Arabic is a “Semitic language first attested by inscriptions in the Arabian peninsula from about the 5th century BC carried by the expansion of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries AD to a large area across the southern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and thence, as a language of religion especially, much wider. Written in a North Semitic alphabet, in origin purely consonantal, but with marks for vowels added in the 8th century.
The language of the Koran is Classical Arabic, and modern Arabic-speaking communities are in the main diglossic, with a range of variation between ‘Modern Standard Arabic’, a form of Classical Arabic with a modernized vocabulary, and one of many national or local ‘dialects’. At sufficient distances these dialects are mutually unintelligible.” So says the Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics.
Are language, dialect, Classical, Modern Standard, the 8th century and the MENA what we talk about when we talk about Arabic?
Leaving aside the problem of assessing a foreign language (the Arabic, Semitic) using another’s (the English, Indo-European) terminology and concepts, when we discuss Arabic, we use terms that rely on many an assumption. I have always found the adjectives chosen to describe the Arabic language strikingly tortuous and contradictory. Modern Standard Arabic? Is Modern meant as contemporary, as in the Arabic used today? What of ‘Standard’? If ‘Standard’ refers to ‘standardised’ then it is referring to 12th century Arabic scholasticism during which the grammatical rules of Arabic were fixed. If Standard is indeed a shortcut for ‘standardised in 12th century’ then ‘Modern’ in the sense of contemporary creates an incongruity: contemporary old Arabic? If Standard means regular, the compound would stand for ‘a regular type of contemporary Arabic’. What kind of linguistic descriptions are these!
What of the Classical attribute? The term ‘Classical’ is a Western reference to its own time line, and to its own notion of a golden era. ‘Classical’ is not appropriate for a non-Western time line. Arabic had already shifted by the 8th century, early grammatical treatises attest to that. Arabic continued to develop synchronically during the 8th century also, it did not remain static; that is the nature of languages, they shift, they change. The 8th-12th century does not correspond to a Classical era in the Arabic tradition. ‘Classical’ does not communicate an appropriate synchronic description of Arabic, nor a diachronic one. It freezes Arabic within a timeframe that is foreign and temporally misplaced. The result of the kind of Arabic early and medieval grammarians were attempting to describe and categorise, and later, from the 12th century had to standardise for didactic purposes cannot be aptly described by ‘Classical’. ‘Classical’ can indeed signify traditional, conventional, orthodox, established, and this array of meanings infers Arabic belongs to a fixed, rigid, frozen dimension. Languages are not motionless. Arabic has not been motionless. Why is it that we do not refer to Arabic as we refer to other languages: describing them diachronically. Why do we not designate Arabic according to its place in time: Ancient Arabic, old Arabic, middle Arabic, Arabic?
Classical Arabic and Modern Standard are not even translations of what Arabic calls itself. Both are foreign labels born out of a need to try and apprehend a language system most elusive.
Arabic in Arabic
Arabic in Arabic responds to two titles. It bears a crown name: fuṣḥā (the eloquent and pure), and a birth name: al-3arabiya (the Arabic). The great dictionaries of Arabic lexicography, the All-Encompassing Ocean (Qamous al-Muhit), and the Tongue of the Arabs (Lisan al-3arab) define al-3arabiya, as ‘the language of the Arabs’. Now, this is one clear definition. Fuṣḥā is an adjective meaning eloquent, and grammatically and semantically it describes a certain kind of Arabic.
