Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | December 8, 2011

Arabic and the Politics of Language

Arabic and the Politics of Language

By Joseph Hitti, Arabic and French instructor

The Arab world spreads all the way from the Arabian Peninsula to Morocco in the north-west of the African continent. Supposedly all the inhabitants of the many countries in this area speak the same language, Arabic. Still, the reality is a bit more complicated. Arab societies are what linguists call diglossic. That means that in these societies people need to know two different “species” of a language, in this case Arabic, in order to be fully functional: a formal language called fusHa (الفصحى) (also known as standard or classical) which everyone learns at school, reads in newspapers, or uses in presentation mode (speeches, lectures, sermons, newscasts, etc.), and an informal language called ‘aammiyya (العامية) (also known as colloquial, vernacular, or a dialect) which people use at home and in the street for interpersonal communication, and to express identity, intimacy and emotions.

While fusHa is in theory common to all countries of the Arab world, ‘aammiyya varies to different extents from country to country. Two individuals from, say, Iraq and Morocco, speaking strictly in their dialects would be largely unintelligible to one another, unless they inject elements of formal Arabic into the conversation. The local dialects of every country and region are hybrids consisting of the pre-Arabic language (Aramaic, Coptic, Amazigh, Assyrian, etc.) spoken prior to the Islamic conquest, overlaid by Arabic and other languages that came in contact with the specific country during its history (Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, French, English, Italian, etc…).

In the natural course of language evolution, if people who speak one language become geographically isolated from one another for a significant period of time, this language begins to mutate and diverge, evolving gradually into two or more “species” that, with time, become dialects, and eventually different languages that are unintelligible. In biological evolution, this process is referred to as “speciation”. In other words, geographic isolation leads with time to members of one species becoming unable to breed, thus forming a new species.

The question then is: What determines when a dialect becomes another language? In biology, a new species is recognized when its members can no longer breed with the other members of the species. In language, there is no such “breeding” criterion to guide us. As an example, Dutch and German are today recognized as separate languages even as they are arguably similar enough to be viewed—by linguists—as dialects of one and the same language. The answer, therefore, in my opinion, is fundamentally a political one.

When the European continent was at the height of its Dark Ages, Latin was the political language. A long Roman occupation had imposed Latin as the language of the elites: The Church, the nobility, and the educated scientists, clergymen, and scholars, i.e. the holders of political power. In the streets, however, people continued to speak their vernaculars onto which were grafted elements of Latin. It took a long time, and social and political upheavals, before these local “dialects” managed to emerge from under the dominance of Latin. Between the 1400s and the late 1700s, Europe underwent the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the discovery of the Americas, and the French Revolution, all of which led to the separation of Church and State and, along with political change, to the emancipation of the dialects into official national languages. The reason why today Dutch and German are considered different languages has less to do with linguistic criteria and more to do with the fact that the Netherlands and Germany are recognized as separate national entities. On the other hand, and within a single political entity, there is a dominant language that represses the other “dialects”, as is the case with Parisian French (since Paris is the center of political power) dominating all the other “dialects” like Alsatian, Provençal, Breton, etc.

In the Arabic-speaking world, an identical evolutionary process has been ongoing for some time, but the revolutionary component needed to lead to a similar outcome has yet to obtain. When the Muslim armies emerged from the Arabian Peninsula in about 630 A.D. to undertake the “al-fatH al-Islami” (الفتح اإسلامي ) – the Islamic conquest) they brought with them the Arabic language. In the various lands they came to occupy, both those that make up the “Arab world” today and those that don’t, they encountered local languages, some related to Arabic (Aramaic, Syriac, Amharic….) and others unrelated to it (Berber, Amazigh, Persian, Hindi, Turkic, etc.). As the Arab Muslim Empire consolidated its dominance over these various lands, the local languages were hybridized with Arabic and so began the evolution of today’s Arabic “dialects” or the various ‘aammiyya. As with the European case, Arabic was instituted as the official language of the political elites – nobility, scientists and scholars, the religious establishment. As was the case with Latin, there was a proscription in the Arab-Muslim world against praying in languages other than Arabic, and to this day, Muslims in as far apart as China and the Americas have to learn – and pray in – Arabic.

The difference between the European-Latin model on one hand, and the Arab-Arabic model on the other, is that while Europe has nearly completed the process of emancipating the dialects into national languages, the Arab world remains at the onset of such a process. There are two major taboos that continue to hold sway across the vast expanse of the Arab-Muslim world. One is the political fallacy of one Arab world “united” by the Arabic language, which is the underlying ideology of the Baath parties of Syria and Iraq, for example.

In the Western world, no one today subscribes to a “pan-Germanic World” idea (a Nazi Party ideology), or a “pan-Russian World” (a Communist Party ideology in Soviet Russia), and for that matter an “English-speaking World” ideology that holds together Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries. Even as these clusters remain internally bound by common histories, economic ties, and linguistic kinship, no one suggests that they ought to be bound politically. Political autonomy comes first. But in the Arab World, the political bond – undergirded by a religious one – is imposed from the top down by entrenched elites who fear that centrifugal forces might unsettle their hold on power, and so it remains a very powerful deterrent behind which the local languages languish.

In the Arab world, on the other hand, the pan-Arabic idea still holds sway among the elites. Additionally there is another concept, the Islamic Umma (“Nation”) held together by the religion of Islam, which exerts its political sway by means of the Arabic language. According to this argument God chose the Arabic language as the medium with which to reveal his message to the Prophet Mohammad, which makes Arabic a sacred language, and the word of God must not be altered. Although it is legal to translate the Qu’raan for study, teaching and research, no Muslim is allowed to pray or recite the Qur’aan in any language other than Arabic.

As the Arab Spring revolutions sweep across the Arab world this year, political and social changes are underway. With them, the political taboo has been shaken, and the political entities bound by the fallacy of one Arab world are being transformed into fully independent nation-states. However, the religious taboo is more resilient, and until Islam becomes more compatible with the separation of religion and state, the repressed national languages will not be able to assert themselves over “the” Arabic language. The present tensions between standard Arabic and the “dialects” remain at the fore: Learners of Arabic have to continue to learn two languages, and native speakers will continue to suffer from the schizophrenic division of diglossia. In this respect, formal Arabic, like money or ascendancy or religion, is one element that must be mustered to gain access to political power.

Note: This article is a modified version of excerpts from a contribution to a panel entitled Language, Culture, and the Role of the Interpreter presented at the 15th Annual Conference of the New England Translators Association last May 7, 2011 in Boston. The other two panelists were Manuel Avellan (Spanish) and Jane Kontrimas (Russian).


  1. Good article but to summarize all this by considering the learning of arabic is firstly needed for acquiring political power, this might be true but it’s not the main reason. A simple example, every where in the Arab world you can’t write using dialectal words otherwise it will look poor and silly even if it’s our dialect.

  2. Great article “schizophrenic division of diglossia” was nice. I cited you for school and paralleled Thomas Aquinas’ assertion that a man who speaks two languages has two souls. Poor poor confused Arabs…

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