The Many Varieties of Arabic

By: Inoljt,

If you’ve ever read a speech, you’re probably aware that there is quite a difference between written English and spoken English. Spoken English is generally quite relaxed, often ignoring grammatical rules. Written English, on the other hand, is quite formal. Most written speeches would sound quite awkward if used in casual conversation.

This situation is not unique to English. Many languages, in fact, have more formal written than spoken forms. Indeed, many of these take the formality much further than English.

Arabic seems to be one of these languages. If there is a gap between written and spoken English, then there is a chasm between written and spoken Arabic. Written Arabic has had centuries more time to develop than English; therefore the dialects of Arabic are far more different (and harder to comprehend for an Arabic speaker) than the different accents of English. Imagine if all French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish-speakers still wrote in modernized Latin. That basically seems to be the situation with Arabic today.

There appear to be multiple levels of “formalness” in Arabic; the language gradually goes from extremely formal to extremely casual. There is classical Arabic, the “holy” language of the Koran. There is Modern Standard Arabic, which is used for formal written occurrences (e.g. speeches). There is the somewhat formal Arabic used in formal spoken situations and between Arabic-speakers from different countries. Finally, there is the language of the street – the many mutually incomprehensible dialects of Arabic that most people use in daily life. Unlike English, there are grammatical differences between each of these styles of Arabic. Indeed, one could make the argument that the different dialects of Arabic actually constitute separate languages, except with the same written form.

During the Arab Revolutions, there were several fascinating examples of this system. Most speeches in Arabic seem to use Modern Standard Arabic, which is quite different from the language of the street. This is true both in pronunciation and grammar, unlike the case in English.

However, some dictators attempted to add a bit of local dialect when addressing the populace. Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, instead of speaking in the formal Modern Standard Arabic (as is the norm), decided to speak in the Tunisian dialect. More recently Saif Al Islam Gaddafi (the son of Muammar Gaddafi), in a speech to the Libyan people, stated:

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.

On the other hand, it seems that – despite his words – Mr. Gaddafi’s speech was mostly not in the Libyan dialect of Arabic, but rather the normal Modern Standard Arabic.

Not all dictators followed this route. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak never used the Eygptian dialect in his speeches to the people, preferring the more formal standard Arabic.

Now, none of this probably had a significant effect on the Arab Revolutions. Both Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Ben Ali fell from power, despite their different approaches to speechifying. Other factors are far more important than the form of Arabic that a dictator decides to use when making a speech.

Nevertheless, the difference between written and spoken Arabic is still a fascinating topic to explore. Many English speakers (and probably speakers of other languages too) naively assume that all languages are like English. This is not in fact true. As the example of Arabic shows, English is far more standardized and less diverse than most currently prominent languages. Exploring the difference between English and other languages remains a fascinating subject.



A Textbook Example of Media Embellishment

I recently wrote a post title: The Great Twitter/Facebook Revolution Fallacy. This post noted that:

For some strange reason, the American media has always been obsessed with Twitter and Facebook…

This applies to foreign affairs as well. In the context of the events occurring in the Middle East, the Western media loves to argue that Twitter and Facebook constitute catalysts for revolution in the modern era. Indeed, some articles called the 2009 Iranian protests the “Twitter Revolution.”

It then went on to argue that, in fact, Twitter and Facebook played a negligible role in the Arab revolutions, given the very very few individuals in those countries who use Twitter or Facebook (let alone have access to the Internet in the first place).

In fact, given that the Internet was blocked for much of the Egyptian protests, it’s safe to say that Twitter and Facebook had absolutely no role in the Egyptian revolution during its most crucial period. Neverthess, many still insist that the revolution could not have happened without sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Let’s add Youtube to the list.

America’s media has always exaggerated the role that Youtube plays in spreading political change and unrest. A few days ago, the New York Times wrote an article titled Qaddafi Youtube Spoof By Israeli Gets Arab Fans. This article was an inspiring story about how:

A YouTube clip mocking Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s megalomania is fast becoming a popular token of the Libya uprising across the Middle East. And in an added affront to Colonel Qaddafi, it was created by an Israeli living in Tel Aviv…

Mr. Alooshe, who at first did not identify himself on the clip as an Israeli, started receiving enthusiastic messages from all around the Arab world. Web surfers soon discovered that he was a Jewish Israeli from his Facebook profile — Mr. Alooshe plays in a band called Hovevey Zion, or the Lovers of Zion — and some of the accolades turned to curses. A few also found the video distasteful.

But the reactions have largely been positive, including a message Mr. Alooshe said he received from someone he assumed to be from the Libyan opposition saying that if and when the Qaddafi regime fell, “We will dance to ‘Zenga-Zenga’ in the square.”

It sounds great. Isreali-Arab friendship. Fun being made of Libya’s dictator. And most importantly, the rising influence of the new media.

There’s just one thing wrong with this picture.

Notice how, in the comments section of the video, everything is in English. At the moment this post was being written, this individual scrolled through eleven pages before seeing one comment in Arabic.

If this Youtube video is so popular with Arab fans (as the article’s title implies), how come there are no comments in, you know, Arabic?

Perhaps the number of viewers from the English world swamped the Arab world after the Times published the article. But the earliest comments, made article was published, are largely English. Of the first 100 comments, only 15 were written in Arabic.

It doesn’t take much searching to find a video with a mainly Arabic-speaking audience. Here is one example, of an apparently popular musician. About 90% of the comments are written in Arabic. Contrast that with the Zenga Zenga video, in which the amount of Arabic in the most recent commentary approaches zero percent.

One wonders how the Times journalist came upon this video and concluded that it was a hit amongst Arabs. Perhaps the author saw the video and thought it was cool. Maybe the author had an urgent deadline and needed to bullshit an article.

But whatever the truth, it is almost certain that the Zenga Zenga video is far more popular in America than it is in the Middle East.




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