Arabic as a macrolanguage

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Article published three days ago in The Economist:  "Arabic, a great language, has a low profile:  Part of the reason is that it is not really a single language at all", Johnson (10/18/18).

The article begins:

AMONG THEIR many reverberations, the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 had a linguistic side-effect. Between 2002 and 2009 the number of university students in America learning Arabic shot up by 231%, making it a more popular subject than Latin and Russian. This was a "Sputnik moment": like the Soviet satellite, it shocked Americans into studying their adversaries.

But national attention soon wandered. Arabic-learning declined by 10% between 2009 and 2016 — years in which America continued to fight in Iraq and later against Islamic State. In both America and Britain, Arabic is just the eighth-most-studied language, behind less important but somehow sexier ones such as (in British A-level exams) Italian.

Arabic is the fifth-most-spoken language in the world, with more than 313m speakers. It is an official language in 25 countries — more than any other except English and French — and one of six official languages at the United Nations. As the vehicle of one of the great faiths, Islam, it is widely studied for religious reasons. So why does it seem to punch below its weight in the secular world?

Part of the answer is that "Arabic", today, is not really a single language at all. Scholars call it a "macrolanguage" instead. "Modern Standard Arabic" (MSA) is the medium of serious writing and formal public speech across the Arab world. But Western students who sign up for a class in it soon discover that nobody speaks this "standard" as a native tongue; many Arabs hardly speak it at all. MSA is based on the classical Arabic of the Koran — written in the 7th century — with additional vocabulary for modern life.

The article describes "Arabic" as being "really a group of dialects different enough to be considered separate languages."  We have the same problem with Sinitic which consists of hundreds of different varieties of speech which are conventionally referred to as "dialects", but many of which are mutually unintelligible.

MSA relates to the "dialects", opines the article, "roughly as Latin does to today's Romance languages."

Consider Syrian Arabic. Some words are identical to their classical progenitors. But some sounds disappear, and others change wholesale: for example, the th sound becomes a d, s, t or z. Some dialectal words are borrowed from European languages, like talifoon (telephone), which is used alongside MSA'S haatif. Others draw on local influences, such as Turkish. In many cases, words change meaning. Haka means to tell a story in MSA, but it just means 'to speak' in Syrian dialect. And the grammars are utterly different: the dialects are simpler than MSA, but they must still be learned mostly anew."

Because of the great difference between MSA and the regional vernaculars, "The foreigner who wants to both read and speak Arabic… needs to acquire, if not quite two languages, one and a half."  Consequently,  "attrition among learners is high; for every five who take up Arabic, roughly one makes it to advanced classes."

Literacy in MSA poses an even bigger problem than less than full intelligibility among the so-called dialects:

To read or write, Arabs essentially use a foreign language, one often taught with stultifying conservatism in schools. Some do so happily, proud of its long history, its complex and subtle grammar or its intimate links with Islam. But many ordinary people prefer reading or writing in languages such as French or English. French, supposedly in decline, has a quarter as many native speakers, but quite a lot more clout. To give one approximate measure, there are three times as many articles in French on Wikipedia as in Arabic, with five times as many edits. The Arabic book market is about a quarter the size of Belgium's.

All this is a shame. Many Westerners might associate the language with today¹s repressive Middle Eastern regimes, but there is far more to Arabic than that. It is the medium of Moses Maimonides's medieval Jewish philosophy, the novels of Naguib Mahfouz and the songs of Feyrouz. No region, and no people or language, should ever be judged on its politics alone.

I asked several specialists whether they thought that the description of the situation outlined in the Economist article was accurate.

From Roger Allen:

This is admirably accurate.

As examples, the MSA verb meaning 'to see' is "ra'aa" or "shaahada";  the colloquial equivalent is "shaafa"….

The MSA word for "bread" is "khubz" ;  in Egyptian dialect, it is " `aysh."

