Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Arabic Is Not a Language, it Is 22 of Them

Okay. So you’re going to live in Jordan for a semester right? you want to spend your time trying to engage with the city, right? You want to learn the language before you get there. You want to be ready.

So you go and you study Arabic. You figure out the grammar, you learn yourself some vocabulary, you’re on your way to getting the hang of talking it. You decide to test yourself out. You go online and watch some Al-Jazeera. You understand it. Oh man this is great, you’ve totally learned Arabic before you get to Amman.


Not really.

You studied the wrong language.

You learned Modern Standard Arabic. That’s what they talk on the news. What you wanted to know was Levantine Colloquial Arabic. Those ain’t the same languages.

You won’t be totally screwed coming to Amman if you only know M.S.A., or fusha as the Arabs call it. Most people speak it some, or at least understand it. It is not their first language though. People speak it on the news and people learn it in school. There are some similarities but mostly there are differences.

The Arabs may say they all speak the same language, but they are wrong. Arabic is in reality a bunch of languages. There are like twenty-two different Arabic languages that are widely spoken.

They are a lot like the Romance languages. All of the Arabics are descended—a millennia and a half ago—from a common daddy-language. Like all of the Romance languages all used to be vulgar Latin. In Italy, Gaul, the Pyranese, Occitania, Spain, Portugal, North and South Italy, Sicily, and Rumania they all used to just talk Latin. Then they all developed their own weird accents and idiosyncrasies.

After a few hundred years the accents and idiosyncrasies got so bad that the elites decided they needed to consciously improve their Latin. They purposefully went back to the old ways. When they did that the difference between the people and the elite grew, and people realized they weren’t speaking bad Latin, they were speaking a new language. Latin, as a language, died.

Time went on. The new languages evolved. The number of mutually unintelligible or semi-intelligible dialects rose and fell. Isolation let you get your own incomprehensible funny accent, and then some empire came in and told you to start speaking “proper” Spanish or French. And then you spoke that way.

C’est la vie.

Some of the dialects changed very quickly. It started with a few yokels talking like hicks and lazy-bastards, and ended up with French. Because it changed so much, the French are completely unintelligible to anybody else. Some dialects changed slowly and were conservative, they stayed rigid and hard. Even after two thousand years, theses are semi-mutually-intelligible. Spanish and Standard Italian have many similarities, and even if a Spanish speaker wouldn’t be able to automatically understand Italian, there are still many similarities. And if you learn a few linguistic shifts, you can learn the other language pretty damn easily if you know the other. And if you look at Catalan and Portuguese they are extremely similar to Spanish. You can learn them with less effort than Italian.

So time took one language and made it into many.

Well. That is what happened to Arabic.

The Caliphate spread across the Middle East quickly after Mohammad died, and Quranic Arabic spread that distance. It slowly took over from the languages that had been there before. But the Middle East is friggin huge. In the Levant and in the Bedouin areas around the Red Sea and In Egypt they all developed their own accents that turned into their own languages.

Egyptian, Levantine, and the Bedouin areas are like Portugal, Catalonia, and Spain. They are conservative languages. And they’re fairly understandable to each other--as long as you’ve been having a little bit of exposure to the other variants here and there throughout your life. Mesopotamian Arabic over in Iraq is to Levantine Arabic like Italian is to Spanish. Not mutually intelligible, but it is easily learnable. Apparently Gulfi Arabic is about the same, or something

The French of the Arabic world—the stuff that nobody can understand—is North African Arabic. Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Libyan, all the way down the list it is just completely incomprehensible. They can all sort of get each other, but they are all still just crazy-talkers. It is ridiculous.

When you talk to the Arabs though, they say they all speak the same language. The only way this could possibly be a sane statement is if they mean fusha, if they mean M.S.A.

Fusha is like the European elites trying to go back to “proper” Latin. Some people will correct you if you try and speak colloquial, telling you to go for the fusha instead. Even though they and everybody they know speaks a different language. They took Quranic Arabic and simplified it a tiny bit, and called it “Modern Standard.” It is mostly the same aged and anachronistic language.

Arabs don’t just figure fusha out on their own, they learn it in school like people used to learn Latin. Then pan-Arab TV (most of the news) is broadcasted in fusha. Written Arabic is mostly fusha. In newspapers and books, it is the Arabic literary language. People just happen not to speak it.

But don’t tell too many Arabs that their colloquials are all different languages. A lot of people think of their own “right” language, and every Arab’s “right” language, as fusha. They see it like this. That they are all Arabs, that they all have a common national identity, and that they all speak the same language.

So, you come to Amman speaking fusha, and you’ll be okay. They mostly talk fusha. But they mostly talk English too. Neither of them are their first languages. You won’t be talking in the Jordanian’s native tongues.

Luckily, colloquial Levantine is a lot easier. It lacks the endings, you can just throw the right words out there and folks will be smart enough to figure it out. It is still a new language to learn, but it is not as frustrating a-one.

So, that’s some things.

Next time, stories about Amman?

Bashuufkum ba3ade’een.

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