Modern Arabic Sociolinguistics
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Modern Arabic Sociolinguistics

Diglossia, variation, codeswitching, attitudes and identity

Abdulkafi Albirini

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eBook - ePub

Modern Arabic Sociolinguistics

Diglossia, variation, codeswitching, attitudes and identity

Abdulkafi Albirini

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Modern Arabic Sociolinguistics outlines and evaluates the major approaches and methods used in Arabic sociolinguistic research with respect to diglossia, codeswitching, language variation and attitudes and social identity.

This book:

  • outlines the main research findings in these core areas and relates them to a wide range of constructs, including social context, speech communities, prestige, power, language planning, gender and religion
  • examines two emerging areas in Arabic sociolinguistic research, internet-mediated communication and heritage speakers, in relation to globalization, language dominance and interference and language loss and maintenance
  • analyses the interplay between the various sociolinguistic aspects and examines the complex nature of the Arabic multidialectal, multinational, and multiethnic sociolinguistic situation.

Based on the author's recent fieldwork in several Arab countries this book is an essential resource for researchers and students of sociolinguistics, Arabic linguistics, and Arabic studies.

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Chapter 1


1.1 Background

In 2009 during a summer trip to Syria, I was invited to give a seminar presentation at a Syrian university. Because I wanted to relate to my audience and simultaneously present about a topic on which I was working at the time, the topic of my presentation was the acquisition of agreement morphology in Syrian Arabic and American English. The lecture was in the English Department and so English was the medium of delivery. Most of the attendees were faculty and graduate students from the same Department and the College of Humanities.
At the end of my presentation, the audience had a thirty-minute period to ask questions about the presentation. The first question that I received was about the rationale for choosing to study the Syrian dialect instead of Al-Fusħa (Standard Arabic). After I had explained that the Syrian dialect is acquired naturally by Syrian children, new voices joined the discussion, which spanned the whole thirty-minute period and revolved mainly around the topic of whether the dialects were a topic worthy of study. The topic was continued at the end of the session when I had an informal conversation with an old colleague and friend who was in attendance. Our discussion started with general remarks about the presentation, the nature of the questions asked, and research in this area. However, it shortly turned into a deeper discussion about different issues related to the standard and colloquial varieties of Arabic. During our conversation, I noticed that my friend started shifting from his colloquial dialect to a high form of Standard Arabic. The move was surprising to me, given the nature of our conversation, our relationship as previous colleagues and friends, and the informal setting in which the conversation took place. However, after the shifting recurred more than once, I noticed that my interlocutor’s switching to Standard Arabic coincided with earnest efforts on his part to explain, and possibly convince me of, the main point in his argument, namely, the “risks” involved in studying the dialects and “abandoning” the Standard variety.
As I reflect on this encounter now, I realize that my friend did not merely express his attitudinal stance on the topic verbally, but also performed it through his codeswitching behavior. This incident initially sparked my interest in the mechanisms that govern codeswitching. However, as I considered the motivations, emotions, and implications involved in this sociolinguistic phenomenon, that interest later developed into a broader consideration of language use and behavior and their relationship to a host of socioaffective and sociocontextual factors.
My research in the past five years or so has focused on interdialectal codeswitching between different Arabic varieties, particularly its sociolinguistic and pragmatic functions, and on heritage speakers of Arabic in the United States. Codeswitching, like any other sociolinguistic phenomenon, may not be fully understood in isolation. In the Arab context, codeswitching is intricately related to such issues as diglossia, identity, language attitudes, language variation and other aspects of the broader Arab sociolinguistic situation (speakers, communities, varieties, etc.). These sociolinguistic phenomena are always changing due to various historical, social, and political factors surrounding language use and language ideologies in the Arab region. The emergence of new technologies is one of the main influences on language use in many parts of the world, and the Arabic region is no exception. Heritage speakers are removed from the Arabic diglossic context and they diverge with respect to their facility with the Arabic language. However, they are still subject to the same influences as their monolingual counterparts in the Arab region. Heritage speakers display dissimilar attitudes toward the Arabic language and its importance in their daily lives. Their language usage is affected by the Standard–Colloquial dichotomy. Some may have strong attachment to Arabic for cultural and religious reasons, whereas others are only remotely related to their ancestral language and home. This variability may be explained by social, political, and historical factors that are not very different from those undergirding language attitudes, identity dynamics, and language use in the Arab region.
Modern Arabic Sociolinguistics: Diglossia, Variation, Codeswitching, Attitudes and Identity developed out of my interest in exploring the complex relationship between these important aspects of the Arabic sociolinguistic landscape and their individual and combined impact on the language behavior of Arabic speakers. As the title suggests, this book aims to provide an up-to-date account of these areas based on current theoretical and empirical work in the field. In this endeavor, I also aim to establish the historical background against which these important aspects have developed and taken their current shape. I believe that this approach will give the reader both diachronic and synchronic perspectives on the development and current statuses of the areas under discussion. As Heller (1988, 1992) remarks, language behavior may not be fully understood without considering the social and historical dimensions of the setting in which it occurs.
The book draws on the existing theoretical frameworks, empirical findings, and extensive discussions on the Arabic language, particularly the literature on Arabic sociolinguistics. At the same time, it brings a wealth of new and unpublished data related to the five main areas under investigation. Most of the new empirical data used in this book comes from four field trips that I have recently made to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. The purpose of these trips was to collect firsthand and topical data necessary to answer empirical questions pertaining to the areas under study. Six main types of data were collected during these trips: elicited speech recordings, surveys, interviews, language–behavior observation, pictorial and textual information, and short casual question-and-answer discussions. The data was collected from university students and faculty, taxi drivers, passengers, passersby, shoppers and shopkeepers, hotel receptionists, and acquaintances. In addition, I use a variety of other data sources, such as online data and naturalistic data recordings collected during a 2009 summer business trip to Syria. Part of the data collected from Syria has already been published, but another part is published for the first time in this book.