From Joe Lowry:

The article is basically right.  MSA is a highly inflected language, though slightly less so when spoken.  Dialects are almost entirely uninflected.  Sound and accent shifts in dialect are very common and sometimes very prominent and confusing (at least for those of us used to Classical Arabic, though linguistics scholars have no trouble explaining them in scientific terms).  Demonstratives, though they can be related to MSA demonstratives, vary from dialect to dialect.  Tenses and moods are often different in dialect.  Difficult consonants are often turned into sounds that are easier to pronounce in dialects.  Some consonants change completely, for example q to a glottal stop, q to a hard g, q to j, j to hard g, j to consonantal y, and so on.

The one thing not mentioned in the article is the idea of registers, which is the vertical transition between intermediate stages between full dialect and full MSA depending on the socio-lingiustic context of a conversation or other language production opportunity.

From Devin Stewart:

This characterization is basically correct, in my view. MSA retains the case system of classical Arabic, whereas the dialects do not have cases–not a small difference, on top of major differences in pronunciation, phonetics, syllabification, syntax, and vocabulary. In my experience, Moroccan and Egyptian Arabic are further apart than Italian and Spanish are, whereas Jordanian, Lebanese, Syrian, though very similar, are more distant than the different dialects of Spanish. The main change I would make to his piece is to say that the distance between Latin and Spanish is a bit wider than that between classical Arabic and the modern dialects, which makes sense because more centuries lapsed in between. And, to be proficient in Arabic, one must be proficient in two related languages–I agree. That is why it takes longer to learn.

An interesting twist in the difference between MSA and MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin) is that the former is based on Classical Arabic, whereas the latter is based in the youngest of the regional vernaculars.

For whatever reason, the regional speech forms of the Arabic and Sinitic groups remain underdeveloped or virtually undeveloped as written languages.  This is in sharp contrast to the languages of Europe and South Asia, where there has been vibrant florescence of numerous regional, local, and national written languages.

Selected readings

[h.t. Norman Leung]


  1. Cuconnacht said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 3:52 pm

    I think the linguistic situation in the Arab world is comparable to that in Romance language Europe c. 1200 CE. Almost all writing is in MSE, as it was in Latin in Europe. So are religious services (the readings from the Qur'an are in older Arabic, as were bible readings in medieval masses) and university lectures. If an educated native Catalan speaker and an educated Sicilian needed to speak to each other, they would do their best to speak Latin; so also with MSE today (although Egyptian dialect, familiar from movies, might also enter into it).

  2. Levantine said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 3:59 pm

    Cuconnacht, the difference, though, is that MSA is intelligeble to the vast majority of Arabic speakers, which would not have been true of Latin in medieval Europe.

  3. Ellen K. said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

    Would that difference Levantine mentions be due to greater literacy, as well as media such as radio and TV?

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 4:07 pm

    Levantine, I am not sure I understand your comparison. Modern Standard Arabic is, as you say, intelligible to the vast majority of Arabic speakers, but equally in mediæval Europe Latin was clearly intelligible to "the vast majority of Latin speakers", so it is not clear to me exactly what point you are seeking to make.

  5. Levantine said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 4:24 pm

    Philip Taylor, by “vast majority of Arabic speakers”, I mean speakers of the various so-called dialects (Moroccan, Egyptian, etc.), which, as the article explains, are more accurately understood as distinct languages. I’m referring, in other words, to ordinary people. In medieval Europe, by contrast, your Romance-speaking man on the street would not have understood Latin.

  6. Levantine said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 4:26 pm

    Ellen K, good question. I don’t know if the present-day situation was the case historically.

  7. Bloix said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

    "The Arabic book market is about a quarter the size of Belgium's."
    Since the population of Belgium is a bit over 11 million, and the world has over 300 million people whose first language is Arabic, what you're telling us is that virtually no Arabic-speakers read books in their native language. No history, fiction, current events, self-help – nothing.
    What about newspapers? magazines? On-line sites? Is it possible that there is virtually no mass media in the Arab world other than state-controlled radio and TV?

