JOHNSON has touched on Arabic and its variety quite a few times over the years, but we have never really addressed a critical question directly: what is “Arabic” today, and is it really even a single thing?
A short and simplified version of the story follows: the prophet Muhammad wrote (or received from Allah directly) the Koran in the seventh century. He then conquered nearly all of Arabia as a political and military leader. His successors—four “rightly guided” caliphs and then the Umayyad caliphs—spread Islam further still, until the Islamic world stretched from Spain to Pakistan. Arabic-speaking soldiers and administrators settled in all of these places, and their language gradually took root among local populations, who up until that point spoke languages from rustic Latin to Berber to Coptic to Persian.
That was almost 1400 years ago. The Arabic of the Koran remained a prestigious and nearly unchanging standard throughout the Islamic world. This is what most Arabs consider “Arabic”. But all spoken languages change, all the time, and the Arabic people actually used on the streets and in their homes, predictably enough, changed quite a lot in those 1400 years. Today, the Arab world is sometimes compared to medieval Europe, when classical Latin was still the only “real” language most people wrote and studied in—but “Latin” in the mouths of its speakers had become early French, Spanish, Portuguese and so on. Today, we recognize that French and Portuguese are different languages—but Arabs are not often sure (and are sometimes at odds) about how to describe “Arabic” today. The plain fact is that a rural Moroccan and a rural Iraqi cannot have a conversation and reliably understand each other. An urban Algerian and an urban Jordanian would struggle to speak to each other, but would usually find ways to cope, with a heavy dose of formal standard Arabic used to smooth out misunderstandings. They will sometimes use well-known dialects, especially Egyptian (spread through television and radio), to fill in gaps.
In Europe, we call “French” and “Spanish” “languages”, but in Arabic, we call these varieties “dialects”, despite the lack of mutual intelligibility. Some linguists make the point bald: these are different languages, they say. But Arabs themselves consider Arabic a single thing, with local variety. All educated Arabs learn the Koranic-based language that linguists call “modern standard Arabic”. It is used in political speeches, news broadcasts and nearly all writing—but nobody speaks it spontaneously in the marketplace or over the dinner table. Most people struggle to write it correctly.
Some pan-Arabist thinkers have called for codifying a “middle Arabic”, based on the written standard, but stripped of much unnecessary complexity and including the most common dialectal features. But there is no single authority to hammer out such a middle Arabic that would be acceptable to all. And of course the allure of pan-Arabism has waned, in competition with local nationalisms, pan-Islamism, the Shia-Sunni sectarianism and other trends.
It’s a riot of a situation that is hard to describe accurately without annoying somebody. But fortunately, we have the internet, which allows the riot of voices to speak without the need for any one to prevail. And in that spirit, some Arab users of Reddit, a social sharing and discussion website, have simply decided to give voice to their dialects by recording a short humorous story, intentionally stressing the dialectal features, perhaps imagining an old uncle telling it. Here is the story as written in standard Arabic.
في يوم من الأيام كان جحا وابنه يحزمون أمتعتهم إستعداداً للسفر إلى المدينة المجاورة، فركبا على ظهر الحمار لكي يبدأوا رحلتهم. وفي الطريق مروا على قريةٍ صغيرة فأخذ الناس ينظرون إليهم بنظراتٍ غريبة ويقولون “أنظروا إلى هؤلاء القساه يركبون كلهما على ظهر الحمار ولا يرأفون به” ، وعندما أوشكوا على الوصول إلى القرية الثانية نزل الأبن من فوق الحمار وسار على قدميه لكي لا يقول عنهم أهل هذه القرية كما قيل لهم في القرية التي قبلها، فلما دخلوا القرية رآهم الناس فقالوا “أنظروا إلى هذا الأب الظالم يدع إبنه يسير على قدميه وهو يرتاح فوق حماره”، وعندما أوشكوا على الوصول إلى القرية التي بعدها نزل جحا من الحمار وقال لإبنه إركب أنت فوق الحمار، وعندما دخلوا إلى القرية رآهم الناس فقالوا “أنظروا إلى هذا الإبن العاق يترك أباه يمشي على الأرض وهو يرتاح فوق الحمار” ، فغضب جحا من هذه المسألة وقرر أن ينزل هو وابنه من فوق الحمار حتى لا يكون للناس سُلْطَةً عليهما، وعندما دخلوا إلى المدينة ورآهم أهل المدينة قالوا “أنظروا إلى هؤلاء الحمقى يسيرون على أقدامهم ويتعبون أنفسهم ويتركون الحمار خلفهم يسير لوحده” … فلما وصلوا باعو الحمار
It involves Joha (or Goha or Jiha, depending on the region). He is a simpleton, though sometimes a kind of “wise fool” who delivers comeuppance to the pompous. In this case, the joke is on him. Here’s my translation:
One day Joha and his son were packing their things in preparation for travel to the nearby city, and they climbed onto the back of their donkey in order to start their trip. On the way they passed a little village, and the people came to look at them with strange looks and said “Look at those cruel people, both of them riding on the back of the donkey and having no mercy on him.” And so when they were close to arriving to the next village, the son got down from the back of the donkey and walked on foot, so the people of the village would not say what the people in the last village had said. And when they entered the next village, the people saw them and said “look at that unjust father, letting his son walk on foot while he rests on his donkey.” And so when they were nearly at the next village after that one, Joha got down from the donkey and told his son, “You ride the donkey.” And when they got to the village the people saw them and said “look at this ingrate of a son, letting his father walk on the ground while he rests on the donkey.” Joha got angry about this, and decided that he and his son would both get down from the donkey so that the people wouldn’t have any power over them. And when they reached the city, the people of the city saw them and said “look at these two fools, walking and wearying themselves, and letting their donkey behind them walk alone.” So they sold the donkey.