Early and Medieval grammarians (8th to 12th century) were engaged in preserving and analysing this specific Arabic: fuṣḥā. Eloquent and pure is to be understood as that which respects the grammatical rules observed occurring in this particular language system, it is not a reference to ethnic purity. Fuṣḥā was first observed and examined. Then, the rules it seemed to live by were laid out in grammatical treatises, and as time went on and as the number of new Arabic speakers (non-native and native) grew these rules became increasingly prescriptive. The geographical area where Arabic was being taken was growing fast and a certain type of fuṣḥā was being codified. Fuṣḥā and Arabic should not have become the amalgamated notion for a single speech phenomenon. Fuṣḥā is one manifestation of an Arabic whose origin still remains to be elucidated. Fuṣḥā is an adjective after all, to identify, not a speech register, but a specific linguistic system responding to particular grammatical rules. Fuṣḥā is not the origin of Arabic. Fuṣḥā is perhaps to be located between pre-islamic poetry and the revelation of Quran. These two terms, Arabic and fuṣḥā could help differentiate between a language whose origin we are still tracing (Arabic), and a language, part of a group and varieties for which we have written evidence (fuṣḥā). These two birth points (Arabic and the qualifier fuṣḥā) should be disassociated. Because the orthodox Abrahamic narrative focuses on an Arabic placed at the origin of a community’s birth (the muslim umma), and because this focus has been the most prominent not to say the loudest, Arabic is often treated as the divine: its origin is certain, it is not to be questioned. The origin of language was much debated between the 8th–10th century. The debate was not about the origin of Arabic, it questioned the origin of human speech. What a wretched development that such debates and critical inquiries have not continued.
The confusion or conflagration of two points of origin (origin of a religious community and origin of an entire language system) gave birth to a fuṣḥā fixation and a ‘dialectal’ inhibition.
Let us confess, yes, speakers of Arabic ‘dialects’ carry with them the fuṣḥā complex. And it is a manufactured complex. This neurosis was created internally, during the Arab expansion and invasion, perhaps as early as the 12th century, and was reinforced pre- and post-decolonisation by Arab states. While the formulation of the neurosis came from an external source, outside the borders of the state – yes from my East I am indeed pointing westwards.
Where does our dialectal inhibition come from and what does its reasoning sound like?
In Arabic, several words mean dialect or vernacular, Arabic is rich that way we know. 3amiyya is a term used by Egyptians to refer to the Egyptian ‘dialect’. Lahja is one of the terms used in the Levant to refer to the region’s ‘dialects’. Derja is the term used in North Africa to designate the Algerian and Moroccan ‘dialects’. These different terms are used to mean a dialect yet they refer to a language. What? Are they not languages for you? Let’s look at how ‘experts’ formulate the language/dialect concepts.
The terms ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ remain problematic in Western linguistics and in Arabic studies. In the 6th edition of A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics (David Crystal) we find:
Language: “…. At its most specific level, it may refer to the concrete act of speaking, writing or signing (see SIGN language) in a given situation – the notion of PAROLE, or PERFORMANCE […] A particular VARIETY, or LEVEL, of speech/writing may also be referred to as ‘language’ (e.g. ‘scientific language’, ‘bad language’), and this is related to the SOCIOLINGUISTIC or STYLISTIC restrictiveness involved in such terms as ‘trade language’ (see PIDGIN), the teaching of ‘languages for special purposes’ (in APPLIED LINGUISTICS), etc.
The notion of language may be seen both in a synchronic sense (e.g. ‘the English language today’) and a DIACHRONIC sense (e.g. ‘the English language since Chaucer’). Higher-order groupings can be made, as in such notions as the ‘Romance languages’ ‘CREOLE languages’. All of these examples would fall under the heading of ‘natural languages’ – a term which contrasts with the artificially constructed systems used to expound a conceptual area (e.g. ‘formal’, ‘logical’, ‘computer’ languages) or to facilitate communication (e.g. Esperanto).”
This definition of language, abstract as it is (parole, diachrony, synchrony) relies on a notion of variety. This could go some way to help delimitate the two concepts language/dialect but ‘variety’ is also used to define dialects.
Dialect: “A regionally or socially distinctive VARIETY of language, identified by a particular set of WORDS and GRAMMATICAL STRUCTURES. Spoken dialects are usually also associated with a distinctive pronunciation, or ACCENT. Any language with a reasonable large number of speakers will develop dialects, especially if there are geographical barriers separating groups of people from each other, or if there are divisions of social class. One dialect may predominate as the official or STANDARD form of the language, and this is the variety which may come to be written down. The distinction between ‘dialect’ and ‘language’ seems obvious: dialectas are subdivisions of languages. What linguistics (and especially SOCIOLINGUISTICS) has done is to point to the complexity of the relationship between these notions. It is usually said that people speak different languages when they do not understand each other. But the so-called ‘dialects’ of Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc) are mutually unintelligible in their spoken form. (They do, however, share the same written language [surely, what is meant here is that they share the same script], which is the main reason why one talks of them as ‘dialects of Chinese’). [OUR EMPHASIS]
‘Dialect’ is also sometimes applied to the linguistically distinct historical stages through which a language has passed, and here the term historical or temporal dialect might be used, e.g. Elizabethan English, seventeenth-century British English.”
