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Review of Beyond Lexical Variation in Modern Standard Arabic: Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco
AUTHOR: Zeinab Ibrahim TITLE: Beyond Lexical Variation in Modern Standard Arabic: Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing YEAR: 2009
Islam Youssef, CASTL, University of Tromsø
This book is the product of fifteen years of research on lexical variation of written Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) in the newspapers of three Arabic-speaking countries: Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco. The results provide evidence against the traditional claim that MSA is identical across regions. The book is recommended mainly for Arabic lexicologists, dialectologists and sociolinguists, and for those concerned with Arabic media (written or televised). Although it addresses some general linguistic aspects of variation in written language, it might be difficult to read for those not familiar with the lexicon and structure of the Arabic language.
Overall, the book describes three questionnaire studies done in 1992 and 1998. In 1992, the author tested how intelligible certain lexical items in Lebanese newspapers are for Egyptian respondents. A questionnaire of 80 headlines (from the Lebanese newspaper Al-Hayaat) was distributed to 30 Egyptian university graduates and 10 Lebanese who functioned as a control group. In 1998, the research was extended to test the mutual intelligibility of MSA of Moroccan vs. Egyptian newspapers. Again, a questionnaire of 70 headlines (from the Moroccan newspaper Al-Anbaa') was distributed to 70 Egyptian university graduates and a similar questionnaire of 80 headlines (from the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram) was distributed to 70 Moroccan university graduates. All three questionnaires asked respondents about the meanings of certain words in the headlines followed by short interviews.
Chapter 1 reviews the literature on a few relevant topics. First, it presents the hypothesis that variation in the Arabic language dates back to the pre-Islamic era, then it discusses the Arabic diglossic situation today. Importantly, the author stresses the complementary roles of local dialects and MSA in the individual linguistic repertoire and that ''the two varieties form a mixture with no clear boundaries'' (p. 15). The chapter also explores the emergence of Educated Spoken Arabic and of MSA, and stresses the significance of regional variation and a linguistic continuum in these spoken and written 'high' varieties. Finally, it considers the linguistic roles of the media and language academies in Arabic-speaking countries today.
Chapter 2 introduces the variation theory of sociolinguistics and the position of Arabic within the theory.
Chapters 3 and 4 present the research methodology and categorize the lexical variation in the results. Chapter 3 covers morphological and syntactic factors such as the morphological preferences in coining lexical items (given Arabic root-and-pattern morphology) and the regional preference for certain constructions (e.g. gerunds in their plural form and verbs with and without prepositions). Chapter 4 explores the influence of polysemy, translation, loanword adaptation and regional dialects on the lexical variation of written MSA.
Chapters 5 and 6 present the results and discussion of the study. The results of the first questionnaire showed that Egyptians had considerable difficulties understanding the language used in Al-Hayaat. The other two questionnaires showed that both Egyptian and Moroccan respondents had difficulties with some lexical items from the newspapers involved in their studies. Importantly, however, none of the respondents had any difficulty with syntactic structures. Overall, Egyptians faced more difficulties with lexical items due to their linguistic isolation, whereas Moroccans did better due to their exposure to the Egyptian media.
Chapter 7 examines the orthographical, month and number variations in the countries included in the study. The author maintains that differences in orthography are far more common in foreign words which often reflect local distinctions in pronunciation. An example is the systematic difference between Lebanese and Egyptian spellings of foreign words with the sound /g/ (spelled with the letter for /g/ in Egyptian and /k/ or /ɣ/ in Lebanese).
Chapter 8 presents the respondents' verbal comments on the questionnaires. The verbal comments revealed cases of morphological analyses the native speakers carried out and the fact that they tend to store two lexical items for the same referent in two separate domains (one in their dialect and the other in MSA) even if both words exist in MSA, e.g. /wirk/ 'thigh', a valid MSA word (used in Moroccan newspapers) that is reserved only for colloquial use in Egypt. This reflects the native speakers' unawareness of their language continuum and the variation existing in that continuum. The author rightfully criticizes reports about the deterioration of the Arabic language and native speakers' tendency to consider their variety inferior to MSA. It would have been appropriate here to cite Haeri's (2003) study of the diglossic situation in Egypt.
Chapter 9 presents some of the factors leading to variation or homogeneity of written MSA. The author argues that exposure is the decisive factor toward homogeneity of lexical usage. This is evident in the influence of satellite TV channels on the spread and acceptance of lexical variation. Another factor is the role of the language academies which inevitably add a national identity to each new coinage. Finally, the author proposes a preliminary language plan and suggests that Arabs must accept that their language has evolved and changed over the centuries (as in the loss of case endings) and that a situation of linguistic continuum should be viewed positively and utilized in language learning.
Chapter 10 concludes that despite the widely held view that MSA is uniform across the Arabic-speaking countries, lexical variation is a fact. The take-home message is that ''Arabic spoken throughout the Arab world is not identical, but it is Arabic all the same, and it is time to accept these variations and perceive them as positive signs'' (p.171).
This is a valuable contribution in the areas of Arabic lexicology and variationism in written language. The author challenges the popular belief that MSA is uniform, and argues convincingly that variations exist in the written regional MSA of the media, as they have been acknowledged to exist in the spoken varieties. It is, therefore, a pioneering attempt to identify and analyze lexical variation in the written MSA of different Arab countries.