Listening to the different dialect-speakers tell the story, or even looking at the Roman-alphabet transliterations, we quickly get a sense that—if “dialect” makes you think Liverpool versus Newcastle—we are taking about much more than dialect here. Here’s the first bit transliterated from modern standard written Arabic, ie, the text above:
Fii yowm min al-ayaam kaana Joha wa ibnuhu yahzimuun amta’atahum isti’daadan lil-safar ila al-madiina al mujaawira fa rakibaa ‘ala dhahri likay yabda’u rihlatahum. Wa fii al-tariiq marruu ‘ala quriya saghiira fa akhadha al-nas yandhiruun ilayhim binadharaat ghariiba wa yaquuluun: “andharuu ila ha’ulaa’ al-qusaah yarkabuun kulluhumaa ‘ala dhahri al-hamaari wa la yaraa’afuun bihi.
Here’s an Algerian version from Algiers:
Qallek wa7ed ennhar kan Djou7a w wlido y7addro besh yro7o lwa7ed mdina, wkan 3andhom 7mar. Alors, tal3o fi zoudj foq el 7mar w qall3o meddar. Fettriq djazo 3la un petit village, w ghir dekhlo bdew ennas ta3 had el village ykhozro fihom “yokha 3la hado, rakbin zodj 3la 7mar wa7ed meskin. Wallahi la 7ram”
Here is an Egyptian from Alexandria:
fi youm min el ayem, kan go7a we’bno bey7addaro 7aget-hom 3ashan yeroo7o el balad elli gambohom. farekbo el etnein 7omarhom 3ashan yabtedo yesafro. we 3a’sekka marro 3ala balad soghayyara keddaho. ba7ala2o el nas feehom we 2alo: ayoh! bo99o el nas el 2asya elli mabter7amshi rakbeen kollohom 3ala el 7omar.
(Both dialect transcriptions use common Arabic borrowings of numbers to represent Arabic sounds. 7 is an “h” pronounced at the back of the throat. 3 is a tricky, throaty consonant called the “voiced pharyngeal fricative“. And 2 is the glottal stop, like the catch in the middle of “uh-oh”.)
It takes a sharp eye to see the few words in common between the dialects, among them kan (“was”), (be)y7addaro (“preparing”, “packing”), 7mar/7omar (“donkey”), and nas (“people”). Even allowing that speakers were told to retell the story in their own words (and not to “translate” strictly), the differences are stark.
For those who revel in linguistic diversity, this is all good fun. For those who want languages in general to “behave”, and for those in particular who want Arabic to be a single, graspable thing, this is a mess. For the language learner, it’s a daunting task. To be competent in “Arabic” means to learn one language to read and write, and a related but rather different language (like Latin and then Italian) to be able to speak. On top of that, the poor foreigner will be limited to understanding only a fraction of the Arab world. Speaking of the decline of pan-Arabism, it’s likely that the inability of Arabs to move around the region, speak naturally and be easily understood is a big reason they do not always feel themselves to be one.
There’s a saying among linguists that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” This usually means that languages without a state of their own are belittled as mere patois, argot or dialect. But here we see a rare case of the opposite problem: the Arabic language, spread over more than 20 countries, has too many armies and navies.