Ben Ali speaks in Tunisian "for the first time"

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According to an email from Youssef Gaigi posted by Gillian York:

Today’s speech shows definitely a major shift in Tunisia’s history.
[Tunisian president Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali talked for the third time in the past month to the people. Something unprecedented, we barely knew this guy. Ben Ali talked in the Tunisian dialect instead of Arabic for the first time ever.

A story in today's New York Times will give you some background on the serious and astonishing situation in Tunisia: David Kirkpatrick and Alan Cowell, "Crisis Deepens in Tunisia as President’s Offer Falls Flat", 1/14/2011. [Update — Since I posted this, Ben Ali has resigned and fled the country, as the linked story indicates.]

By "Tunisian dialect" Youssef Gaigi means what the Ethnologue calls "Tunisian Spoken Arabic", and by "Arabic" he means what the Ethnologue calls "Standard Arabic", often referred to as "Modern Standard Arabic".

For those who aren't familiar with Arabic diglossia, a plausible analogy would be to equate "Classical Arabic" with Latin, to compare "Modern Standard Arabic" (MSA) to the variety of Latin used in the Vatican (with words and phrases added over the years to refer to more recent objects and concepts), and to link the various "spoken" Arabics (sometimes called "colloquials" or "dialects") with modern Latin-derived "Romance" languages like French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, etc.

The analogy is incomplete, since MSA is taught everywhere in schools, used almost everywhere in the media, and is the only variety of Arabic with significant presence in a written form. The "spoken" or "colloquial" Arabics are used in everyday life, but generally don't have a standard written form and are rarely written. Still, the linguistic differences between MSA and Tunisian or Syrian are roughly as large as those between Latin and French or Spanish.

A story may illustrate some of the ideologies involved. A few decades ago, a Tunisian linguist who had studied in the U.S. returned to a university position in Tunisia. Because some of his published work dealt with the phonetics and phonology of Tunisian Spoken Arabic, one of his colleagues formally accused him in the faculty senate of bringing the Tunisian nation into disrepute, by suggesting in print that Tunisians spoke such a degenerate and incorrect variety of Arabic.

I believe that a fairly large fraction of the Tunisian population would understand a speech in MSA, but it's certainly a meaningful gesture for Ben Ali to make a speech in "the Tunisian dialect". In fact, in Ben Ali's case, the decision to speak in Tunisian Arabic is especially meaningful. According to Naima Boussofar-Omar, "Political Transition, Linguistic Shift", in Alhawary and Benmamoun, Eds., Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics XVII-XVIII, 2005:

On November 7, 1987, Tunisians woke at 6:30 a.m. to the national anthem and some verses from the Qur'an as usual, but unlike the other mornings, the ritual was disrupted. Borguiba's daily morning program 'From the directives of the president" min tawjeehaat ar-raʔiis was preempted. The Tunisian national radio station broadcast a Communiqué (Bayaan) in which Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Bourguiba's newly appointed Prime Minister (October 2, 1987), solemnly addressed the nation to first declare, "In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful", that President Bourguiba was severely incapacitated by old age and grave sickness; second to proclaim his self-investiture as the new President and Commander in Cheif of the Tunisian Armed Forces with "The Blessings and the Grace of Allah", and third, to announce the Beginning of a "new era" ʕahd jadeed […].

One of the symbolic indications of the political change was the linguistic shift that Ben Ali made in his first Communiqué and in his subsequent public political speeches. While Bourguiba used a constellation of linguistic codes — Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, and French, Ben Ali chose to reclaim fuṣħaa as the only official variety of Arabic to use in public political speeches. The linguistic shift is far more than a mere substitution of a bilingual and diglossic discourse for a monolingual text. From my point of view, the shift plays a significant role in legitimizing the political coup, imagining and constructing the new social and political order of the New Era, and establishing the new tone of the new régime. Privileging fuṣħaa over the more accessible and less focused variety of Arabic (i.e. Tunisian Arabic) perpetuates the rhetoric of the political discourse that fuṣħaa is the national language. And as such it is construed as available to all when, in fact, it is still inaccessible to a considerable number of Tunisians.

Fuṣħaa (as Prof. Boussofara-Omar transliterates it) is the Arabic term for Classical Arabic and its various Literary and Modern Standard variants, as distinct from the contemporary spoken forms of Arabic.

The high reverence for fuṣħaa, its perfection, its purity of speech, and eloquence (faṣaaħa), remains as widely prevalent nowadays as it was in [the] pre-Islamic era. Fuṣħaa is "a language that embodies authority and bestows authority on those who know it" (Haeri 1997). Its indexical sense blurs the line between the reverence that educated and uneducated speakers alike have for fuṣħaa and the reverence they would have for the aura of the office and for the person who will occupy that office.

