"Frozen" in Arabic

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The New Yorker blog has an online article by Elias Muhanna entitled "Translating 'Frozen' Into Arabic".  What's noteworthy is that Disney's "Frozen" was translated into Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), while previous Disney releases were translated into Egyptian Arabic.  Somewhat oddly, the author compares MSA vis-à-vis colloquial forms of Arabic with both King James Bible English / sportscaster English and Latin quatrains / hiphop French.

Nevertheless, Muhanna has some good points to make about vernaculars and diglossia, and deals with a variety of other interesting topics as well.  The article also introduces us to the word "cryokinetic", which all "Frozen" freaks should learn posthaste.

While Muhanna calls Egyptian Arabic a "dialect", he later refers to both Arabic and Chinese as "diglossic language families" (though he also includes Hindi with them, which is surprising; one would have expected perhaps "Indo-Aryan" or "Indic").

What I find particularly intriguing about the juxtaposition of the Arabic and Chinese cases is that MSA is a very conservative, close to classical form of Arabic, whereas Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) is among the most highly evolved of the vernacular forms of Sinitic.

We have had endless discussions about the "Mutual intelligibility" (with relevant posts listed toward the end) of the numerous Sinitic forms of speech and whether they should be called "dialects" or "languages".  I wonder whether the diverse Arabic vernaculars are as mutually unintelligible as many of the Sinitic vernaculars are, and whether they should be thought of as dialects or separate languages.

Here are a couple of earlier Language Log posts that touched upon "Frozen" as presented in languages other than English:

"Coca-Cola's multilingual 'America the Beautiful'"

"'Let It Go!' in Chinese"

[Thanks to Matt Anderson]


  1. Levantine said,

    June 10, 2014 @ 9:59 pm

    The so-called dialects of Arabic demonstrate at least as much range as the various Romance languages, and would themselves be classed as separate languages if not for certain deeply ingrained ideological factors. Precisely because it is outside the sway of these factors, the only Arabic dialect that has emerged as an accepted language in its own right is Maltese.

  2. Jonathan Badger said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 12:15 am

    What I am somewhat disappointed by is that none of these "translating 'Let it Go'" articles seem to mention the most astounding phrase for a song from a children's movie — "frozen fractals all around". Do the translations actually bring up a very technical term for a branch of advanced geometry?

  3. phspaelti said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 2:43 am

    For Chinese and Arabic it makes sense to call them "diglossic language families" since the same written language is used across areas with highly divergent spoken forms. But for "Indic" (or "Indo-Aryan") this wouldn't make sense, since that language family uses dozens of different written standards, often with completely different alphabets.
    As for Hindi, while I'm sure there are many different spoken forms, do they really rise to the level of diglossia?

  4. Peter said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 2:50 am

    @Jonathan Badger: it’s not all that astounding hearing fractal in Frozen, is it? While it started out as a technical term, it caught on hugely in the popular imagination in the 80’s and 90’s (its meaning blurring a little on the way, of course), and has kept a fairly firm hold there ever since.

    In any case, the translators of Let It Go haven’t felt the need to translate that line too literally: at least in the languages I can follow, no direct equivalent of fractal appears. Generally, a few key lines are kept very close between languages (notably “the past is in the past” and “here I am/and here I stay”), and the core meaning of stanzas is kept, but the details of the imagery are treated quite loosely.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 3:15 am

    MSA is a very conservative, close to classical form of Arabic, whereas Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) is among the most highly evolved of the vernacular forms of Sinitic

    How is this measured?

  6. Avinor said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 3:41 am

    Could this be a sign that Egyptian Arabic is losing its status as the vernacular of choice for popular culture? With the rise of private satellite television, I get the feeling that production has shifted toward the Gulf. Do today's (non-Egyptian) kids still understand it?

    Wikipedia has a list of Arab-language children's television channels. What do these use, MSA or some vernacular?

  7. GeorgeW said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 4:46 am

    "I wonder whether the diverse Arabic vernaculars are as mutually unintelligible . . ."

    At the peripheries, like Moroccan & Syrian, they would not be mutually intelligible. However, most Arabs would understand Egyptian because of Egypt's cultural and political status. Many movies and TV programs are made in Egypt. In addition, thousands of teachers in the Gulf are Egyptians which is another means of exposure to the Egyptian dialect.

    As noted, MSA is the shared variety. The vast majority of Arabs would understand MSA (but not use it in everyday life). Even illiterate Arabs are exposed to standard Arabic through the media and religion.