This definition of dialect is most relevant for Arabic. First, the way Chinese ‘dialects’ are referred to is significant (and on a side note, it pleases me no end to find the mention “so-called dialects” in a specialist dictionary entry since that is exactly what it is: a model based on an alleged concept. We are told that languages are recognisable because they are mutually unintelligible. Our Arabic ‘dialects’ are mutually unintelligible the further geographically located they are. Couldn’t it mean that Arabic ‘dialects’ are languages then? The understanding of Arabic dialects among Arabic speakers depends on the exposure of the hearer to these tongues, notwithstanding that Arabic dialects are genetically related to fuṣḥā. Understanding an Arabic ‘dialect’ does not depend only on the similarity of the ‘dialect’ itself to a ‘source’ language but having been exposed to it enough to pick it up.
Perhaps the most crucial part of this definition of dialect for assessing the case of Arabic is “One dialect may predominate as the official or STANDARD form of the language, and this is the variety which may come to be written down.” This is indeed what has happened with fuṣḥā. From the time of revelation, one version of Arabic was favoured. Arabic grammatical treatises of the 8th to 10th century contain many examples of other kind of usages that deviate from what was an expected form. These unusual syntactical and semantic examples were not in wide use. We also know that there existed the sab3a qira’at, seven readings, of Quran (revealed in seven ahruf) that attested to at least seven accents and dialectal variations with the reading (and writing) of Quran eventually standardised. The Bedouins were held to speak a variety of fuṣḥā that was the representative of a certain kind of Arabic. We can trace through the grammatical treatises that have come down to us that fuṣḥā, over at least 4 centuries (8th-12th) was both undergoing change and evolving in the form we mostly know today, and that what we now consider ‘exceptions’ were once considered only as uncommon and remnant of a better clearer (more eloquent) language. With time, different semantic usages and different grammatical features of an evolving fuṣḥā were classed as ‘exceptions’. Written Arabic shows that there were and are three spheres intertwined: Arabic, fuṣḥā and ‘dialects’.
So, is Arabic a language or a dialect? Is fuṣḥā a language or a dialect? Are our dialects, well, dialects? Let’s leave dictionary entries and inquire into the mind of the layman. For many Western laymen, myself included, and for many of us Complexed-of-the-Tongue (Arabic dialect speakers) ‘language’ mostly refers to an official, general and wide-ranging use of speech while a ‘dialect’ is regional, with a more restricted use. Thus, the word ‘language’ carries a positive connotation, and wears a formal respectable social cloak, while a dialect carries a neutral to negative connotation.
Let us explore etymologies.
‘Language’ is a Latin word that simply means ‘tongue’ (lingua). ‘Dialect’ is a word of Greek origin and simply means ‘talk, conversation, speech’ (dialektos). We note that the positive term is of Latin origin while the negative connotation is carried by the Greek. The negative-Greek versus the positive-Latin is amusing. It is a telling example of how our choice of words and the concepts they carry are still predisposed to promoting ancient Rome’s world view and the Roman sense of cultural superiority. Rome’s inheritors are still squashing the Greeks daily.
Inquiring a little further into our unqualified minds (ok, my unqualified mind), we seem to interpret a ‘dialect’ as a variety whose dimension is principally oral. A dialect is often equated with the unwritten and with being difficult to render in writing. This assumed un-writable characteristic is a further sign of weakness and a failing according to a certain Western tradition that implicitly holds a worthy ‘tongue’ and therefore culture is one which is written. The Western tradition is not the only one to hierarchically class the written above the oral. The Arabic tradition born in the 8th century rests on ‘iqra’, not the TV channel but the divine order that told us to ‘read!’. It thus encouraged the addressees to start writing in order to have something to read other than their hearts. Only the divine knows the heart and that is not accessible reading for the neighbours and the rest of humanity. Nor is it inheritable, a crucial weakness.