Here's a link to Ben Ali's most recent speech on YouTube.

As an indication of the small but growing influence of English and of Anglophone culture in North Africa, Youssef Gaigi writes ("Violence Unleashed", 1/13/2011):

I woke up anxious and tormented and walked straight to the streets to see the remainings of last night’s battle. But, when i arrived to Cité Ettadhamen, Mnihla in the western suburb of Tunis. I wished I was blind, but the overwhelming smell of burining plastic would still describe the intensity of the violence that invaded this large underprivilidged neighbourhood.

Violence was unleashed and flames invaded most banks, a few cars, a bus, two pharmacies, a bakery, an electronics store, and several other shops, the city hall, the municipality, and the post office of Mnihla. Hundreds of people were shocked, they stood along the way in groups trying to know what happened last night. One could see that there was some pillage, and the shops that rioters couldn’t open were tagged. They wrote on them the famous slogan A.C.A.B meaning All Cops Are Bastards. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a single cop in the streets today. I mean no single cop, and that is very strange in Tunis.

Some background on A.C.A.B is here. A more upscale example of Anglophone influence was noted in the NYT story:

Zied Mhirsi, a 33-year-old doctor carried a sign that said, in English, “Yes We Can,” a reference to President Barack Obama, above “#sidibouzid,” the name of an online Twitter feed that has provided a forum for rallying protesters.

[Update — The most recent reports indicate that Ben Ali has stopped offering concessions, instead declaring a state of emergency, "banning public gatherings and ordering security forces to fire on anyone who refuses to comply".

And now Ben Ali has reportedly resigned and fled the country.

Another interesting example of English usage on the streets, celebrating Ben Ali's departure:

Picture from The Guardian.]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

    Wonderful post!

    The effect in China would be similar if a politician there gave a public speech in Cantonese, Amoy, Shanghainese, Shandongese, Sichuanese, or any one of hundreds of other local languages and dialects. It's an entirely different matter for a public figure to speak Mandarin with a heavy regional accent and for him or her to launch into a full-blown topolect with all of its phonetic, lexical, grammatical, idiomatic, and other differences.

  2. bulbul said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    a plausible analogy
    With my students, I used the following analogy: Quranic / Classical Arabic = Old Church Slavic, MSA = Church Slavic, Arabic dialects = modern Slavic languages, the spoken ones.

    Watching the video, it is seems to me that while Ben Ali indeed employs Tunisian Arabic (or, as he put it, "kallamkum bi-luġat kullu 't-tunusīyīn wat-tunusīyāt" = "I speak to you in the language of all men and women of Tunis"), the register he picked is one of the higher ones, full of MSA words and terms. For example, he starts with "ayyuhā 'š-šaʕb ət-tūni/usī" ("Oh ye people of Tunis"), somewhere around 0:47 he uses the MSA feminine relative pronoun "allatī", the MSA construction "lā budda" ("must"), "židdan" ("very"), the occasional Accusative ending and so on. But yeah, "əl-ʕunf muš btaʕna" (lit. "violence not ours"), that's as Tunisian as it can get. And hearing it like this, that must be some powerful stuff for Tunisians.

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

    Or for an American politician to speak jive (AAVE), Spanglish, or Southern American English, for example

  4. boynamedsue said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

    The excellent discussion of Arabic diglossia forgets one important point. While most urban Arabs in North Africa have a passive understanding of MSA, many have very weak active skills and a substantial number are functionally incapable of writing anything beyond short phrases in what is supposedly their native language. This has an incredible effect on North African culture, especially in Libya and Egypt where there is little influence from French.

  5. Lazar said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

    Mr Fnortner: I don't think the level of diversification in the US is really comparable.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    Ben Ali may have been borrowing from the playbook of Abel Nasser in Egypt. He effectively code mixed Standard Arabic with the Egyptian dialect in his speeches. The Standard Arabic gave them seriousness and dignity, the dialect gave warmth and related him to ordinary people. But, he also had a little charisma that Ben Ali probably lacks.

    [(myl) As the quoted passage from Prof. Boussofar-Omar observes, Ben Ali had no need to go outside the borders of Tunisia to find a model for Arabic code-mixing, since Habib Bourguiba (deposed by Ben Ali in 1987) was known for it. ]

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  8. GeorgeW said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    @myl: "Ben Ali had no need to go outside the borders of Tunisia to find a model for Arabic code-mixing, since Habib Bourguiba (deposed by Ben Ali in 1987) was known for it."

