Arabic and the vernaculars, part 4 — the case of Bible translations

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Again, to refresh our collective memory and to provide the context for the present post and the other posts in this series, I repeat the following questions:

1. Is there such a thing as "Classical Arabic"?  If there is, how do we describe / define it?

2. What is "Standard Arabic"?

3. What is Quranic Arabic?  How different is it from Standard Arabic?

4. How many vernacular Arabic languages are there?  Egyptian? Syrian?  Lebanese?  Are they quite different from Standard Arabic?  Are they mutually intelligible?  Do they customarily have written forms and a flourishing literature?

You may also wish to revisit the introduction with which the first post in the series began.

Heather Sharkey offered the following eye-opening response:

You have opened a can of worms! Or many cans of worms!

Roger Allen & the Arabic and Islamic section of NELC required PhD students to do a qualifying exam paper on the history of the Arabic language, drawing on texts such as Kees Versteegh’s The Arabic Language, which Edinburgh University Press issued in a second edition in 2014.  That would be a good basic reference for some of the questions.
I will add some thoughts on your Question #4. [VHM:  See the quotation above.]
Christian and specifically Protestant missionaries in the Middle East – mostly Britons and Americans – took very seriously the idea that everyone should have a Bible that they could understand.  For this reason they tried to tackle the question of what vernacular Arabics (plural) were: when does an Arabic language become comprehensible, and which forms “deserve” a Bible – deserve to become print languages?  They waded into this quagmire in different spots around its perimeter.  In the first half of the twentieth century, they devised partial translations of biblical scriptures in regional variants.  But they could never really pin Arabic down: can any language systems be pinned down? They published versions in dialects from Tunis; Constantine (Algeria); Cairo; Alexandria; Khartoum; you name it, they tried to the extent that they had experts and money available. But then they realized that they needed different versions for Muslims and Jews.  They also realized that Christians (Copts) in Egypt refused to touch a vernacular Bible – Copts wanted something that sounded Koran-ish, as “high” or Classical an Arabic as possible!  The missionaries’ Khartoum editions, about which I have written, posed a particular problem.  One early partial translation that missionaries devised turned out to be a flop a) because the translation was bad (the two British people who prepared it, did not know Arabic that well); but b) because the two missionaries who devised it were women, who hung out mostly with other women, with the result that Sudanese men said it sounded like women’s Arabic, and was ridiculous and ignorant — raising the specter of gendered Arabics, too!
Then, in the Arabic-speaking world, as in other parts of the world (such as East and Central Africa, vis-a-vis Swahili), missionaries decided that it was too complicated to deal with all these little translations, so they tried to unify them.  By the 1960s as decolonization was unfolding, they were deep into preparing a Maghribi Bible translation which aimed to unify forms from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria into one.  The point was, as I have argued, these efforts showed how much of defining a language for the sake of written or print culture is a matter of both convenience and social engineering.
Debates over the colloquial versions have only continued, and some scholars have begun to write more about the importance of written and spoken forms, e.g., in Egypt, through the 20th century and into the early 21st.  As an example, there is a book by Zaid Fahmy from Cornell called Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture.  He discusses Arabic language and colloquial Egyptian forms, in part.
Ziad Fahmy doesn’t much deal with another issue that historians are starting to debate more and more: the hegemony of Cairo (and Cairo Arabic) and the occlusion especially of Upper Egypt (its culture including its language).
No easy answers to your questions!  That’s why people, including linguists, are confused: they should be confused. 

Often in linguistics, as in life in general, there are no easy answers.  That is why it is wise to be adaptable when the situation calls for flexibility.


Selected readings


  1. M. said,

    March 10, 2022 @ 9:19 am

    Might the second word here be a slip of the pen for 'exclusion'? — "the occlusion especially of Upper Egypt." If not, what does it mean here?

  2. Cervantes said,

    March 10, 2022 @ 2:41 pm

    This seems to be a question of inconsistent taxonomic practice. If Arabic in Morocco and Iraq really are as different as French and Portuguese, then if we were consistent we would either consider Arabic to be several different languages, or we would consider the Romance languages to be one. Note that Latindom, if you will, was united by a single Latin scripture for as long as Arabdom was united by Quran, so that doesn't explain the difference in how the taxonomic level is treated. It would be helpful to have some metric of similarity according to which topolects are classified as variations of a single language, or as deserving different headline names.