  8. sedeer said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 4:59 am

    Arabic 'dialects' can roughly be divided into three regions (North Africa, Egypt, Gulf, Levantine). There's a certain degree of mutual intelligibility within the regions, though it varies quite a bit. There isn't really any intelligibility between regions.

    As an attempt at a simple demonstration, I'll try to phonetically write out the sentence "Now I am speaking X" for the following three Arabics:

    Moroccan: Daaba ka-nihdir Maghribi.
    Lebanese: Hela ʕam biħki Lubnani.
    Iraqi: Hessa da iħchi Iraqi.

  9. Lane said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 5:32 am

    I wrote a long post about how the modern Arabics are more diverse than many Arabs want to talk about, and linked to a project in which people were encouraged to tell a common folktale in their dialect. My intent was to highlight the diversity that exists in fact, and to suggest that "languages" might be better than "dialects" in the Arabic case.

    The comments were interesting, if somewhat predictable. The most common was some form of "Sure the dialects are different, but Arabs can understand each other without any trouble when they try". Another version was "North Africa is weird, but the rest of us can understand each other pretty well". And a third was this expected (verbatim) attack: "It seems like Westerner are always more than ready to divvy up brown folks into smaller collections." I imagine Victor has had to put up with this one a time or two.

    In Arabic, there are many middle strategies, halfway houses on the continuum between raw home dialect and MSA, and Arabs cooperate on the fly to find ways that they can both understand each other without sounding overly stilted by speaking pure MSA. I don't think Chinese-speakers have as many coping strategies, but tell me if I'm wrong.

    But anyway, I recommend the comments here heartily: they include a lot of highly varied views from Arabs.


  10. GeorgeW said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 6:27 am

    "Moroccan: Daaba ka-nihdir Maghribi.
    Lebanese: Hela ʕam biħki Lubnani.
    Iraqi: Hessa da iħchi Iraqi."

    Egyptian: 'ana batkalam bilahga masri

  11. Stephan Stiller said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 8:00 am

    @ Michael Watts

    It is normally right to question statements like "American English is actually more conservative than British English!" because, well, there was a common ancestor, and each variant will have developed in its own ways.

    Nonetheless, in this case, such a statement makes sense. First of all, one can measure the conservativeness of languages by looking at the sound changes that happened between ancestor and present-day variant. For example: (1) Lithuanian is regarded as conservative in the Indo-European language family. (2) All other things being equal (and they are not – but just for the sake of argument), you could say that a topolect/variety of Germanic with the High German consonant shift is "more evolved" than a variety where it didn't happen.

    So we believe that Mandarin has evolved "away" more than Cantonese, for example. Though admittedly there is lots to be researched about substratum influences for the "Southern" (normally: non-Mandarin) languages of the large Sinitic language family. For example, we know that Tai [sic] had an influence on Yue (≈ what we normally call "Cantonese").

    Finally, Mandarin writing nowadays is a (still slightly stylized) form of a present-day spoken vernacular. MSA is a modernized version of Quranic Arabic, from long ago. In terms of language evolution, you'd expect it to correspond to something like very Late or just pre-Medieval Latin. Or – in a Chinese scenario – to a vernacular form of Old-to-Middle Chinese (which we don't know much about, btw). Egyptian Arabic might be a bit like Mandarin, though without any particular claims about the issue of "conservative" vs "evolved" from my side.

    To explain present-day Chinese diglossia to a speaker of Arabic, one could say "it's as if everyone would have to write Egyptian Arabic". Earlier Chinese "diglossia" (with LS) would be harder to explain; perhaps: "it's as if everyone still had to write in an abbreviated and allusive hieroglyph-based orthography".

    Of course all these analogies have their limitations. As I wrote above, we don't know all that much about the actual common ancestor of Sinitic (and, again, there were substratum influences). To be fair, we don't actually know whether Quranic or Quran-like Arabic was really the "most common" ancestor of the present-day Arabic vernaculars. (Anecdotally, I know that some people say it wasn't.) And we actually know that the "most common" ancestor of Romance was what people call "Vulgar Latin", not the (written) Classical Latin of Cicero. (There are lexical arguments one can make. Other people have written about this.)

    I should also remind people that every form of diglossia is different. I believe there's a canonical quotation, which I can't find right now. So if someone can remind me, I'll be grateful.