    Sorry, I missed this in reading the post. In any event, I suspect that Bourguiba was borrowing from Nasser's playbook. It is my understanding that this was an innovation for Arab leaders.

    [(myl) Perhaps, but Bourguiba was older than Nasser (born in 1903 compared to 1918), entered politics much earlier (in the 1930s rather than the 1950s), and became a head of state at about the same time (1955-56). His early political work had a rather populist character, as the Wikipedia article explains:

    Bourguiba was pushed to resign from the committee, which led to the creation of the Neo Destour Party in Ksar Hellal on March 2, 1934 with Bourguiba as the Secretary General of the Political Bureau. From that moment, Bourguiba set out to crisscross the country to try to enroll the majority of Tunisians from the countryside; and thus create a more popular base for his newly formed party so that he managed in a couple of years to set up more than 400 branches (cells) of the Neo Destour.

    I believe that Bourguiba's style of mixing fuṣħaa with Tunisian colloquial and with French was already established during that time, when Nasser was still in secondary school.]

  9. GeorgeW said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

    myl: So, maybe Nasser was the borrower and not the lender. Interesting.

    In any event, they were advised by Shakespeare to, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."

  10. michael farris said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

    From conversations and a shared project or two with a Tunisian colleague. I've come to suspect that in practice Arabic diglossia is less a case of discrete varieties but shares a lot with the Creole continuum.

    That is she distinguishes 'pure' Tunisian dialect(s) with more MSA influenced varieties as well as more and less classical varieties of MSA.

    The more discernible places on the scale would go (from lowest to highest vareities) in my understanding might go something like this:

    'Pure' dialect

    MSA-influenced dialect

    Tunisian MSA

    'International' MSA

    Classical Arabic

    But again, there's a lot of usage that can't clearly be identified as belonging to any of those categories.

    And from a purely pragmatic point of view, I doubt if this late in the game concession to linguistic reality will help Tunisian any. According to my colleague there's zero general awareness of Tunisian as something that's worth studying or cultivating. Linguistic discussion in Tunisia is all about the merits of French vs English (important for the important tourism sector).

  11. bulbul said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 6:22 pm


    shares a lot with the Creole continuum
    Absolutely. One scholar (Benjamin Hary of Emory) even prefers to talk of multiglossia and not diglossia, which I quite like.
    As for the scale, the video Mark linked to would be MSA-influenced dialect.

  12. John said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

    The Latin/Romance language analogy is poor, because Latin is virtually completely incomprehensible to native speakers of modern Romance languages.

    Aren't most Arabic dialects mutually intelligible, if readily perceived as "foreign" in some way?

  13. Ellen K. said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    John, I don't know the answer regarding Arabic, but, regardless, seems to me that the analogy is not supposed to be an exact description, but a starting place for understanding.

  14. bulbul said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 8:31 pm


    Aren't most Arabic dialects mutually intelligible
    Short answer: no.
    Long answer: it depends. For example, what do you mean by 'mutually intelligible' and 'most'? There is mutual intelligibility (as in fluent communication to some degree) among each of the major groups (i.e. Maghrib = North Africa, Syropalestinian, Gulf etc.), but I know from experience that, say, native speakers of non-Maghribi dialects have trouble understanding speakers of North African Arabic when faced with pure dialect.

    Latin is virtually completely incomprehensible to native speakers of modern Romance
    Same can be said of MSA for native speakers of Arabic dialects. If a native speaker of an Arabic dialect understands MSA, it's due to education and exposure to MSA through media. Same applies to Egyptian Arabic which has exerted a lot of influence on other Arabic dialects through popular music and TV.

  15. J Lee said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

    I agree with Ellen — it's just the most familiar reference point for most Westerners. However, I think anyone who has studied multiple varieties of Arabic would agree that they are not actually distinct "languages" as linguists like to point out to unaware laymen.

    It's definitely interesting how variable the proficiency in MSA (which has stuff like interdentals in addition to more moods and inflections) is even among highly-educated people. You can tell when they're straying from prepared remarks, for example, when the negation starts to slip.

    The problem with their attitude that fuSHa is the "real" Arabic, of course, is that it makes colloquial Arabic dialects so much harder to study. I think less than 3 colleges in the US offer courses in spoken Arabic.

  16. J Lee said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 8:49 pm

    …and can anyone give a brief comment on how 'cunt' in the UK and Commonwealth became so much more casual than in the US, where many women consider it 'unforgivable'?