    [(myl) Note that Ethnologue lists 34 "Arabic" languages, each with its own ISO-639-3 code. The same source give 43 "Romance" languages.

    In my opinion, Victor and some of those that he quotes are making things much more complicated than they need to be.
    The many Arabic "colloquials" are linguistically different languages, plain as day. Politically, nearly all of the countries involved continue to insist that the "colloquials" are degraded forms of MSA, which is what is taught in schools, used (mostly) in the media, etc. A colleague of mine was once brought up on charges before the University Senate in Tunis, on the grounds that his phonetic studies of Tunisian Arabic brought the nation into disrepute by publicizing the fact that its citizens' everyday speech was so corrupt.

    This is pretty much the same as the official attitude in Italy towards Venetian, Sicilian, etc. etc. The difference is that Italy is a nation-state, with the standard historical attempt to impose a standard language, whereas the imposition of MSA is a trans-national phenomenon.]

  3. Marc Hamann said,

    March 10, 2022 @ 2:42 pm


    I read "occlusion" in this case to mean Upper Egyptian distinctness in language and culture being overshadowed by Cairene norms.

    I've witnessed this myself when I was in Egypt many years ago.

  4. Ross Presser said,

    March 10, 2022 @ 2:46 pm

    @M: I think "occlusion especially of Upper Egypt" refers to how the culture and language of Cairo gradually replaced aspects of culture in locations in Upper Egypt. "occlude" would have the meaning "to cover": visualize a blanket coming out of Cairo and covering the country.

  5. Terry K. said,

    March 10, 2022 @ 4:25 pm


    There's a distinction in that the Latin Bible is a translation from the original languages. Which is not the case for the Quran and Arabic. Which seems to me could affect attitudes towards language labels.

    There may be historical factors too.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 10, 2022 @ 5:25 pm

    Judging from what myl says above under Cervantes' quote, my Arabist colleagues and I have not made things "much more complicated than they need to be."

  7. Philip Anderson said,

    March 10, 2022 @ 6:57 pm

    I don’t think the Latin Bible was ever read, taught or studied by the vast majority of Romance speakers.

  8. John Swindle said,

    March 10, 2022 @ 11:02 pm

    And we haven't even got to the first three questions yet!

  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 10, 2022 @ 11:56 pm

    @John Swindle


  10. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 6:56 am

    @Victor Mair: From my strictly amateur perspective, it looks to me that your Arabist colleagues are dealing with a more complicated political situation. Speakers of Romance languages long ago accepted that they were speaking different languages, and that these languages were not Latin. My understanding is that they realized this in the 9th century, as a side effect of the Carolingian Renaissance. This was well past the point where it was true, but nonetheless long ago. If France and Spain were insisting that they were speaking the same language, with potentially severe penalties for anyone suggesting otherwise, Romance studies would be complicated as well.

    So why the difference? I will spare you my uninformed speculation. This, however, strikes me as a very interesting question. I would love to see informed discussion of this.

  11. cervantes said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 9:39 am

    @Philip Anderson: While most Europeans were illiterate until perhaps the 17th Century, the same is true of Arabs. The Latin Bible was used in liturgy and sacraments, so people heard it just as Muslims heard Quran. There was more of a tradition of memorizing Quran to be sure, but I don't see how that makes much of a difference. I do get MYL's point about the essential fiction of "standard" Italian, i.e. Tuscan. It's interesting that in contrast, English is spoken in many countries but is almost always mutually intelligible, with perhaps minor exceptions such as Jamaican, or rural isolates. Roughly the same can be said for Spanish. But we do have a tendency to disdain rural or ethnic variations of English as inferior or incorrect..

  12. M said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 10:18 am

    "The Latin Bible was used in liturgy and sacraments, so people heard it…"

    In liturgy and sacraments? Can you please elaborate?

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 12:03 pm

    "we do have a tendency to disdain rural or ethnic variations of English as inferior or incorrect" — I am not convinced that we "disdain" rural varieties of English in the UK. If anything, I think that we are more likely to disdain urban varieties (both as inferior and as incorrect) while thinking of rural varieties as quaint, interesting, colourful, worth preserving, etc.