1.2 The situation of the Arabic language

Arabic is a Semitic language that is spoken natively by more than 200 million speakers in the Arab region, and it is spoken as a heritage language by several other millions in North America, Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world. It is the official language or one of the official languages of more than twenty countries of the Arab League, and it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. As the language of Islamic scholarship and liturgy, Arabic is used by millions of non-Arab Muslims who can often read it but do not have oral fluency in it. It has an uninterrupted literary tradition that is more than fourteen hundred years old. While the systematic study of the Arabic language is as old as the codification of the language itself, the systematic research on the social aspects of the Arabic language has taken form only in the past century. Modern Arabic sociolinguistic research has been inspired by the pioneering work of the American sociolinguist Charles A. Ferguson (1959a), who was the first contemporary scholar to provide a formal framework describing the Arabic sociolinguistic landscape and its main historical, social, and linguistic variables.
The Arabic sociolinguistic situation is characterized by the coexistence of two varieties: Standard Arabic (SA) and Colloquial Arabic (QA). In this work, the term Standard Arabic (SA) is used to refer to the variety of Arabic that is taught at schools and has formal and official status throughout the Arab World.1 SA therefore covers both Classical Arabic (CA) and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). QA, on the other hand, refers to a number of Arabic dialects that are spoken routinely by speakers of these dialects and do not have an official status or standardized orthography. While SA is to some extent uniform across the Arab region, QA varies across and within countries with mutual intelligibility decreasing as the geographical distance increases. In his seminal 1959 study, Ferguson described the situation of SA and QA as a prototypical example of diglossia due to their complementary distribution in terms of contexts of use. SA represents the “High” and “superposed” variety, which is normally reserved for formal, semi-formal and literary contexts: governance, education, mass media, religious discourse, arts, formal spoken discourse, and high culture. QA represents the “Low” and “local” variety used in conversations and other informal communicative exchanges: sports, music, film, and some TV show broadcasts. Although Ferguson’s early delineation of diglossia has been refined in a number of subsequent works (e.g., Albirini, 2011; Fishman, 1971; Gumperz, 1962; Hawkins, 1983; Hudson, 2002), this framework has remained a viable base for studying various areas in the Arabic sociolinguistic scene.
Ferguson’s pioneering work laid the foundation for subsequent studies about the notion of diglossia as well as the use, distribution, functions, and statuses of SA and QA. Some of the main questions that motivated these studies were the following: (1) are SA and QA so rigidly compartmentalized across the lines of formality–informality that they never coexist in the same context or overlap in terms of use, distribution, and functions, (2) what motivates speakers’ alternation between these varieties in certain domains, and (3) how is the depiction and use of SA and QA as High/superimposed and Low/local varieties, respectively, linked to speakers’ language attitudes and social identities. These and similar questions have generated much research and discussion about the issues of diglossia, dialect use and variation, codeswitching, language attitudes and ideologies, and identity dynamics, which became crucial for understanding the Arabic diglossic situation and, eventually, the language behavior of Arabic speakers.