  17. GeorgeW said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

    Versteegh (The Arabic Language, 1997) has a chapter on diglossia and bilingualism in the Arab world. He mentions speeches of both Nasser and Bourguiba. He suggests quite difference motivations for their code mixing.

    Regarding Nasser (p.196), the mixture of colloquial and Standard Arabic, “reflects the inherent problem for politicians in the Arab world: on the one hand, by identifying with colloquial speech they wish to involve their audience, who for the most part do not use or even understand the higher levels of Standard Arabic; on the other hand they cannot simply switch to colloquial language since this would be regard as an insult to their audience.”

    Regarding Bourguiba (p.198-199) he says, “In Tunisia, the French left behind a sizable bilingual elite [ . . .] After independence, arabicisation became the official policy of the government, but at a slow pace. Although certainly dedicated to the introduction of Arabic himself the first president of Tunisia, Bourguiba, was not in favor of a hasty transition. In his own public speeches, he tended to use an intermediate register, and on several occasions he declared that Classical Arabic was not the language of the Tunisian people. [. . .] Arabicisation should not aim at the wholesale introduction of a standard form of the language, but allow for a considerable amount of bilingualism . . .”
    (Sorry for the length of the comment)

  18. Nijma said,

    January 14, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

    Aren't most Arabic dialects mutually intelligible?
    A Jordanian friend of mine went to work in Morocco and said he could not understand their Arabic at all, although he came to understand it better after living there for some years. Many Palestinians, Saudis, and Egyptians work in Jordan and seem to understand each other with no problem, although they sometimes make comments about each others' speech.

    Bedouins also seem to be easily understood, although their pronunciation may be slightly different. I could always get a smile (and a better price) in the suq by using the bedouin word for "how much?" The occasional Syrian also seems to be easily understood in Amman, although I heard it said of someone who had lived in Kuwait "and what about that accent!"

    The children are indoctrinated early though. When I asked my Bene Hassan seventh graders for the colloquial word for "we", they would only tell me (after some discussion amongst themselves) the foos-ha word "nanoo", not "ehna" that I was trying to remember. Even out in the boonies, MSA was the proper language for school and they knew the difference.

  19. michael farris said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 4:05 am

    As for mutual intelligibility between different kinds of colloquial Arabic, AFAICT the general rule is people can understand the varieties bordering their own (and Cairene due to popular media) but how far away their comprehension goes depends a lot on the speaker and the kinds of Arabic involved. I've gotten lots of different answers when talking to linguistically aware Arabic speakers.
    The common threads seem to be that tbiggest divide is between Maghrebi non-Maghrebi varieties and Maghrebi speakers understand non-Maghrebi more easily than vice versa.

  20. boynamedsue said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 5:21 am

    J Lee, regarding your slightly off topic question on 'the c-word'. In the UK it is almost never used to refer to a woman, but as an insult to a man. This is the reverse of the US (from what I can tell fron your popular culture). It is sometimes used anatomically but the taboo is that men rarely use it this way in front of women, and women rarely do so in front of men.

  21. Leo said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 5:40 am

    J Lee – briefly – the "c-word" is not at all casual in the UK.

  22. GeorgeW said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 6:24 am

    @Nijma: "A Jordanian friend of mine went to work in Morocco and said he could not understand their Arabic at all, although he came to understand it better after living there for some years."

    I had a Syrian friend with exactly thesame experience in Morocco.

    On the general subject of diglossia, it would be hard for any Arab to avoid exposure to Classical Arabic as Qur'an readings are broadcast several times daily. Also, exposure to MSA would come through the media which generally uses this form (except for phonology, which is local).

  23. Ellen C-M said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 9:33 am

    A great book on the tension between al-fusha and Egyptian Arabic, analogous to the situation in Tunisia, is Niloofar Haeri's Sacred Language, Ordinary People, 2003. Among other fascinating topics, she addresses the question of how to "modernize" a sacred language, and of speakers' conflicting feelings about Egyptian Arabic (as "easy", "light" but also corrupt, unstable, and not a real language). A major fear for those trying to write in al-fusha is the case endings (Egyptian Arabic does not have any cases).

  24. Canehan said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    Bedouins also seem to be easily understood, although their pronunciation may be slightly different.
    I had occasion to watch a Bedouin TV soap at a police base in Wadi Rum, and asked why it had Arabic subtitles. I was told that people in Amman would not understand it otherwise.

  25. GeorgeW said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 10:31 am

    @Ellen C-M: Thanks for the recommendation, it is now on my Wish List (and hopefully available soon on Kindle).

    I can also recommend a good book along the same general line, "A War of Words: Language and Conflict in the Middle East" by Yasir Suleiman.

