Is Arabic like Greek? Diglossia and other things

Language and identity and its speakers

Language and identity and its speakers

In June (2013) I blogged about Arabic dialects and the post received much interest from readers either through comments or emails. But one contributor in particular (SLC, you can view his Wiki page here on the Greek diglossic situation) to the comment section was perhaps the most interested in the topic of dialects and their relationship to Classical Arabic (CA) or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, or whichever way one may wish to label it). That interest began a series of emails and comments (you can read the comments here). These comments have become so interesting (and much longer each time) that I asked him if I could blog them as a post and ask other readers to join in and discuss the situation of Arabic dialects as they relate to Classical Arabic (or any other similar diglossic situations).

The questions are quite simple really, 1. is the relationship between the Arabic dialects and the CA or MSA the same as Greek was to its dialect? (see previous comments and the Wiki page above)  2. Are the dialects so different from CA or MSA, so as to say that they are different languages?

You can read the details below ( I have re-blogged the comment without editing) to get a better idea of the Greek situation. SLC has done a great job and selected relevant excerpts and quotes from books he’s read about Arabic and Greek and he attempts to draw parallels.


Thoughts on the parallel between Arabic and the Greek Language Question, part 2 …

Well, I’ve read a bit more and thought a bit more, and first I’ll try to come back on some of the points in your reply. To start with:

“I would not go as far as to say that spoken Arabic is so different from Classical Arabic (CA) or MSA, in the way that Greek differs from its other varieties.”

Hmm. Well, with my own few words of Arabic I couldn’t possibly judge that myself. But here are some quotes about Egyptian Colloquial Arabic suggesting that MSA and ECA, at least, are different enough to be mutually incomprehensible.

I’ve just finished reading ‘Sacred Language, Ordinary People’ (2003) by Niloofar Haeri (she is from a Persian-speaking Muslim background) about the language situation in contemporary Egypt. In her preface she describes arriving in Egypt after learning MSA in graduate school. “Eventually, I went to Egypt to begin my first period of research in 1987-88, and was stunned to discover, like many researchers before me, that I was unequipped to have even a rudimentary conversation in the language. Of course I had been briefly told that the language I was taught was the language of writing and that it was different from the spoken language. But what I had not quite grasped was just how great the differences are.”

Of course Haeri was learning MSA and ECA as second languages, so she was unused to the mixtures of the two that Egyptians grow up with. But the quote does suggest that the two ends of the spectrum are far enough apart to be mutually incomprehensible.

In general Haeri comes across very much like the Greek demoticists of a century ago. In her ‘Conclusion’ she writes: “Preventing it (ECA) from becoming a language of writing and self-expression shows a highly uneasy relation to the self. Children grow up hearing at school and other places that their mother tongue is “weak”, “corrupt”, “has no grammar”, “is the language of donkeys” and so on. ” (p.149) Now that really does sound like Fotiadis and the Educational Association! And on the next page: “But the obligation to disown a central defining aspect of their identity – their mother tongue – when it comes to writing, to creating and evaluating what is or is not knowledge, mediates and intervenes in their relations to themselves and to the world. The censure of Egyptian Arabic from official and national culture, seem to prevent Egypt from tapping its many potentials.” And that sounds exactly like Psycharis and the Greek political demoticists.

Of course you could say that Haeri is an outsider, as a non-native Arabic speaker, and despite her years of study and research might not fully appreciate the Egyptian situation. So my second set of quotes is from ‘Arabic Sociolinguistics’ (2009) by Reem Bassiouney, born and bred in Egypt. On her p.267 she explicitly challenges Haeri’s “highly uneasy relation to the self” description, and concludes that: “Given the cases studied in this book in which the diglossic situation provided an opportunity for speakers to project their identity and leave an effect on their audience, I would consider diglossia, once more, an asset rather than an impediment. … diglossia itself is linguistic diversity, and by eliminating it we are suppressing a linguistic richness in Arab societies.”

