The Arabic Language Puzzle

I was startled when my four-day writers’ workshop in Beirut devoted two whole nights to Arabic grammar. These are educated people, fluent in Arabic as their mother tongue.  They weren’t, as far as I could understand, playing grammar games like English majors sometimes do, making much of he and him and me and I. No, they told me, it is a lifelong battle to learn proper Arabic, and they were glad to spend two nights with an expert teacher, refining their knowledge.

I’ve been asking Arabic speakers about Arabic, and here’s what I’ve learned so far. The Arabic of the streets bears little resemblance to the modern standard Arabic learned in school. That in turn bears little resemblance to the classic Arabic of the Koran, the mosque, and the formal rhetoric of politics and preaching. The difference between what people speak everyday and what they learn at school (and use in almost all written communication) is so profound that when children first go to school it is as though they must learn a second language.

There’s a word for this: diglossia. It happens in other languages. Creole, for example, is closely related to French but the two are mutually incomprehensible. Everybody grows up knowing Creole, but the educated master French.

Such situations are usually quite local. Arabic, though, embraces an entire region and a widespread ethnicity. And it raises the question for me: does diglossia help explain the low literacy rates and general underdevelopment of the Arabic world?

It is not easy to learn what amounts to a second language in order to go to elementary school. Even if you do learn that second language well enough to pass a class, you don’t necessarily become a nuanced speaker and writer. Most importantly, you may never enjoy reading and writing.

Furthermore, diglossia supports a rigid class system. If you aren’t educated, it’s immediately and glaringly obvious when you open your mouth. In fact, according to an article on Wikipedia some Arabs cannot even understand the speeches they hear on radio and television, because politicians use modern standard Arabic. The uneducated are cut off from political involvement.

Nevertheless, nobody I’ve talked to chafes against these language expectations. To the contrary, they are all admirers of the beautiful poetic language of the Koran, the language, according to many Muslims, that God speaks. And they don’t fret at spending two nights of their week wrestling with grammar. They do it voluntarily.

Modern standard Arabic unites Arabs across many regions, just as Latin once unified people throughout the Roman Catholic church. (It’s no accident that both Islam and Catholicism emphasize the fundamental unity of the “ummah” or the “one holy catholic apostolic church,” despite great regional and theological differences.) There are surely advantages in that unity. But what if you are unified in something that holds you back? For us English-speakers, language is a medium of communication. It bends to us, not we to it. The language we speak is constantly changing, it has a million regional variations, and what people speak is also what they write.  That flexibility may be one reason, ironically, why English has supported globalization, bringing people together.

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3 Responses to “The Arabic Language Puzzle”

  1. John Brandkamp Says:

    You bring up some fascinating and obviously controversial issues of “official” versus “street” language that I hadn’t thought about. Thanks for the insight. This may have important political and civilizational consequences.

  2. James Says:

    This is exceptional. The neo-Whorfian hypothesis seems to be following me around, starting with an intriguing article in the Stanford alumni magazine.

    Thanks for a great post.

  3. James Says:

    missing link: “http://languageevolution.wordpress.com/2008/03/22/cool-neo-whorfian-stuff/”

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