    One of the topics is an interesting description of how the realization of /q/ (glottal stop ~ /k/ ~/g/) are markers of ethnicity in Jordan.

  26. bulbul said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 11:43 am


    One of the topics is an interesting description of how the realization of /q/ (glottal stop ~ /k/ ~/g/) are markers of ethnicity in Jordan.
    Ethnicity, really? Can you please elaborate?
    From what I know of Jordan, the realization of /q/ is primarilly a regional thing, then secondary a religious one, seeing as Christians inhabit regions with dialects where /q/ = /g/.
    This, of course, very much resembles the situation in old Bagdad where Muslims pronounced /q/ as /g/ (hence the common designation for their language variety "gilit dialects"), while Christians and Jews pronounced it as /q/ or glottal stop ("qəltu dialects").

  27. Sarah said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    @bulbul – interesting, but in my experience that is not at all true of Jordan. There are too few Christians in Jordan to associate them with /q/ = /g/, which a majority of the Jordanian population employs. I would say that /q/ = /g/ is primarily a regional marker (rural areas) and secondarily an affect of masculinity for men living in urban areas. Men who use a glottal stop for /q/ may be considered effeminate, depending on their class.

  28. John said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    Thanks for the info on mutual intelligibility. I just have a few anecdotes, mainly from non-native speakers who work in Arabic-language areas.

    Back to Latin, the issue there is that Latin is completely unintelligible to modern Romance-language speakers, none of whom learn it as a kind of lingua franca (anymore) for communication with other RL speakers. It just seems to me that we lack a good analogy between Arabic and the RL.

  29. GeorgeW said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

    @bulbul (aka nightingale:

    The distribution of [q] is Madani [?], Beduin [g] and Fallahi [k].

    According to Suleiman, the Madani was brought to Jordan by Palestinians and Syrians in the 1920s and 1930s.

    Also, the Madani variety is mainly urban , particularly with women.

  30. möngke said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    "A major fear for those trying to write in al-fusha is the case endings (Egyptian Arabic does not have any cases)."

    Surely not, given that case endings are, for the most part, omitted in writing due to very selective vocalization! (Only case endings surfacing with long vowels are actually written, such as the -uun/-iin contrast in sound masculine plurals.) When I was taught MSA, everyone said that, in pronunciation, omitting case endings is actually no big deal. Details such as constructions used for the imperfective and lexical use are probably much more pertinent.

    In any case, Haeri's book is quite controversial, since it is far from clear whether the association of MSA with "sacredness" (and the consequent difficulties in modernization) is actually as ubiquitous as it appears to the casual observer. For instance, the ahaadiith are hardly a good grammatical model for "good Classical Arabic" (for MSA? anybody's guess…), hence sacredness/importance to Islam != Pure CA. On the whole, as Suleiman, Reem Bassiouney, and many others have suggested, the failure of most of the Egyptian population to have an active command of MSA may be more an effect of insufficient investment in education than any "inherent incomprehensibility" or an "inherently schizophrenic identity" (which Haeri infers simply for the existence of multiple communicative codes – a Long Shot argument if there ever was one). (Cf. also Syria.) Furthermore, MSA – even if "distant" – is certainly less foreign/incomprehensible to the average Arab vernacular speaker than, say, Russian. Hence, Haeri may unduly exaggerate the divide that exists.

  31. bulbul said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 3:45 pm


    in my experience that is not at all true of Jordan
    Certainly, my experience with speakers of Jordanian Arabic has been limited.

    Men who use a glottal stop for /q/ may be considered effeminate
    Or, as my sources described it to me, they will snickered at for trying to sound all urban and Syrian.

  32. Nijma said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

    it would be hard for any Arab to avoid exposure to Classical Arabic as Qur'an readings are broadcast several times daily
    Not to mention drivers playing Koran cassettes on the bus, taxi, etc. That doesn't mean they automatically understand Koranic Arabic. I am an occasional visitor at a friend's Koran class, and have seen native Arabic speakers ask a lot of questions about the meaning of particular words.

    a regional marker (rural areas)

    Jordan is a little more complex than rural/urban; the traditional distinction is between the desert and the sown. So a Jordanian might tell you they are "fellaheen" (farmer) even if they live in a small town and make a living by some trade, to distinguish from descendants of the nomadic bedouin, who claim tribal identities like Bene Hassan, Bene Sakr, B'dul, etc.