A language then we could say is identifiable by at least two parameters: it is written and we are told it’s one. Who tells us?
To make a nation-state you only need three components: 1) a people, 2) a territory with borders, and 3) a language to claim that bordered territory and insult those who trespass. That is when one version of a language is selected and crowned, and that this version is institutionally born. Note that these ingredients are violently singular, ONE language, ONE people. You all know the cruel joke that the difference between a language and a dialect is that the language has an army. But wait, Algeria has an army, does it make Derja a language? I say it does.
Talking of Algeria, in 1959 while Algerians were fighting for their independence against France who had taken ingredient number two to a fanatical extreme, a linguist called Fergusson came up with a much needed temporary explanatory solution for the problematic classification of language and dialect when these were in common daily use within one community. No, not bilingualism, too easy, but: diglossia. Charles A. Ferguson in the journal Word defined this linguistic phenomenon as that which “affects a speech community using two languages, genetically related or not”. One, he classed, represents a ‘high variety’ and the other of a ‘low variety’. Ferguson defined the ‘high variety’ as the one used within literary discourse, and which holds a prestigious social position, and the ‘low variety’ was recognisable by its use in ordinary conversation. Here we find again the hierarchy we encountered earlier as laymen: prestige (embodied by Latin, lingua) and lowly conversation (Ancient Greek based).
Thus, what appeared as a language/dialect division for Arabic was a case of diglossic variation, a sort of bilingualism, but involving two genetically related varieties. Diglossia has a distinct socio-hierarchical flavour to it: the prestigious versus the ordinary. Have Arabic dialects no prestige? Are they not used as literary vehicles and in the arts? But the Algerian language, sorry Derja dialect, is the language of a prestigious theatre. Sounds literary and prestigious enough, no? So we slowly come to the crux of my motivation: Derja is a language, not a variety or a dialect nor an offshoot of fuṣḥā.
It seems to me that it is not the tongues that are the problem. Their classification is a challenge and observing languages is a fascinating process when one doesn’t forget that it also is a scientific process: proof is needed, falsifiability must be applied. But languages are also a powerful political tool and that is when classifying languages becomes a dangerous, and revealing, instrument to validate cultural hegemony. What is highly problematic is the paradigm we use to think of language (based on the language/dialect or language/variety dichotomy) - a paradigm that is hidden under the term ‘definition’. The concepts language/dialect or language/variety are intellectual shackles. Trying to rephrase and rethink dialect and language is akin to trying to wear the chains in a manner more comfortable. This paradigm is based on a disturbing hierarchical division: a single point of origin (the language) with everything else emanating from that original (dialect or variety): not Adam and Eve but Language and Dialect, how biblical, no! This arbitrary binary system language/dialect or language/variety paradigm also boxes language phenomena, so rich in essence, into two slots. Examining Arabic, a language as any other, according to a language/dialect or even a language/variety hierarchical and binary division is suffocating. It creates a circular, smothering cell. Let us try and burst a wall or two of it.
Could it be that there is no Arabic … but Arabics? That what exists is a plurality of Arabic tongues, of languages, among which we find fuṣḥā. The reality on the ground today certainly points that way, there are Arabics. What if there always had been Arabics? Arabic ‘dialects’ are not poor renditions of fuṣḥā. They work according to their own grammatical and semantic rules. Arabic dialects do not form cases of fuṣḥā-violations nor of fuṣḥā-corruptions. Arabic 'dialects' were not born from rendering fuṣḥā incorrectly. Fuṣḥā did not give birth to Arabic 'dialects'. While it influenced Arabic 'dialects', it did not mix with the 'locals' and resulted single handedly in building fuṣḥā varities later called dialects. From the point at which we can trace fuṣḥā in detail (in grammatical treatises from 8th century onwards) we see that it changed and carried on changing. Its modern rendition is just, well, fuṣḥā not the same but similar in many respects grammatically and syntactically, close but further removed grammatically and semantically. Semitic languages do evolve just as any languages but Semitic languages are peculiar in that the changes are not as vast as what we find in old French and contemporary French for example. This relative slow change can be a misleading factor. But change, however little comparatively speaking, is still change.