1.3 Goals of the book

This book revisits and expands the discussion on Arabic diglossia in conjunction with four interrelated areas, namely, language attitudes, social identity, variation and codeswitching. A central premise of this book is that an assessment of the current Arabic diglossic situation requires considering the role of socioaffective factors – i.e., language attitudes and identity sentiments – in determining the values, roles, and distribution of the High and Low codes. Moreover, diglossia as an active social phenomenon should be reflected in speakers’ language behavior, which is why the study of variation and codeswitching is critical in understanding the Arabic diglossic situation. The book brings these five topics together into focus as a resource that serves three main goals. First, the book overviews and evaluates the major assumptions, approaches, theories, and methodologies used in research on diglossia, variation, codeswitching, language attitudes, and social identity as well as the major empirical findings emerging from this research. Second, the book offers an up-to-date account of these areas in the light of empirical data from recent research, including research projects carried out by the author during recent trips to the Arab region. The empirical approach to some of the fundamental questions under the areas of interest is well-suited to reflect the current trends in the Arabic sociolinguistic situation as perceived and enacted by speakers of Arabic. Lastly, the book provides a new perspective on the interplay of these sociolinguistic aspects in the language behavior of Arabic speakers as well as their role in defining a number of related sociolinguistic issues.
The need for providing an up-to-date account of these key areas stems from two interrelated factors. First, languages, their statuses, and their use are subject to change over time and space in tandem with changes in social life in general. Such a change necessitates a periodic reanalysis of language use as well as a reassessment of its social, socioaffective, and sociocontextual foundations. Second, Arabic sociolinguistics is still a developing field that is sensitive to developments in linguistic research. Within this field of study, claims are often introduced, revised, and countered by other researchers. The present work contributes to the ongoing discussion on a number of major topics in Arabic sociolinguistics. In particular, the book reexamines some of the main assumptions about the distribution of SA and QA, their functions, and the attitudes and identity-related motives underlying their deployment in the discursive practices of Arabic speakers. In addition, this book discusses the relationship of these areas to some of the recent political, sociocultural, and ideological developments and tensions in the Arab region. By interconnecting the areas under study to recent political, sociocultural, and ideological developments in the Arab region, the book seeks to shed new lights on the study of Arabic varieties and their statuses and functions in society. Moreover, since the examined sociolinguistic areas do not operate in isolation, the book examines their relationships to other key issues in Arabic sociolinguistics, such as language prestige, globalization, standardization, language planning, language maintenance, and so on. The study of these relationships extends the scope, depth, and focus of the book and simultaneously highlights the complex nature of the Arabic multidialectal, multinational, and multiethnic sociolinguistic situation.
The book covers two areas that have so far received little scholarly attention in the field of Arabic sociolinguistics. The first area is the virtual contact situations created by digital media. The goal is to examine the impact of digital media on the statuses of the Low and High varieties and speakers’ use of these varieties in online and offline communications. The study of language use on digital media is critical to trace any potential changes in the patterns of communication and the distribution or functions of SA and QA in the virtual sphere. Moreover, the study of speakers’ online language use may provide insights into speakers’ identity sentiments and their attitudes toward the language varieties to which they are exposed in the virtual space. The second area concerns heritage speakers as a group of Arabic-speaking individuals who are detached from the diglossic situation of the Arab region, but are influenced by its identity dynamics and language attitudes due to their link to their parents’ heritage language and culture. This area is also significant for understanding the impact of the Arabic diglossic context on speakers’ language behavior and the role of language attitudes and identity sentiments in language use and maintenance.