In 1880s Greece, then, Bassiouney would fit among the defenders of the status quo like Vernardakis and Hatzidakis. And they did have a point of a kind; to those talented and well-educated enough to really master katharevousa (Papadiamantis, for example), the situation gave an opportunity to interweave narration in the written language with reminiscence in the spoken language and create some great literature. But realistically, there were very few, even among the cultural elite, with the talent and education to exploit this “linguistic richness” in writing, and the result, with its archaic-sounding narration, was not to everyone’s taste.

Bassiouney’s argument for the “linguistic richness” of the current situation would also be far more convincing if all children were taught to read and write their spoken colloquial language as well as the ‘official’ MSA. Everyone could then enjoy the “richness” in writing as well as in speech. (All the positive examples she gives of people “projecting their identity and leaving an effect on their audience” are taken only from spoken Arabic – code-switching between ECA and MSA in TV talk shows and so on – and not from written materials.) It is hard to see how preventing children reading and writing their own spoken native language can enhance the “linguistic richness” of their reading experience.

However, the statement that really struck me in Bassiouney 2009 was on the previous page (p.266) where she writes:

“In a hypothetical world, if each Arab country started using its own colloquial in domains in which SA was used, then in fifty years, all Arab countries would be detached from SA, and the common SA literature which was read by all Arabs would be incomprehensible for a young generation trained only in colloquial.” (Bassiouney uses SA, Standard Arabic, to cover both CA and MSA.)

Here is a plain admission, from an apparent supporter of the use of MSA, that it is so different from colloquial as to be “incomprehensible” to a colloquial speaker. Take this together with Haeri’s evidence from the other direction, that ECA is in practice incomprehensible for a well-educated speaker of MSA, and it does seem that the two are in fact different languages, using mutual incomprehensibility as a common-sense definition of ‘different’. This is exactly the same as the Greek situation, where Ancient Greek and demotic are now different languages.

Of course I know that this is not the official Ministry-of-Culture position. If you challenge such a Minister with Haeri’s statement, that Arab children are all forbidden to read and write their own native language, he will simply reply that MSA really is their native language, just in a more formal register. (I’ll come back to the idea of registers in my next post …) But I think Bassiouney’s picture of a hypothetical colloquial-only future is a very effective touchstone for revealing what people really think. If you then ask the Minister why the schools don’t do what they do in every other country, and teach the children to read and write in the language and register they speak and use every day (in other countries they don’t usually pick up the more formal registers of their own language until their mid-to-late teens, as they begin to encounter social situations in their own lives where those registers are appropriate in speech as well as writing), he would probably say (or at least think) something like: “Are you crazy – if we teach them to write both ECA and MSA, they’ll choose ECA every time, and never learn MSA at all! MSA would be lost in a generation!” This is the point at which my imaginary Minister reveals that he – like Bassiouney – really thinks of ECA and MSA as different, competing languages, and not as complementary registers of the same living language. At heart, he thinks a gain for one would inevitably be a loss for the other.

On your point about there actually being a polyglossic spectrum rather than two separate languages: yes, I know about ‘Educated Spoken Arabic’ and its variations, and about all the practical code-switching that goes on in everyday conversation. Speakers move up and down the ‘spectrum’ all the time, as Bassiouney describes and documents very well. But that’s just in speech, and just among adults. There, spoken Arabic is following exactly the same common-sense path as spoken Greek demotic, and gradually adopting many technical words and turns of phrase from the Classical language.

But in writing, everything seems much more restricted. Most of the polyglossic spectrum (apart from the CA and MSA end) is missing or forbidden, so Bassiouney’s diglossic “linguistic richness” is not available to writers or readers.

