Can Arabs understand each other?

A cheat sheet for the news.
April 2 2002 2:34 PM

Arabic

If the Arabic language is what unifies the Arab world, can all Arabs understand each other? Not exactly: There is an official language used in the media and diplomacy, and colloquial Arabic is spoken on the streets and in the markets.

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The official language, fussha, or Modern Standard Arabic, is what the various leaders and ministers from around the Arab world spoke at last week's Arab League Summit. It's the language of the newspapers and Arabic literature, and it differs from the Quran only in that its vocabulary has expanded to include ideas that weren't in circulation 1,500 years ago. The pronunciation is exactly the same, thanks to seventh-century Arab grammarians who added diacritical marks to the Quran to ensure that the caliphate's non-Arab subjects would recite the book correctly and thus preserve the purity of the language. The sound of the Quran, God speaking in Arabic to the Arabs, is part of its meaning. The result is that today Mohammed and his companions could walk into a Cairo mosque, or an Arab League Summit, and they'd be understood.

Still, a 25-year-old Algerian would have a hard time asking for directions to that same Cairo mosque. That's because every Arab nation has its own spoken dialect or ameya. They all have the same underlying structure, issuing from the pure classical Arabic set down in the Quran, but differ widely in vocabulary and pronunciation, depending largely on each nation's political and military history. The most widely known ameya is undoubtedly Egyptian, which was popularized, starting in the 1930s, through the mass appeal of Egyptian movies. Still, it's a far cry from a lingua franca.

So, why doesn't our Algerian friend just use fussha to get directions to the mosque? Well, fussha isn't really a lingua franca either because while many Arabs can more or less understand it, only a small percentage can use it to generate their own sentences. When an Arab says he can't speak "real" Arabic well, he means his fussha is only so-so. Religious scholars speak fussha, as does Osama Bin Laden—evidently quite beautifully—but the masses cannot and neither can the rising generation of diplomats and news journalists.

The American University in Cairo, which produces a fair portion of the Arab world's political and professional elite, has received complaints from various Egyptian ministries that their recent graduates don't know fussha. A more daunting problem, the critics claim, is with broadcast journalism. Al Jazeera, for instance, has correspondents from around the Arab world, all of whom frequently use pronunciations or words from their own dialects to read the news. The fear is that if the language isn't spoken "correctly," the way the Quran is pronounced, then Arab culture will lose its connection to its past. That might be true, but what Arab culture might sacrifice in continuity would be made up by the way television is connecting the modern Arab world across borders.

As Egyptian movies introduced other Arabs to the Egyptian dialect, the proliferation of satellite dishes in the region is now teaching a considerably larger audience what other Arabs sound like. The several layers of language that had separated Arab states—and social classes within each state—are now being thinned out by television as Arabs tune in to watch music videos from around the region and game shows like Who Wants To Earn a Million (Saudi riyals), which is produced in Cairo and has a Lebanese host. And, of course, the most compelling Arab programming of all is coming from Gaza and the West Bank.

As Arabs are glued to their TV sets watching the Israelis and Palestinians at war, transnational comprehension in the Arab world is increasing. Just as a language free from regionalisms developed on U.S. network news broadcasts, a universally understood ameya—the Arabic equivalent of Midwestern English—is evolving on Arab television. For the first time since Islam spread from the Arabian peninsula in the middle of the seventh century, Arabs are learning how to speak exactly the same language.

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

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