  8. Bob Hoberman said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 4:52 pm

    People often say that vernacular Arabic dialects are uninflected or less inflected than Standard Arabic (classical or modern), but that's totally false. It's true that the Standard Arabic case and mood inflections are lost, but most vernacular dialects inflect for mood with new affixes (prefixes). Furthermore, many dialects attach indirect object pronouns and negative markers as suffixes to verbs, something that's totally absent in Standard Arabic. For example, Egyptian ma-b-ji-ktib-u-ha-l-ú:-ʃ 'they don't write it to him', where the location of stress shows that this is a single word. (The -b- marks indicative mood.)

    If most Arabic speakers can understand oral MSA, it's because they've been exposed to it constantly on TV. A fluent speaker of Moroccan Arabic who grew up in France and had no education in Arabic (though advanced degrees in France and the US) told me that he can't understand news broadcasts in MSA, though his illiterate older relatives in Morocco can.

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 5:43 pm

    There is one exception, with respect to Arabic, to the observation that "the regional speech forms of the Arabic and Sinitic groups remain underdeveloped or virtually undeveloped as written languages," and that is Maltese. The probable reason is that all other Arabic-speaking communities have been encouraged, over the past century and half, to see themselves as belonging of the Arab nation (qawm) ahead of any identity based on territory (watan).

  10. Gabriel Holbrow said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

    I was one of the crowds of university students in the United States that signed up for Arabic after September 11, as remembered in the lead paragraph of the Economist article. I attended my first class of Modern Standard Arabic in late September 2001, and then dropped out a year and a half later — a typical pattern, it appears.

    The Economist article explains this waning interest as an effect of the language itself, and I agree with what it says, as far as my limited knowledge takes me. But I have also long wondered how large an effect the quality of Arabic teaching, rather than aspects of the (macro)language itself, has had on the lack of sustained interest. In my own case, the teaching and (more importantly) the teaching materials (textbooks, especially) for the Arabic classes I took were undeniably inferior to what I had enjoyed with the other languages I had taken in school by then (Spanish and Japanese). And that less-than-encouraging low quality of teaching was the main reason I dropped out of Arabic (to go back to Japanese, as it happened).

    If there is not enough interest in Arabic (MSM or regional varieties) in the United States, how much can we blame the language, or how much should we fault the resources for teaching it well?

  11. Anton Sherwood said,

    October 21, 2018 @ 9:55 pm

    “I never think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren't we?” —Miss Froy in The Lady Vanishes (1938)

  12. Bart said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 12:45 am

    I’ve been struggling with something rather basic about the article.
    There I find these two concepts:
    – MSA relates to Syrian Arabic, Moroccan Arabic etc roughly as Latin relates to French, Catalan etc
    – MSA is based on Classical Arabic.

    This leads me to wonder about these two related questions:
    – Is it possible to complete the following statement or not?
    MSA is based on Classical Arabic roughly as X (some kind of Latin/Romance) is based on Y (some other kind of Latin/Romance).
    – How do the various forms of Latin – Vulgar Latin, Classical Latin, Church Latin etc – fit into this model of Arabic/Latin analogy?

    I’d be glad of any insight from anyone who knows this field.

  13. Levantine said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 12:56 am

    Bart, others may disagree, but I would say that MSA is based on Classical Arabic roughly as Medieval Latin is based on Classical Latin.

    The various Arabic “dialects” are all different enough from MSA that, if we continue the analogy, they are no longer forms of Latin but rather independent languages derived from it, some closer to the parent than others.

  14. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 4:07 am

    Its issues are reflected in the fact that Arabic is the only UN official language for which there isn't a widely recognized official proficiency examination; Does anybody have any experience regarding the ALPT by the Egyptian Arabic Academy?