And very significantly, it’s in the first 7 years of life (the crucial formative period in which we all learn to love reading – or not) that the diglossia is most clear-cut. Young children speak hardly any MSA yet, so it actually does seem to be true that their spoken dialect is a completely different language from the written MSA they are taught at school (or CA if they attend a local kuttaab, as described by Haeri). There is no useful overlap at all (useful in the sense that they could use their knowledge of the spoken language to predict how the written language will behave). I’ll leave it to others to speculate about the effect this has on literacy learning. My own experience as a teacher suggests that it will make it very difficult for the children to form new written sentences themselves, even with lots of encouragement, and even if they can read quite well.

So, there may be a lot of talk about registers and code-switching and polyglossia in adult life; but in the primary school, where it matters most of all for literacy, Arabic really does seem to be completely diglossic.

This was also true of Greek primary schools before 1880, and for exactly the same reasons. For centuries Greek-language primary education had been run by the Orthodox Church. The only language taught was the Ancient Greek used in the Gospels, and the learning materials were almost all religious texts. The most able went on to work for, or at least with, the Orthodox Church, while the less able who dropped out early would at least know the alphabet so that they could read prayers (though they might not understand the Ancient Greek language of the words they were reciting). This seems very like the traditional Egyptian situation as described by Haeri, where ‘learning to read’ is practically the same thing as ‘learning the Quran’. Although the languages and religious beliefs are quite different, the social frameworks are exactly the same.

I also suspect that this social situation actively discouraged Greek primary-school children from producing new written sentences of their own (quite apart from the technical difficulty of doing that in – effectively – a foreign language). If the only teaching materials were religious texts which it would be blasphemous to alter or even summarise, how could the children ever practise writing original sentences? I don’t suppose the teacher (in those days usually a priest or a monk) was likely to set homework tasks like “Make up a story about Jesus performing a new miracle” or “Invent three new Commandments”. Even re-telling a Gospel story in their own words might well have been regarded as blasphemy (cf the Gospel Riots of 1901). I suspect that ‘writing’ in a pre-1880 Greek primary school was actually confined to just copying out the texts, or writing them out from memory.

Again, we can only speculate about the effect this had on literacy learning, but it can’t have been good. It’s only when we write our own thoughts for ourselves that we really start to feel ownership of our written language. Of course in Greece the more talented did grow up to express their thoughts in written katharevousa, but that was when they were much older. To really own a written language you need to start writing in your own words during the language-acquisition years (roughly ages 1 – 7). If you start doing it later, it will always feel as if you’re writing a language belonging to someone else. It’s a bit like the way learning a second language later always feels different from learning your native one(s) in those early years.

Of course the Orthodox Church was well aware of this. After all, the teachers had all been through the same system themselves. But they were quite happy to turn out generations of students who felt that writing itself belonged to the Church and not to the people; that policy had helped the Church maintain its political position for centuries.

Later on in their education the brighter pupils would meet the pagan writers of Classical Greece, but that doesn’t seem to have given them any more sense of ownership. They just felt that the written language now belonged to Homer, Sophocles and Plato as well as to the Church, and still not to them. Writers felt alienated from their own written language, but hated to admit it because that language had such a glorious past. It was only the inconsistency and incompetence of their use of katharevousa that revealed that it still felt like a foreign, second, language to them.

For the first few decades of Greek Independence (say 1830 – 80) the authorities were content to leave this system in place, quite logically, because it was official policy that katharevousa (and maybe even Ancient Greek itself) would soon become the universal spoken language of Greater Greece. In that case, the children would again be writing in school the same language they spoke at home, and the alienation problem would disappear naturally. It was only around 1880 that it became generally recognised that none of this was really going to happen, and that the educational system was therefore seriously flawed.

I’ll leave it to you and your other readers to judge how much of this also applies to Arabic today.

I think it’s also worth pointing out just how unusual the Arabic and pre-1917 Greek primary education situations are. Four things are happening:

a) Pupils are forbidden to read or write the language they speak themselves.

b) They are taught to read and write a different, learned language.

c) This learned language has no living native speakers.

d) The materials for new readers are often religious texts that cannot serve as models for the children’s own writing.