    I once had the ~/q/ dialect discussion with a guy named Qassem from a small town near the Syrian border who was motivated to have me pronounce his name correctly–with ~/g/ in his (non-bedouin) dialect. I was unable to pronounce any of the forms of qaf to his satisfaction, so finally he said to pronounce it like English /g/ and at least I would not be misunderstood.

    Here is a piece
    about Jordanian dialects from the October Jordan Times, probably not written by a linguist:

    A main difference between the fallahi and madani varieties is the pronunciation of the letter "qaf", pronounced variably like a "k" or a hard "g" by fallahi speakers, but replaced in madani with a silent glottal stop, according to linguists.

    Although the writer initially acknowledges 700,000 speakers of Levantine Bedouin, the bedu seem to have suddenly gone by the wayside.

    Medani–from medina "city"?

  33. John Cowan said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    People who really do know multiple Romance languages do see them (and for that matter Latin) as a continuum, with the similarities greatly outweighing the differences. The excellent blog Filius Lunae, though written in English, is all about this conceit.

    A Russian once asked me "Greek is written in Cyrillic alphabet, yes?" "More or less," I feebly replied.

    [(myl) A good place to start with Filius Lunae would be "Adventures in the confusion of Romance", 11/21/2011, which discusses a web-forum discussion of a short passage in Italian in an episode of Glee, which someone from Mexico identifies as "Spanish from Spain", and someone from Venezuela calls "both Spanish and Italian".]

  34. the other Mark P said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

    J Lee – briefly – the "c-word" is not at all casual in the UK.

    I'm astounded anyone could think it is. You virtually never see it in print or telly, whereas most other taboo words appear from time to time.

    In New Zealand it is pretty much the worst word you can call another person. It's punch in the face material. Even calling a third party it is very rare and memorable.

  35. kato said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

    @John, and regarding the comparison of Arabic and Latin. The difference is that so far the Arabic dialects have not diverged from one another as much as the Romance languages have. So if one insists on making an analogy between Classical Arabic/MSA/the dialects and Latin/Romance languages, then it is probably best to compare CA/MSA with Latin, and the Arabic dialects with the Romance dialects of, say, the 10th century.

    That being said, the assumption shouldn't be made that Arabic and Latin were spread in the same way, nor that the modern Arabic dialects descend directly from Classical Arabic.

    And the mutual intelligibility question got me thinking … I wonder whether Arabic and Neo-Aramaic speakers (in Syria, or the former Mandeans of Iraq) have any?

  36. michael farris said,

    January 15, 2011 @ 8:33 pm

    I wouldn't say the c-word is 'casual' in the UK but IME men from the UK (and Ireland) use it much more freely than Americans do. I've also heard UK men call each other the c-word in a non-hostile manner (impossible in the US).

    On the other hand, I was suprised to find out that 'wanker' is apparently a really serious insult in the UK (I'd assumed it was kind of a jinsult that no one took seriously).

  37. GeorgeW said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 7:00 am

    I think the Latin and the Latin Continuum is a good analogy (but, like most analogies, not perfect) for Arabic and the various Arabic dialects.

    Both Latin and Classical Arabic are the primary source of the modern languages/dialects. And, there is a continuum of mutual intelligibility.

  38. Canehan said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 9:57 am

    The only place I have ever seen the c-word appear in widely accessible print (i.e. not in novels) in Britain is in the LRB, most recently in a piece in December by Jenny Diski on the Google Ngram app. She made a point of finding the usage of the major swear words. To me, that's a curious form of intellectual snobbery mixed with juvenile behaviour – the article would have been just as interesting without the swear words. But the shock factor – still, I suggest, for many people in the Uk and elsewhere -would have been missing.

  39. vanya said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    "People who really do know multiple Romance languages do see them (and for that matter Latin) as a continuum, with the similarities greatly outweighing the differences."

    Certainly it's not hard to imagine a world where speakers of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian dialects could all be compelled by a nasty political force to speak some kind of Modern Standard Latin. Most "Spanish" or "Italian" native speakers are diglossic anyway. French or Romanian speakers are a little further away – I suppose they would be the Maghrebis in this analogy.

  40. blahedo said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    My understanding is that the situation with Classical/Modern/dialectal Arabic is analogous to the Latin/Romance situation *of 800-1000 years ago*. At that time, the dialects had diverged less and remained much more mutually comprehensible than now (less as you got further away from home, of course), and they were standardised and written down almost not at all; anyone with an education was taught then-modern Latin and could read it fairly fluently and write it to some extent; and the illiterate peasants had frequent exposure to Latin but didn't really understand all of it.

