Monday, August 16, 2010

Standard Arabic Is Alive And Well And Is Here To Stay

This posting is a sequel to the one posted on this blog two days ago under the title "'Linguistic Democratization' of the Arabic Language is not the Way" and which was written in response to an article that was published in the English language UAE-based newspaper The National, titled "The death of Arabic is greatly exaggerated", by author of the Lebanese politics Qifa Nabki blog Elias Muhanna. My posting resulted in additional interesting discussion, including comments by Elias Muhanna (including this comment, and this comment) and by Benjamin Geer (including this comment and this comment). You can read my replies here, here and here.

In one of his comments, Benjamin Geer commented on the situation of Fus'ha (Modern Standard) Arabic in Egypt (in response to my comments on the situation in Syria) by saying:
"As you’re probably aware, the situation in Egypt is very different from what you describe. It’s very rare, in my experience, to find an Egyptian intellectual who is comfortable speaking fusha. This is reflected when Egyptians participate in debates on Arab satellite TV: while a Moroccan participant will speak fusha, an Egyptian participant typically speaks only in Egyptian dialect. Moreover, this seems to cause no problems in practice." 
In my reply, I attempted to speculate on why this may be the case:
 "[--] I am aware of the situation of Fus’ha amongst Egyptians. But I do not see that as a flaw in Fus’ha Arabic. I see it as the result of how the Egyptian educational system sets its priorities. I always get the feeling that there is less public emphasis in Egypt on pan-Arabism (and as result on Fus’ha Arabic), when compared to the situation in other Arabic countries, such as Syria (or even Libya or Algeria, to mention other examples). There is celebration in Egypt of ‘Egyptness’, if you will, more than there is of pan-Arabism. And that perhaps is reflected in how Arabic is used in public life and education in that country. Fus’ha Arabic, in comparison, is nurtured at a very young age in the Syrian educational system, and the emphasis persists throughout the stages of learning of Syrian students all the way until — and including — university education. All specialties and fields in the public Syrian universities (including higher education) are taught in Fus’ha Arabic. All the curricula are in Arabic. As I mentioned previously, I studied medicine in Syria in Arabic, for example (cf. medicine is taught in English in Egypt and many other Arabic countries). But not only that. Fus’ha Arabic is also celebrated in the media and in public life in Syria. Yes, you do see the local dialects celebrated in the widely popular Syrian drama works that have made the Syrian dialect(s) familiar to other Arabs, for example, but you also find Fus’ha Arabic widely used and supported officially in Syria in the media and in other public life activities. There is no online Syrian portal that I know of that writes in colloquial Syrian. And for the readers of this blog to see how (and what kind of ) Fus’ha prevails as a language of communication in Syria, all you have to do is look at some Syrian websites, as examples (such as or There is no way that any literate Syrian — who is living in or who grew up in Syria — would find difficulty in reading the sort of Standard Arabic used in the likes of the websites mentioned above."
 In the same comment Benjamin Geer further wrote:
Why do you see a need for a single standardized written language? Isn’t the purpose of language to enable people to understand each other? If a Jordanian can understand Egyptian dialect, and an Egyptian can understand Jordanian dialect (at least when it is somewhat formal, or “moderate”, as you put it), why shouldn’t each person speak and write in their own dialect?
Moreover, hasn’t this already been happening for a long time? Egyptian films are popular all over the Arab world. Throughout the twentieth century, most Egyptian writers have written narrative in fusha and dialogue in ammiyya. Therefore, it is necessary to know Egyptian dialect in order to understand most modern Egyptian literature. Where is the “chaos” in this? Why should Egyptians struggle to master fusha when everyone already understands their dialect anyway?
My response to that included the following:

Dialects in the Arab World.

Photo Credit: Arab League. Shared under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license
"[-] Let’s first start by looking at a map showing the different dialects of Arabic in the Arab World [-] . To my mind, just looking at that map makes me think that your suggestion is impractical. Yes, most Arabs understand the Egyptian dialect when it is spoken, thanks to the popularity of Egyptian television and cinema works in the past decades, but Egyptian dialect does not come in one flavor. There is “Egyptian Arabic” and there is “Sai’di Arabic” and there are probably some variants of both. I do not see it as practical that you adopt a policy in which everyone officially writes in their own dialects. But even if you want to do that, you will need standardization. You cannot in any language have people just spelling words or writing sentences any way they like. If you look at how Arabs write in their spoken dialects in social media, you will see that their spellings are so variable, and your understanding of their text will depend largely on your knowledge of their dialect and your interpretive skills that will allow you to read correctly what the writer intended to say by their spelling (based on the context of the topic they are addressing). This is hardly a recipe for success. You will eventually need standardization in the written language, and good luck standardizing the writing of the soup of Arabic dialects we have in the Arab World. Moreover, what do the other Arabs, whose dialects are so unfamiliar to other Arabs, do? How are others going to understand them if they write in their own dialect (provided that they decide on which dialect or variation thereof to adopt, and that they standardize the writing in it)?
My problem in accepting your reasoning is that I see Fus’ha Arabic in action elsewhere and all over the place. Fus’ha is the standard version of Arabic. Yes. Arabic is diglossic, but that is the nature of the language. If there are deficiencies in how some Arabs are learning or using the language, the flaw is not in the language, but rather in the people and in the educational systems. Fus’ha Arabic (and not any other dialect) is the officially recognized language in the United Nations and other international bodies. It is the language of media and literature. It is a beautiful and expressive language that is deeply rooted in Arabic culture and history. Abandoning Fus’ha Arabic and replacing it with the written colloquial or any beautified version of the latter to make it look and sound close to Fus’ha will not succeed. One reason for this may also be that religion is important in the traditionally conservative Arabic societies in most Arabic countries, and you would see, if you flip through the Arabic satellite channels in the current month of Ramadan, that Fus’ha Arabic is not only the language of communication of news and other educational and informational programming, but it is also the main version of Arabic used in religious programming and religious speech. That will definitely not change."
One of the points raised by Elias Muhanna was that being able to read and comprehend Fu'sha Arabic is not the same as being able to write in grammatically correct Fus'ha:
"Receptive competencies are different than productive competencies. It’s one thing to be able to read a newspaper, but it’s quite another to be able to write a newspaper article, or even a grammatically correct Facebook message!"
This is true, but is it really a reasonable expectation that all Arabic-speakers should be equally good Arabic language writers? This is how I said that in my comment:
"[--] not all Arabs really, need to be professional writers, who are proficient in writing excellent and perfect Fus’ha Arabic. Not all Americans, for example, are proficient in writing essays or novels in English. Why should our expectation be different for Arabic speakers?"
At the end of my comment, I mentioned the Arabic-language drama series Thākirat al-Jasad which is currently showing on Arabic TVs.
"It may be too early to tell, but I would like to mention as an example, that the Arabic television series Thākirat al-Jasad [Memory in the Flesh] (based on the book by Algerian author Ahlam Mosteghanemi) showing this month on some Arabic channels like Abu Dhabi TV, uses Fus’ha as its language [-], and the series appears to me to be quite popular amongst Arab viewers. I wonder if there are many Arabs watching that series who find the language to be difficult. I strongly doubt it.
Fus’ha is alive and well and is here to stay, and the only way forward, in my opinion, is to improve the systems and the curricula that teach it."

Actors in the Arabic language series Thākirat al-Jasad speak Modern Standard Arabic

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