This is quite an extreme situation. For example, the teaching of Latin in Western, Catholic Europe was never like this, because (a) and (d) didn’t apply. As for (a), literacy in one’s native language always went hand-in-hand with learning Latin. And for (d), the model texts have always been non-religious things like history (Caesar and Tacitus), letters and speeches (Cicero), and poetry (Virgil and Horace), not one of them Christian, and all chosen for their purity of style, which students were encouraged to emulate. Even though the Catholic Church might have sponsored much of the teaching, written Latin was never felt to be the property of the Church.

As for point (a), perhaps “forbidden” is the wrong word. Bassiouney (p.267) makes it clear that Egyptian children do not experience this as any kind of prohibition; it’s not as if they were constantly sneaking off to write ECA and being punished for it. Instead, children generally take the adult world as they find it, and just accept that spoken ECA belongs in one “domain”, while writing belongs in another different “domain” (Bassiouney’s word for it). They then retain this attitude throughout their lives; it seems natural to them, even if it seems extraordinary to non-Arabic speakers who have grown up reading and writing their own spoken languages, and take for granted the freedom to do so.

This again is exactly the same as the situation in Greece in 1830-80. People thought of writing as part of a “domain” belonging to the Orthodox Church and the Ancients, and even professional writers felt like intruders there, constantly afraid of getting into trouble for making grammatical mistakes. Less talented school pupils must have felt even more excluded. It was a completely different world from that of everyday demotic speech where everybody felt at home.

Well, I’ve only come back on one point so far, and this post is already much too long. But there is so much to say …

What I would really like is some more feedback. As you know, I’m very much a beginner in the Arabic side of things, and I need to know if I’m getting that about right. To an Arabic speaker, does the Arabic situation feel like the Greek one?



Functions and domains of each variety in a diglossic situation

Functions and domains of each variety in a diglossic situation

Thank you SLC for that wonderful and very informative response, I am learning a lot about Greek! Thank you also for quoting from my two favourite books (Bassiouney and Haeri). I will not make this response too long, as I would really like others to join in, and yes there is always too much to say, and I always say when it comes to language we will blog forever- quite literally.

I will take the points you listed about Greek and try to compare those to the Arabic situation today, I am listing my response right next to your original points (italicised here):

a) Pupils are forbidden to read or write the language they speak themselves: Like you said “forbidden” is a strong word, it is generally frowned upon and not encouraged. I don’t think the “suppression” of the spoken forms is like that of Greek, it’s all a matter of ideology, and how native Arabic speakers come to view and consequently treat their language. Those who wish to write their variety do so, and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have allowed that to become widespread. Before the advent of social media, songs in Arabic were/still are almost always in one variety or another with only very few exceptions in FuSHa (CA/MSA).

b) They are taught to read and write a different, learned language: “Different” again is too strong a word, but let’s not forget that learning Arabic in school in Morocco is not like learning it in Damascus or in Dubai! Each case is different, and I for one cannot generalise I can only go with what I know, through experience and study. For some students (depending on their dialect) it might well be a NEW language, and to others a very similar one, it would be great to do research on each case, the we’d really be able to answer this question well.

c) This learned language has no living native speakers: This is exactly like Arabic.

d) The materials for new readers are often religious texts that cannot serve as models for the children’s own writing: Yes and no, there are great materials in CA for children due to recent efforts to make the language accessible to learners and young children. Many people learning Arabic (MSA or CA) usually watch children’s cartoons to improve their diction and grammar, and these are in pure CA. Religious texts are almost always in Classical Arabic, though there are both texts and religious speeches now in both CA and spoken Arabic (See for example, Bassiouney’s (2013) new article here on code-switching in religious talk).

But as I said previously this is one of those very complex issues, as you are just discovering, and people (both laymen and academics) can argue for both sides. I see some similarities between Arabic now and Greek pre-1917, however, I am not sure that Arabic is so precisely the same.