  41. kato said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

    @GeorgeW: well, with MSA and the Arabic dialects, of course there is a certain amount of intelligibility, shared lexical items, and so forth. However, Classical Arabic is not the direct ancestor of the dialects, at least this much recent scholarship agrees upon. CA was more of a poetic or mercantile koiné among the tribes of the Arabian peninsula. There have been numerous studies on this matter.

  42. michael farris said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

    "Classical Arabic is not the direct ancestor of the dialects, at least this much recent scholarship agrees upon"

    Good luck in trying to tell everyday Arabs (with no linguistic background) that.

  43. Nijma said,

    January 16, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

    I see Ben Ali has turned up in KSA. I wonder how the Saudis will understand his Tunisian, and vice versa. Apparently KSA has a "traditional Najdi dialect" of the interior, and a "sophisticated west coast Hijazi accent":

    IIRC Maxime Rodinson, in his book about Mohammed, said that early in Islamic history, the hadiths with a Mecca dialect were destroyed but those with Medina dialect were kept.

  44. GeorgeW said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 7:01 am

    Kato: "However, Classical Arabic is not the direct ancestor of the dialects, at least this much recent scholarship agrees upon."

    I don't think this is quite as settled an issue as this suggests.

  45. Jongseong Park said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but with varying degrees of fussiness we can say that Old English isn't the direct ancestor of Modern English and Scots, Classical Latin isn't the direct ancestor of the Modern Romance languages, Classical Attic Greek isn't the direct ancestor of Modern Greek, Classical Chinese isn't the direct ancestor of the Modern Sinitic languages, Classical Mongolian isn't the direct ancestor of the Modern Mongolian languages…

    It appears rarer to find a straightforward linear evolution from an older literary language to a supposed modern descendant. It often is the case that the modern tongues derive from what were divergent dialects at the time the older literary form was codified or from a koiné incorporating different dialects than reflected in the classic literary form.

  46. Lane Greene said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

    This has been a fascinating discussion.

    I;n sure this is true of many people here: I sometimes feel bad for saying how many languages I speak (by some reasonable definitions of "speak") because four of them are Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian, and I sometimes feel like I was running up the score. (I learned Italian last, more or less on a lark, because I knew it'd be easy.) They're definitely on that continuum, but good luck telling non-language-people "well, four of them are really the same language on a continuum so you could really count them as one if you wanted to." The big heavy lift is learning the first language in a family or subfamily.

    At the same time, I never count Arabic twice, even though I have an intermediate command of both fusha and Levantine colloquial, which are certainly nearly as different as any two of the Romance group. In this case, it would be other people who'd think I was running up the score. It's the dialect-with-an-army-and-navy thing.

    So I sometimes want to say, especially to linguists, that I speak four languages: Germanic, Romance, Slavic and Arabic.

  47. GeorgeW said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

    @Lane Greene: Interesting observation. Yes, it does sounds like a dialect-with-an-army distinction.

  48. Filius Lunae said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

    Yes, I share Lane's thoughts. In a nutshell, like Lane, when I'm asked by non-linguists what languages I speak, my reply quite often is "Romance". That, undoubtedly, is followed by the remark, "No, really. Which ones?", and the conversation drags on from there. You'll find on my blog that I use the term "Romance" to refer to the Neo-Latin languages as a single unit when making comparisons. There are a few posts where I explain in details my passion and feelings about this "Latin unity".

    I don't focus on other language families (clearly), but, certainly, I am informed about them, and, one would get a similar experience with the Germanic languages, or Slavic ones (as Lane says, as well). I mean, someone like me who, instead of Latin and Romance, focuses solely and purely on the Germanic or Slavic languages, dialects, and Proto-languages.

  49. John Burgess said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 9:11 pm

    Assigned primarily to Arab countries as a US Foreign Service Officer, I had the (dubious) pleasure of learning several dialects of Arabic, both formally and informally. The Foreign Service Institute, charged with language instruction for diplomats, teaches five different Arabics: MSA, Maghrebi (N. African), Egyptian, Levantine, Gulf or Peninsular, and Iraqi. Emphasis is on MSA with modules for the others available–when assignment schedules and budgets allow.

    At the beginning of my career, I had a series of short assignments–following an intensive, DC-based course in MSA–in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt (where I studied advanced MSA and Egyptian amiyya, as well as a brush-up on Levantine). My wife took similar courses, though less intensively.

    At post, we took 'regionalization' classes in a variety of formats. Each post definitely required work to rewire the language circuits.

    Maghrebi was the most difficult to handle speaking or listening, though the written form was very pure, 'classical' Arabic, only with different choices having been made in vocabulary and preferred grammatical constructions. Maghrebi Arabic, we students would joke, was sort of like Czech, suffering from a lack of vowels.

