What Arabic can learn from the Romance languages

It may surprise many people to know that the Romance languages, which include French, Spanish and Italian among others, all derive from Vulgar Latin, the vernacular of classic Latin which was used in daily transactions across the Roman Empire. It came to dominate the Empire and supplanted many of the languages of the conquered peoples. However between the fourth and eighth centuries this Vulgar Latin became mutually unintelligible from classic Latin which would become a dead language within another two centuries.

Despite being preserved in the Catholic Church liturgy, several events precipitated the development of new languages from Vulgar Latin including the fall of the Roman Empire, the migration of tribes especially Germanic and Slavic tribes, rise of new nation states, and the fall of the Iberian peninsula to Muslims from North Africa. By the tenth to the thirteenth centuries the vernaculars existed in written forms and completely replaced classic Latin aside from Catholic Church liturgy.

The historical trajectory of Arabic has many things in common with that of Latin. Fus’ha, or classic Arabic, refers to the Arabic which is preserved in the Quran and like Latin has been maintained in religious practices and writings. Although Arabic’s origins are in the Arabian Peninsula, it too expanded along with the Islamic Caliphate and supplanted local languages. However the Caliphate also fell and smaller Emirates arose. Those states were also eventually conquered and many also colonized by non-Arab and non-Muslim peoples.

Fus’ha’s modern manifestation is called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) which is assumed to be the language of education, writing, news media and official communication. In reality, however, many local vernaculars have encroached in MSA’s sphere. Egyptian and Lebanese dialect Arabic can be found on news and TV. These dialects may be used in education verbally though the curriculum will use Fus’ha. Some dialects, especially Darija used in Morocco, have begun to be unintelligible to other Arabic speakers.

These changes have brought about many questions and issues among the most important is identity. These vernaculars used at home, among friends and in everyday use have enamored their speakers and have become part of modern nation state identities. However at the same time Fus’hah holds a place in the Arabic-Islamic identity and any affront to it can be seen as an affront against Islam. This was one of the arguments used in 2013 when some proponents of Darija attempted to introduce legislation to replace Fus’ha with Darija in primary education leading one MP to describe it as “an attempt to destroy the foundations of the nation and a conspiracy against Islam.” There was no political support for the initiative and it never made it to Parliament but nonetheless caused quite a bit of controversy.

Of course this issue, facilitating education, is commonly used by those who advocate the adoption of dialects. The reality is that most if not all dialects lack the richness to be used in education especially higher education and many of these dialects resemble pigin languages with simplified grammar. For example virtually all Arabic dialects have abandoned the pronunciation of the vowel ma’arab or the final short vowels represented in writing by diacritical marks. In the long run it hardly makes sense to use a pigin language to improve education and ironically the weakness in speaking Fus’ha is related to a poor education system from the quality and capability of the teachers, especially their ability to use Fus’ha, and to the enrollment and retention of students.

Dialects have thoroughly cemented their role in modern Arabic societies whether in pop culture and media and even some printed press and religious circles. However the wider Arab world needs to begin a dialogue on the future and role of these dialects and Fus’ha. While some have advocated to maintain both, the existence of dialects is clearly at the expense of Fus’ha, and as we have seen with Latin, the longer a vernacular exists and is mainstreamed especially in writing, the more likely a new and different language will be born.

The photo is of Arabic calligraphy from the Al-Hambra in Granada, Andalusia, Spain and is courtesy of Flickr user Chanel Wheeler and subject to use under the conditions of the Creative Commons.

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