Let me venture further and propose: could it be that Arabic is not simply a language, but a system? A linguistic system where this singular feminine noun, ‘Arabic’, represents not only a plurality of Arabics but also stands for a family of languages. This Arabic system would class as a sub-system of the Semitic branch and under its umbrella we would find fuṣḥā and our Arabic dialects languages. If Arabic is the language of the Arabs, is it not plural by definition? Arabs refers to a plurality. This classification would not discount the fact that each Arabic tongue can give rise to many local varieties. I say, there are Arabics among which Derja, an Algerian language. And fuṣḥā stands next to each Arabic tongue as an equal, not a dictator.
Arabic tongues are not dialects submitted to the mother language fuṣḥā. Arabic tongues are languages in their own rights within the Arabic system. Arabic ‘dialects’ contain words we find in ancient fuṣḥā, yes, and their sentence structure has been observed as having given preference to one of the sentence structures already present in 8th century fuṣḥā. But some dialects also display sentence structures that are inherited from another linguistic system: Derja contains structural features of Tamazight. Although the sentence structure varies from Arabic tongue (dialect) to Arabic tongue (dialect), each still belongs in part or in full to the Arabic system. They do not originate from fuṣḥā, they were affected by it and other languages. ‘Arabic dialects’ are not corruptions of a pure form of Arabic. We simply do not know the origin of Arabic and of dialects. We should also drop the puritanical search for purity, for a single singular point of origin.
In passing, we note that a majority of Arabic dialects happen to have a nation and a people and have officially been given the next best title: national languages (close to Language but not quite there yet!). The ‘Arab world’ has classed Arabic tongues as dialects for political reasons. Only one version, fuṣḥā, was promoted in order to create a unified political entity. This promotion was pushed both during and after the Arab conquest, for administrative reasons not for the love of God (also known once as religion). It was promoted again when countries formerly belonging to the territories conquered by the Arabs were trying to free themselves from colonialism. The countries that now belong to the ‘Arab world’ had to define their identity (well to defend their right to exist initially) and to prove their potential as nation-states: ONE language, ONE people, ONE territory. Ironically, countries in the ‘Arab world’ have tied a knot back to their glorious past using the formulations of the former coloniser as cord.
The binding material of a community is what it considers to be a shared identity. This shared identity is not explicitly stated until a calamity strikes: meeting the other. It only becomes necessary to explicitly define an identity when meeting an ‘other’ who does not belong to the community. It does not mean that the community’s identity did not exist pre-explicit-definition. It is a matter of the implicit giving rise to the explicit. Words have no meaning alone, they only acquire meaning when they are placed in relation to other words, they form a net and there are several nets layered. We understand the word ‘sun’ in relation to yellow, moon, Kellogs cereals but ‘sun’ is meaningless outside of that net. Communities are Iike words. A community acquires an explicit definition, an explicitly stated identity, when it is placed in relation to an ‘other’. An explicitly stated definition does not give worth to the community. A community that has explicitly defined itself is not more worthy than one who has not. A community who is becoming explicit has simply changed survival strategies. The need to define that identity becomes all the more urgent when that ‘other’ threatens to annihilate you (with its army and language for example).
For Algeria, the 30s saw an explicit stating of what was the Algerian identity. It was a time during which the former territories of the Arab invasion, having suffered at the hands of the ‘other’, the colonial powers, were shaping themselves as nation-states. The definition chosen by and for these communities was based on a return to a former state of glory, relinking with the past before colonialism. Their return-formula was: one language (fuṣḥā), one religion, and one…. nope not region but… a whole wide world! The ‘Arab’ world. Pow. As fuṣḥā was not the language of Algerians, so came a forced linguistic and cultural Arabisation for Algeria.
Where I am heading with this? Well, I was just thinking…. what do we talk about when we talk about Arab?