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Review of  Beyond Lexical Variation in Modern Standard Arabic: Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco

Reviewer: Islam Youssef
Book Title: Beyond Lexical Variation in Modern Standard Arabic: Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco
Book Author: Zeinab M.A. Ibrahim
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Issue Number: 21.293

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AUTHOR: Zeinab Ibrahim
TITLE: Beyond Lexical Variation in Modern Standard Arabic: Egypt, Lebanon and
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

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:

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.

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