Although the book was published in 2009, the author conducted this research in 1992 and 1998, when there was little access to satellite TV as is the situation today. Now the non-regional major news agencies on satellites and their internet websites, e.g. Aljazeera, are the dominant sources of information and are most responsible for the 'uniformity' of spoken and written MSA across regions. For example, it is my observation that Egyptians today have become much more familiar with lexical items common in Levantine Arabic since many presenters and news editors come from this part of the Arab World. It is my strong belief that today this research would yield dramatically different results. This is not to undermine the significance of this work, but rather to suggest that it is an important documentation of the MSA variation in the 1990s. The author acknowledges this, both explicitly and implicitly, in several places. For instance, she reveals that at the time the study was carried out, ''satellite TV was not yet popular… and none of the three groups were exposed to the others' media, nor were they aware of the lexical differences'' (p. 171). This certainly does not hold today.
The study claims to prove that ''the lexical variation between the written MSA in Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco is not minor, because it affects the understanding of the respondents'' (p. 53). However, this is inconsistent with claims at other places that the intelligibility issue is insignificant or minor. For example, it is ''stressed that these (lexical differences) were 'instances', meaning that unintelligibility was not the rule. In addition, none of the respondents ever questions the (syntactic) structure of the headlines'' (p. 169).
In several places, the author stresses the role of language academies and the media to minimize variation in language use, in what seems to be old-fashioned prescriptivism. The author insists on the idea that if Arabic language academies unite, it would lead to less variation. On the other hand, there is no mention of the responsibility of the academies in rejecting the use of certain foreign loanwords and insisting on coining Arabized words that language users find awkward, e.g. /haatif/ 'telephone' and /miðyaaʕ/ 'radio'. In Chapter 7, the author suggests ways ''to unify the language and lessen the differences'' (p. 142). The suggestion that news agencies should have the copyright of a new coinage is unrealistic and should be left to take place with no intervention.
Three notes relate to the methodology and study design. First, the author indicates that the choice of respondents from Cairo and Beirut is meant to ''compare two groups who shared more similarities and contact than differences'' (p. 169). However, there is only one survey that tests the intelligibility of Lebanese news headlines by Egyptians. If the idea is to compare both groups, it would have been beneficial to survey Lebanese speakers for their intelligibility of Egyptian news headlines as well. Second, the author mentions that American University graduates were eliminated in order to avoid the influence of four years of English instruction at university level. However, there is no mention if the researcher controlled for graduates of foreign language instruction schools. This is known to be a factor that greatly influences competence in MSA (even more than receiving university education in English). As for the selected Egyptian respondents of the first questionnaire, most of them (apart from graduates of law) seem to have received university education in English (graduates of chemistry, engineering and medicine). A wider diversity and balance (among graduates of faculties of sciences and humanities) is observed in the groups responding to the second and third questionnaires. Third, the impression that the questionnaire tested the understanding of a certain dialect could have been minimized if each questionnaire included fillers from other varieties of MSA in addition to the surveyed variety.
With regard to style and readability, several remarks should be pointed out. The theoretical chapters of the book suffer from unnecessary extensive quoting. Long Arabic quotations are cited in Arabic and translated to English. In most cases, the quote is again rephrased and discussed immediately after. Another distracter is the frequent citation of words in Arabic alphabet, transliteration and English translation, all side by side. The same applies to references within the text, which usually include the full title (plus transliteration and translation in case of Arabic references), instead of the well-known 'Author, year' convention. Also, listing all dictionary meanings of every single word in the survey (even irrelevant meanings) makes the text difficult to read at certain places.
Finally, a few minor errors are to be noted:
p. 57: It is incorrect that /ʃarika/ is or has been used in Egyptian newspapers to mean 'partnership'. /ʃarika/ may only mean 'company'. Before the word /ʃaraaka/ became common, it was most likely /taʕaawun/ 'cooperation' or something similar that was used. I searched the ArabiCorpus that the author used and found 0 results of /ʃarika/ with the meaning of 'partnership'.
pp. 58, 69, 74: There are several instances where the third person past tense (an actual word) is mistakenly used to refer to the 'root'. The author herself quotes Holes (1995:81), saying: ''a root is a semantic abstraction consisting of three consonants, from which actual words are derived by superimposition of templatic patterns.''
p. 137: ''In Arabic the sound /p/ is not part of the alphabet''. A sound is part of a phoneme inventory, while only a letter can be part of an alphabet.
p. 138: 'Sukuun' is not a ''short vowel'', but actually refers to a lack of a short vowel between two consonants.
p. 139: The statement that in Morocco the word 'taxi' is pronounced with a pharyngealized /t/ ''owing to the influence of the French pronunciation'' is lacking explanation. Since French does not have pharyngealized consonants, it should be mentioned that the back quality of the French vowel /a/ is what triggers pharyngealization of the consonant /t/ when the word is borrowed into Arabic (cf. Haddad 1984:299).
Aside from these few shortcomings, this work is a welcome contribution to the research on lexical variation in written MSA, and anyone interested in this aspect of Arabic linguistics should consider reading it.
Haddad, Ghassan. 1984. Problems and Issues in the Phonology of Lebanese Arabic. PhD dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Haeri, Nilofar. 2003. Sacred Language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Holes, Clive. 1995. Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions and Varieties. London: Longman.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Islam Youssef is a research fellow/ PhD candidate at the Center for
Advanced Study in Theoretical Linguistics (CASTL), University of Tromsø.
His research interests include phonology, phonetics and Arabic
dialectology. He has presented and published research on the Cairene and
Baghdadi dialects of Arabic and on Buchan Scots. He is currently working on
his dissertation on Arabic place assimilations.