  15. Ellen K. said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 8:41 am

    While I don't know for certain how the levels of literacy compare between Europe in the Middle ages and now in Arabic countries, we do know with certainty that in Europe back then they didn't have TV and radio.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 11:08 am

    Just on the "sputnik moment" concept, and a vogue for a particular foreign language among American students as evidence of national nervousness about the seemingly rising power of its native-speakers, there was a minor boom in US high schools offering Japanese back in the '80's. That faded, like Russian before it. It is too soon to say whether the more recent Mandarin boom will likewise fade, but that's probably the smart way to bet.

  17. Levantine said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 1:06 pm

    Ellen K., there were other means of exposure to Classical Arabic. Hearing recitations of the Qur’an and other religious texts would have been a fundamental part of any mosque-goer’s experience. The importance of Classical Arabic as a sacred (and not just liturgical) language is one of the reasons MSA exists at all.

  18. Ellen K. said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 1:36 pm

    @ Levantine. I am replying to your comment about MSA now and Latin in the Middle Ages in Europe. Seems to me the various types of audio (with or without video) recording and/or transmition will make a difference in how many people understand a particular standard language. Bob Hoberman even gave a nice illustration of this.

  19. Levantine said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 1:51 pm

    Ellen K., fair enough, but my comment still bears on the question, because what I’m suggesting is that more may be at play than the impact of mass media and literacy. In other words, I suspect that ordinary people in the Arabophone world have always had more exposure to the classical/“standard” register of their language than their counterparts in countries that speak languages derived from Latin.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 2:48 pm

    As Ellen K. suggested, the average 12th century Western European (including many with non-Romance L1's) could have heard considerable amounts of Latin in church every Sunday. Is the claim that the average modern mosque-goer hears quantitatively more classical Arabic per week than that? Or relates to what he or she hears differently or more attentively? It is true that at some point in between antiquity and Vatican II, the "performance style" of the Latin mass adjusted to the reality of congregations that couldn't presumptively follow all of the text and thus shifted at certain points in the service into a barely audible background murmur understood only by the addressee (God) and perhaps altar boys in close proximity to the murmurer.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

    It's always hard to draw these analogies but another one might be between the New-Testament-and-Byzantine Greek used even unto this present day in Greek Orthodox services and modern Greek. L1 speakers of Modern Greek may have objective difficulty following the very different variety of Greek used in the services except to the extent they have become habituated to it by frequent exposure, but a political/cultural commitment to the notion that it's all really the same language (in a way that Latin and e.g. Italian are not conceptualized as the same language) often either helps bridge that gap to some extent or keeps people in denial about the size of the gap.

    I occasionally attend services conducted in the churchy variety of Greek myself, but since I have zero knowledge of Modern Greek, my difficulty is from the other end, i.e. the gap between churchy Greek and pagan ancient Greek with the reconstructed pronunciation taught in modern secular universities (which is quite different from the churchy pronunciation).

  22. Levantine said,

    October 22, 2018 @ 5:52 pm

    J.W. Brewer, I would say that pious Muslims necessarily have a different relationship with Arabic, because for them, the Qur’an is the literal word of God, not the work of any human author. No Christian would ever make the claim that Latin was the original language of any portion of the Bible, or that the scripture was spoken directly by God. This difference is why calligraphy has such a high status in Islamic art, and why Arabic remains central to Muslim worship even in non-Arabophone countries (attempts to do away with it in Kemalist Turkey failed disastrously). So yes, my claim is that Muslim speakers of the various Arabic languages had (and still have) considerable motivation to listen more attentively to Arabic than would have been the case with Romance-speakers hearing the Latin mass (which, as you yourself note, was largely mumbled anyway).

  23. Yerushalmi said,

    October 23, 2018 @ 3:05 am

    Is it just me, or is this article making much ado about nothing?

    Between 2002 and 2009 the number of university students in America learning Arabic shot up by 231%[…]
    But national attention soon wandered. Arabic-learning declined by 10% between 2009 and 2016

    Putting these two together, and from 2002 to 2016 Arabic-learning still "shot up" by 208%. Why the lamentations?

