Monday, March 11, 2013

Why not stop calling Arab languages/varieties "dialect"?


Recently I was in the Middle East and noticed this jargony thing among expats of saying “dialect” (in the singular) in contradistinction to “MSA," for example,  "MSA vs. dialect"; "Fusha vs. dialect". At least people could use a capital "D" for "Dialect", since it is conventional in English to capitalise the names of languages. However, in different cases in the Arabophone world, the specific language referred to as “dialect” will differ. But it would be better to actually name the language or variety, such as Khaleeji, Hassaniya, etc. rather than calling them all "dialect" in the singular, as some sort of mass noun. Saying things like “MSA vs. dialect” suggests a sort of balanced binarity which contributes to a distorted understanding of Arabic diglossia. It feeds the mistaken idea that MSA is “correct” Arabic, while the normal Arab vernaculars are just degenerate forms of MSA.

Anyway, it demeans these Arab speech varieties to call them “dialect” with a small “d” as though there is one reality across all of the Arabophone languacultural worlds that is “dialect” in various instantiations. Of course, the role of MSA in pan-Arab unity is wonderful. However, there is no need to demean the specific Arab speech varieties by which people live their lives–which they hear first in the womb, then are born into the midst of, raised in, skin their knees in, cry in, get comforted in, be playmates in,  laugh in, love in, be friends in, be families in, grow old in, tease grandchildren in, die in, etc. The GPA is about people nurturing us into their life. Human life is dominated by talking, listening, interacting verbally. 

Within a languacultural world, there may be more restricted functions which rely on special language varieties (such as MSA). To the extent that the use of the special variety finds its place among host practices, its use are part of the host languacultural world that the GP wants to be nurtured into, but keeping the realities of the time dimension always in view. Once people can talk with you readily, they can, by talking with you, nurture you into literacy, literature, style-shifting, etc. 

So while it is wonderful that MSA has a uniting function, and has strong historical links with Classical Arabic (and is thus a bridge to Classical Arabic) and so on, and certainly, MSA should be treasured as much as it is, this does not require that the speech varieties by which Arabs primarily live life should be demeaned by calling them all “dialect".