  12. Lameen said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 8:34 am

    "I wonder whether the diverse Arabic vernaculars are as mutually unintelligible as many of the Sinitic vernaculars are"
    Insofar as I can judge based on two years of Chinese in highschool, I'd say they're not nearly as different as Cantonese is from Mandarin – but more different than English from Scots.

    A big difference between the Chinese and Arabic situations is that, as far as I know, it's not taboo in China to speak Standard Mandarin in conversation, whereas any Arab who tries speaking Standard Arabic in conversation can count on getting laughed at unless it's a quote or a parody or something.

    Practically all Arabic children's programming is in Standard Arabic; Disney was the odd one out.

    I posted a comparison of the Egyptian and Algerian versions of the folktale, which may serve to give some idea of how different the dialects are, and the extent to which knowing Standard Arabic makes them more mutually intelligible than they would be otherwise.

  13. Tapani said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 8:37 am

    As a Sinologist (I presume), you might be interested in the case of dubious Chinese characters on the front page of the latest issue of the Finnish Donald Duck comic book. It actually made the news today and the reporters actually interviewed a Chinese restaurant worker to confirm what a Finnish blogger and the coordinator of Confucius Institute at University of Helsinki both claimed about the meaning of the characters.


  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 8:38 am

    As to whether "Hindi" fits, I think there is a claim out there that the standardized "Hindi" used for official-language and educational purposes in modern India is an artificial confection that was for political purposes standardized rather arbitrarily out of a fairly diverse on-the-ground dialect continuum (the extremes of which are not necessarily that mutually intelligible). How similar that is to the relationship between MSM and the broad range of regional Mandarin dialects I couldn't say.

  15. Tapani said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 8:38 am

    And the cover had been used in several different Egmont publications around Europe before someone noticed…

  16. wally said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 9:51 am


    Don't leave us hanging.What is the story about the Donald Duck cover?

  17. tapsa said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

    Well, I'll spill the beans: According to news reports (I'm uneducated in Chinese) the Chinese characters form the word "to defecate". The Finnish PR guy for the publisher commented that according to their guidelines, cartoonists should either use pseudo-Chinese or at least make them spell something relevant. This time they slipped in a scatological easter egg. The publishing company is based in Denmark and they are afaik the biggest publisher of Disney comics in Europe.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

    @Tapani / tapsa

    The two characters that are visible on the pot are lāfèn 拉粪 ("haul excrement"); cf. lāshǐ 拉屎 ("shit" [vb.]). Normally, lāfèn 拉粪 ("haul excrement") would be used in combination with another character, such as lāfèn chē 拉粪车 ("cart for hauling excrement"). It's likely that the pot depicted in the cartoon is for collecting night soil that would be collected by a person pulling the lāfèn chē 拉粪车 ("cart for hauling excrement") around the neighborhood who would take it to the fields for fertilizer.


  19. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 9:28 pm

    It's interesting that, as the author of the original article notes, they only do a single Arabic translation when there's clearly the potential for two or three. There's precedent for that many too. Disney has done a triple Spanish localization for a few movies (General LA, Rioplatense, and Castilian). The Latin American ones are perceived as bland by Spaniards, because (I believe) they have to account for the various dialects in a single translation, whereas the Castilian ones are seen as too hokey or even overly literal compared to the LA one (because they can focus on a single target dialect).

    French gets two versions (maybe an African one too?), two Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese). I wonder if the Canadian French and Cantonese are able to have similarly more focused translations and how they're viewed by speakers of the others.

  20. Olivette said,

    August 24, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

    Sorry to gatecrash but I noticed you mentioned Latin. I have written about translating this song into Classical Latin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWVPw4AUWSE (there is a brief exposé in the description and a longer, line-by-line explanation of the composition process here: http://lux.livelatin.org/2013/12/23/libera/)

    My version uses words taken directly from Latin texts. But this ubiquitous song has produced several Latin translations, most of which are closer to the English, which you may want to read for comparison:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtvD_1e8xs4 ('Demitte', literally 'cast aside')
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfRrazJDARk ('Libero', literally 'I free')
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeCtYnofRf0 ('Amitte', literally 'cast away')
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOXIJ801TK8 ('id agat', literally 'May it happen')
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RccEA-nvQoE (also entitled 'Amitte')

    Most of these don't adhere to Latin rules of stress. But it is very interesting to see the ways in which the words have been interpreted differently.

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