  24. JG Baker said,

    October 23, 2018 @ 3:39 pm

    Having learned both MSA and Levantine (as a non-native), what strikes me as missing from the discussion of "normal person" exposure here is the fact that the "dialects" were not represented in written form–so signs as well as journalism, etc has been in MSA (Nafouz, the late 1980s Nobel Prize winner stood out for including "Egyptian" dialogue in SOME of his work). The low literacy (ability to read, not mastery of register/grammar) rates notwithstanding, writing has surrounded everyone with the macrolanguage even if they do not "speak" it.

  25. David Marjanović said,

    October 23, 2018 @ 5:47 pm

    So no, no tongue is mumbled.

    Read more carefully before you write your angry comments. The Tridentine Mass contains a lot of mumbled Latin; nobody claimed that's a property of the language itself.

  26. AJJ said,

    October 23, 2018 @ 7:25 pm

    Huh. Sounds a lot like I assume the situation was in old East Asia, post-Han, with the use of Literary Sinitic.

  27. Peter Grubtal said,

    October 24, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

    ..tried my hand at MSA many years ago, found the morphology fascinating (love those broken plurals!) but complex (hate those horrible defective radicals). I gave up when I couldn't see where I was going.
    If it's still the case that's there's little published in the national dialects, it makes for a situation I find difficult to imagine, but hardly conducive to a flourishing cultural or intellectual scene.

    What David M. presumably means is that the Mass was sometimes (or often) mumbled in practice. The official text, I would guess, is correct church Latin. Anyone interested could check out "mumpsimus".

  28. Levantine said,

    October 24, 2018 @ 8:22 pm

    Peter Grubtal, the following statement from the Council of Trent is revealing:

    "Canon IX. If any one saith, that the rite of the Roman Church, according to which a part of the Canon and the words of consecration are pronounced in a low tone, is to be condemned; or, that the Mass ought to be celebrated in the vulgar tongue only; or, that water ought not to be mixed with the wine that is to be offered in the chalice, for that it is contrary to the institution of Christ; let him be anathema."

    In other words, saying large portions of the mass in a barely audible (if not inaudible) voice was already an established practice by the sixteenth century, and one approved by the Council of Trent.

  29. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 24, 2018 @ 10:11 pm

    FWIW, I used the word "murmur" rather than "mumble" in an attempt at a non-pejorative characterization, because as the work product of the Council of Trent that Levantine quoted shows, there is no consensus on this being a bad thing rather than just being a thing.

  30. cliff arroyo said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 12:31 am

    IME (very limited) Arabic speakers pay lip service to MSA and say all kinds of things about how wonderful it is and how (other) speakers should use it and forget about the dialects…. and go out of their way to avoid using it even across pretty substantial dialect differences.

    But there are a lot of shades of grey and mixing of dialect and MSA features.

    I was at a dinner once where a Syrian and Moroccan were talking and was told they were using their own dialects (normally described as mutually unintelligible) to speak to each other. I'm assuming both were using MSA influenced versions of their dialects but they had known each other for years and familiarity helps with comprehension across dialects.

  31. Peter Grubtal said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 1:44 am

    Levantine :

    It was one of the arguments of the reformers (Luther et al.) for the use of the vernacular, that the Latin mass was often intoned by scantily educated clerics, whose Latin was very deficient, and who consequently mumbled, garbled, murmured it, unintelligibly to competent Latinists even, let alone the laity.

  32. Levantine said,

    October 25, 2018 @ 2:43 am

    J.W. Brewer, I didn't mean to criticise the practice (I actually think it's liturgically very effective), though I can see how "mumble" isn't the most neutral way of describing it. "Murmur" doesn't sound right to me either. Perhaps it's safest to borrow the council's own language and stick to "say in a low tone" and other such circumlocutions.

    Peter Grubtal, that may be the Protestant framing of it, but from what I understand (and those who know better can correct me), the traditional Catholic stance is that those parts of the mass that are quietly spoken aren't intended to be heard by the laity anyway; they are addressed to God and supposed to be uttered quietly to Him alone.

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