I think that negative attitudes are changing, and the reference to these being the languages of “donkeys” is not shared by all, and perhaps in part due to satellite television and other factors (I am deliberately avoiding “education” as a reason for positive attitudes, because I think that it’s too essentialist to assume that). Satellite TV  has allowed millions of Arabs to be exposed to other Arabics they never knew of before, and before the advent of TV it was only the well-travelled Arabs who would return to their native lands and recount among other things, the discoveries they made about the Arabic of other Arabs. But now that has changed, there are even shows that teach non-dialect speakers how to speak in such and such a dialect. Surprisingly though, that teaching takes place through CA or MSA, for instance, a sentence is presented in MSA and its equivalent in ECA or Levantine Arabic is given.  I can see Bassiouney’s point about the “richness” of the dialects, it is what makes Arabic, what Arabic is. It is a language that has a unique, even if a contentious, relationship with its dialects, but that’s how it has been for many centuries.

Did you know that CA as we know it today (and in going with the fact that it is based on Qur’anic Arabic) was once a dialect itself? It was the Qurayshi dialect, that became standardised for the obvious reason that it was now a sacred language, language of the Qur’an (see Mustafa Shah’s 2008 informative essay on this here). So, Arabic philosophically is not against dialects and varieties per se, as long as CA or MSA remains in tact untouched and free of mistakes (referred to as ‘Lahn’ in the grammar books).

I think if Haeri had taken her trip to Damascus instead of Egypt, her experience would have been so different, she would have perhaps said that her CA improved. She might have gone as far as claiming that CA actually does have native speakers! This is because it all depends on ideology, national language policies, agendas and how people eventually form opinions about their languages. Some Arabic speakers are comfortable with the fact that their variety is not written or used for official purposes; whilst others prefer to use their variety, and would welcome a change.

What do other readers think? Is the Arabic diglossic situation like that of Greek? Can we say the dialects are so different from FuSHa (CA/MSA) that they are different languages altogether? Comments are welcome, thank you for reading, and thank you SLC once again.


Fight for Arabic? But which Arabic?

arabic dialectsWith the current concern for the loss or weakening of the Arabic language among some scholars, one question pops to mind….which Arabic are they talking about? Egyptian? Yemeni? Oh but is it Sana’ani or Southern Yemeni? And even within the south which dialect, which style? Which words? Or is it Syrian or Saudi Arabic? Which Arabic really is deserving of being saved?

should we ignore dialects just because they are unwritten (at least most of them, but egyptian Arabic and others can be found in print)? Should  we only concern ourselves with the Fusha (Classical or Quranic Arabic) or MSA (Modern standard Arabic) which many people in day to day conversation do not use (unless they are teaching, reading the news to viewers etc….). Arabic is a complex language, as I am sure you already know that, but if there are claims it is weakening the obvious thought is, “well let’s strengthen it then”. Yes but which Arabic?

While I sit here with all these hundreds of people passing by me, others sat down near me, others saudi dialectseating and talking, each is using language in one way or other. Through conversation (some even being annoyingly loud!), some texting, or blogging, or writing they are communicating and their only wish is to send a message across effectively, so should the type or style of the language matter? Is not the most important thing that the other person (recipient of the message) understand the words, meanings and inferences of the speaker (or communicator)? I think yes. That is key to language, and how it has evolved in history to what we understand it to be today. People have always to a huge extent affected language use, through contact with other people and their languages or through their own natural development and movement through time, their use of language has become accepted and standardised.  Should we apply the same principle and reasoning to the Arabic language, and consider all dialects as worthy of being part of the Arabic language, and therefore worthy of being fought for? I think yes, we are our languages! What do you think? Do you think that dialects weaken Arabic in any way? Something to think about, a matter I think about a lot…..

Just thought I’d share a quick thought that I’ve just had because of sitting somewhere where so many people from all parts of the world are surrounding me….naturally language, its dynamics and role came to mind and more specifically the case of the Arabic language.