  14. Terry K. said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 12:04 pm

    @M. The mass (liturgy; weekly or daily worship service) was in Latin in the whole of Western Christianity until the protestant reformation, and in the Catholic Church (and thus in most Romance speaking areas) until the 1960s. And the mass includes readings from the Bible, which would have been in Latin like the rest of the mass. And sacraments when administered outside of mass with Bible readings would presumably also have used the same Bible translation used at mass. (Sacraments include baptism and marriage.)

  15. Scott P. said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 12:08 pm

    I am not convinced that we "disdain" rural varieties of English in the UK. If anything, I think that we are more likely to disdain urban varieties (both as inferior and as incorrect) while thinking of rural varieties as quaint, interesting, colourful, worth preserving, etc.

    I don't think that's true with respect to e.g. Scots English or Irish English.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 12:17 pm

    Then we must agree to differ, Scott. From my perspective, while the Glaswegian and Belfast accents (both clearly urban) may well be looked down on by some, perhaps even by many, the Highlands and Islands accents (rural) and those of much of Éire are, in my experience, much enjoyed by the average Briton.

  17. Coby said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 2:16 pm

    Conflicts between a petrified literary language and spoken "dialects" are not limited to cases where there is a multiplicity of the latter. In Italy the questione della lingua referred to the archaic form of Tuscan promoted by the Accademia della Crusca (which was based in Rome, not Florence) versus the one actually spoken in Tuscany; the questione was famously resolved when Manzoni rewrote his masterpiece I promessi sposi, originally written in the former, into the latter. In Greece the spoken Demotic, except for a few outliers like Tsakonian, was actually more uniform than Katharevousa, which could vary from writer to writer

  18. Scott P. said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 3:49 pm


    See this article for a contrary viewpoint:

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 4:16 pm

    A terribly, terribly, sad story, Scott. Thank you for drawing it to my attention. I just wonder from where the "four people sitting across from me, drinking red wine, who had what I would describe as very posh accents" came — was this, do you think, "posh" in the Scottish The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" sense, or "posh" as in the English aristocracy ?

  20. David L said,

    March 11, 2022 @ 8:42 pm

    If regional accents in Britain are generally respected and admired, it's a development that came about recently (and anyway I'm not at all convinced it's true). I grew up in the 60s and was often admonished by my parents and teachers to 'speak proper English' — by which was meant something like the English spoken by BBC news announcers. It was a notable change — in the 70s, I think — when the BBC began to employ people with distinctly regional voices.

    Another example.

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    March 12, 2022 @ 7:17 am

    It was not "regional" languages of which I was thinking, David — it was specifically "rural" (as opposed to urban). But as Scott had sadly demonstrated, my belief may well be false, at least in some circles.

  22. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    March 12, 2022 @ 9:56 am

    @Cervantes: This is more or less standard fare in an introductory sociolinguistics or dialectology course.

    The traditional linguistic litmus test is intelligibility. If two varieties are mutually intelligible, then they are dialects of the same language; if not, they are separate languages. The problem is that, if the situation isn't one of clear Abstand, this is a gradient not a binary distinction. Hence, between related varieties, mutual intelligibility will always be expressed as, let us say, a pecentage, and then you would need an arbitrary decision as to what the cutting-off point is. (And this of course ignores e.g. asymmetrical intelligibility, inter-speaker differences due to e.g. experience, and many other wrinkles.)

    But what is recognized as a language politically is, well, a political question (e.g. dialect with a navy, remember?). Not a lot to do with actual linguistic facts.

    As a result, it is actually totally unsurprising, or in fact expected, that the two approaches align (intersect?) differently for Romance and Arabic.

    Peter Trudgill discusses this in very approachable terms in a number of books (e.g. Dialectology), but even the Wikipedia articles for many of the problems are reasonably clear.

  23. Terry K. said,

    March 12, 2022 @ 10:25 am

    I do get the impression that at least some varieties of London English are disdained by some.

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    March 12, 2022 @ 12:55 pm

    Indeed they are, Terry, but of course they are urban, not rural.

  25. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    March 14, 2022 @ 7:35 am


    Hang on a minute — you mean Manzoni "translated" "I promessi sposi" from his own original archaic Italian into a modern (~19th C.) Tuscan vernacular? Do you happen to know if the "original" is in print anywhere?

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