religion that we do not have the space to go into, that also contributed to this strong fearless linguistic tradition. The situation of Arabic today, is most definitely not that of the Golden Age, and neither do today’s speakers possess the same view held by those at the time. We must also remember that the power has now shifted and those Arabs of the Golden Age were (in today’s terms) advanced and part of the first world, they were the trendsetters. Arabic language for the modern Arab world is more than just words, more than just Classic or spoken forms- it’s an identity, a culture, a history that for many cannot be forgotten. They fight for the Classic because it defines their history and cultural heritage, and they fight for the Spoken because it is the most authentic way in which to express themselves. As the notable Egyptian writer Naguib mahfouz said in a letter he wrote to luwis Awad: “Language duality is not a problem but an innate ability. It is an accurate reflection of a duality that exists in all of us, a duality between our mundane daily life and our spiritual one” (taken from Reem Bassiouney, 2009, Arabic Linguistics, p.28). So you see the struggle and reality! (I know you’ve read the book). Many Arabic speakers think that any new introductions will only contribute to the destruction of Arabic, that mind and view obviously needs to change.

3. As for the tone of panic for the loss of Arabic and it’s need for protection as if “it’s an Amazonian” tribe (your words!) is perhaps because the minister has had first hand experience of young Arab children not being proficient in their mother tongue. I think for a long time many policy makers were under the impression that as long as children learned to read the Qur’an and as long as they had Arabic speaking parents, then their children would obviously learn Arabic. They did not (esp. in the case of the Gulf) consider the effect of maids (who by the way are not proficient in both Arabic or English, and instead speak a form of pidgin) and other contributing factors during the early stages of language acquisition. And so when they are faced with the true linguistic situation, it may come as a shock, and they lament that Arabic will die and with it Islam! That’s the only reason I can think of why there may be a panic or alarm every time the future of Arabic is spoken about. As for why Islam is also under threat from globalisation, I don’t know, and I don’t think it is. But, it maybe because the Qur’an is in Arabic, and if Arabic dies they think the Qur’an will too; but you are right it is a topic for another post.

Finally, I wanted to address this paragraph you wrote, I am pasting it here: “But is there anything similar in, say, Egypt? A well-defined language level that foreigners can learn, and everyone can use, half-way between the formality of CA and the alleged street-slang of ECA? Well, if the ‘official’ position were true, and CA and ECA were simply different registers of a single all-embracing fuSHa, there would be. But there isn’t. A foreigner like Haeri (or me) has to learn CA and ECA as two different languages, and then learn how to mix them”

There is a variety that is not so formal and not so street-like either, we refer to that as educated Arabic. It uses words from both registers, and speakers usually pronounce most of the case markings, it makes a person look educated yet not too superficial through the use of CA only, and not too informal by using only “spoken” words. You would simply learn how to mix them from how other speakers use this variety, but it does exist. Which brings us back to the question, are they varieties of one language or are they two different languages? I still say they are varieties and not two different languages and that Arabic is in fact diglossic. But it is something as Arabic sociolinguistics, that we are constantly concerned with and interested in, so I think that with more research we may one day fully understand the relationship between the varieties. Thank you again for contributing to this interesting and fruitful discussion about Arabic and globalisation. Please feel free to add your comments below.

I should also welcome new readers and new subscribers, welcome to Arabizi and I hope you will find the posts useful. Wishing everyone a prosperous and wonderful 2014.

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2 responses to “Globalisation- a problem or solution for Arabic?

  1. witchylisa

    December 30, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    I think with Arabic, diglossia makes its survival in a globalized world distinct that any other language would experience. I think the only way we can make a safe prediction about Arabic’s survival as a living language of both social life and local industry/academia is to look at how how other diglossic nations are responding to it now, and more importantly to look into historical sources to see whether the Arabic of the Golden Age was diglossic in the modern sense.

     
    • FatmaS

      December 31, 2013 at 8:58 am

      Yes I agree, and I think that’s what the intention was at the beginning to compare Arabic with Greek since they share some similarities with regards to language and distribution of varieties. Whether diglossia in Greek is the same as it is in Arabic remains to be confirmed, but I think so far I have seen great similarities. And yes diglossia in a globalised world is ironically what helps Arabic be unique in many senses from many other languages that may seem to suffer as a result of globalisation. It’s difficult to predict exactly how Arabic will turn out in the future even if we can compare it to other similar diglossic situations (which are very few, the closest I can think of is Creole, not sure about High German); though it may give us some indication. Arabic has always been diglossic (multiple varieties, with one variety being accepted as the official or prestigious one), even before the revelation of the Qur’an, we know there were many many dialects and the Qurayshi Arabic was the CA of the day. By reading some historical sources of, for example, people’s accounts of travelling to far off lands or of visiting other cities, we often read their comments of the words people of that town use, that are a variants of the same words they use. Some historical accounts even translate the words and say that “this word in this town means such and such and is derived from the original Arabic word of such and such”. So diglossia has always been an integral part of the Arabic language as long as it has existed both pre- and post codification to what we know as Arabic today. But I like your suggestion of finding out what “sense” of diglossia Arabic had in the Golden Age and I think I’ll be looking at that soon. Thanks as always Witchylisa, I appreciate your comments :).

       

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