    After these assignments and language courses, my next assignment was to Syria. On arriving at our new apartment, my wife switched on the TV to catch a news broadcast. Within minutes, she was swearing a blue streak (in English) and cursing Arabic, its dialects, and its script. 'WTF,' she said, more or less, 'I've learned four different dialects, one supposedly to prepare us for Damascus. Here I am, listening to the news! I can make out words, but I can't understanding a @#)(# sentence in the whole @#$@#@# thing!'

    By chance, she'd happened upon a news broadcast in Hebrew, retransmitted on Jordanian TV.

    As has been noted in reply to John's query about 'mutual intelligibility', the short answer is, 'No.' Educated Arabs will use MSA and get by. Uneducated Arabs need translators and a great deal of patience. A rural Yemeni cannot converse with a rural Iraqi; a rural Moroccan cannot understand a rural (or Bedouin) Saudi.

    Back, more or less, to the main topic, in my studies in Egypt, we had class sessions analyzing Nasser's speeches. He would start out in formal MSA to establish authority, then slide into dialect. By the end of his speeches, most of which were tub-thumpers, he would be in pure dialect, churning the masses and massaging their emotions.

  50. Ken Brown said,

    January 18, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    michael farris said: "I've also heard UK men call each other the c-word in a non-hostile manner (impossible in the US)."

    Only last night I heard someone use it humourously of himself, when talking about a joke he played on someone else: "I was being such a cunt". I think we tend to read informality as friendliness, and formality as social distance, so breaking language taboos with someone can be a sign of social equality and friendliness. I can't think of any word so bad that it could never be used ligh-heartedly in, say, a pub conversation. Obviuosly this is a whole other topic…

    Its a matter of context and register. If I send an evening in my local pub I will probably hear someone use that word. But I doubt if I have ever heard it in church and I probably never will. I don't recall ever hearing it at work but I suppose its at least possible that it might crop up in a private conversation, certainly not out loud in the open-plan office, or at a meeting, or during any business discussion.

    On the other hand, when I go to a local football match I am likely to hear it multiple times as an insult against opposing players, occasionally from women and children as well as adult men, and sometimes chanted by hundreds of fans together. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the parents who approve of their kids shouting such things at a match would hit them if they dared used the word at home. Different social context, different usage.

  51. Eric said,

    January 18, 2011 @ 5:27 pm

    ACAB. I've never even heard of that on this side of the pond but it made it to Tunisia. Awesome! up the pvnx

  52. Maasai said,

    January 19, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    This seems like a good thread to ask this question: is anyone aware of any evidence of the various dialects of Arabic converging on MSA in pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar?

    It seems possible that the prevalence of spoken MSA on satellite TV, cartoons, movies might influence the everyday idiom over time.

    This would be an interesting test case for the limits of standardising forces – since the linguistic distance from dialect to standard Arabic is very large.

  53. John Burgess said,

    January 19, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

    @Maasai: It could happen, but I think it's far too early to see much evidence of it. Egyptian films–in dialect–have been around for over 50 years. The only result of that is that Egyptian dialect is more widely understood throughout the region. There may be jocular repetition of certain film or TV phrases, but that's about it.

    The fact that MSA is being taught in nearly all schools is, I think, more of a factor toward the universal use of MSA.

    Of course, TV and other media will have this standardizing affect, I believe. But I don't think we'll see it for at least another generation.

  54. GeorgeW said,

    January 19, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

    @Maasai: I have no evidence of recent convergence or divergence, but it my sense that Arabs make a clear distinction between MSA and their spoken form (i.e. diglossia). Someone conversationally speaking MSA with case marking, formal relative pronouns, formal negation and the like would be considered weird, hyper religious or snooty. They would be distancing themselves from their interlocutor.

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    January 20, 2011 @ 3:06 am

    […] is noteworthy for the linguistic aspects of language and power that Ali chose to spoke in the Tunisian dialect of spoken Arabic rather than Standard Arabic when he folded, as Mark Liberman at the Language Log explains (see his […]

  56. Karen McNeil said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 11:58 pm


    I definitely see some evidence of this with Tunisian dialect. To give one example, many Arabic-origin words which contain the glottal stop (hamza) are/were pronounced with a 'h' instead of a hamza. For instance, يسهل / yeshal instead of يسئل /yes'al ("he asks"). These forms have definitely become low-prestige and are dying out, used only by the old and the very uneducated.

    I agree with John Burgess that education and literacy (which is near universal among the younger generations in Tunisia) is the much more important factor.

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