1.4 Outline of the book

In addition to this introductory chapter, the book consists of nine chapters. The second chapter provides a historical overview of the main language varieties at play in the Arabic sociolinguistic arena, including SA, QA, Berber, English, French, and Kurdish. The chapter also surveys the major analytical representations of Arabic diglossia and outlines the major debates concerning the distribution, functions, and uses of SA and QA in different social contexts. This chapter also revisits some of the controversies surrounding the labeling and grouping of different language varieties based on linguistic, political and geographic considerations. The notion of the third/middle language (e.g., Mahmoud, 1986; Mitchell, 1982; Ryding, 1991) receives special attention because of its implications for approaching diglossia and the other areas under investigation. The “classical” view of diglossia as context-based (Ferguson, 1959a, 1996) is reconsidered in the light of recent developments and research findings in Arabic sociolinguistics.
The third chapter examines the broad goals, paradigmatic assumptions, methodologies, and techniques used in sociolinguistic research. The methodologies used in researching the topics of diglossia, language attitudes, social identity, language variation, and codeswitching receive particular attention due to their germaneness to the themes of the book. The merits and limitations of using certain data-collection techniques in studying these subjects are evaluated. The chapter highlights the importance of using contextually relevant analytic frameworks and methods as well as the need for original approaches and techniques that are informed by empirical questions or problems emanating from the Arab context (Suleiman, 2011). The literature concerning the impact of the researcher and his/her relationship to the participants on the outcome of sociolinguistic research will be reviewed. This chapter concludes by explaining the research methodology used in the book and its suitability for researching the sociolinguistic constructs under study.
The fourth chapter explores the relevance of language attitudes to understanding the unequal statuses and functions of the language varieties at play in the Arabic sociolinguistic landscape. In addition, the chapter examines the impact of language attitudes on Arabic speakers’ language behavior. A distinction is made between attitudes based on the “prestige” of particular language varieties, the status of their speakers, and their use in certain domains. This distinction is needed for understanding the relevant literature and explaining the discrepancy in the findings of recent research on Arabic speakers’ attitudes toward different language varieties, such as those related to Standard Arabic versus a particular regional variety. Empirical data collected from 639 participants in four different Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia) is used to explain the complexity of language attitudes, their link to a number of sociodemographic factors, and their role in orienting speakers’ language behavior. Based on the findings, it will be argued that language attitudes are shaped by both affective and practical factors – though pragmatic considerations seem to be progressively overshadowing the affective ones. Last, the relationship of language attitudes to other sociolinguistic areas, such Arabicization, will be examined.
The fifth chapter overviews the concept of social identity as it relates to the Arab context. The national, ethnic, and religious dimensions of social identity are explored. The relationship between identity, language attitudes, and language use is examined within the framework of existing research and is furthered based on insights from fieldwork observations. It will be shown that identity is constructed through forged historical narratives and negotiated discursively by speakers to attain specific sociopragmatic goals (e.g., to maximize their benefit from social interactions). Empirical data is used to problematize the notions of the local versus superposed varieties as conceptualized by the classical view of diglossia and adopted widely in Arabic sociolinguistic research. In particular, the analysis of the existing accounts of SA draws links between speakers’ identity management techniques, their language attitudes, and their view of “classical/standard/formal” Arabic as a superposed/local variety (in the sense of Ferguson, 1959a). Apart from the role of historical narratives, the chapter also highlights the need for examining identity statements and identity acts in the study of the identity sentiments prevailing in the Arab context.
The sixth chapter focuses on variation and change in the Arabic language. A distinction is made between region-based variation and socially motivated variation, which fall within the study of regional dialectology and social dialectology, respectively. These two areas are theoretically distinct, but intertwined in the real world. The chapter summarizes key developments in Arabic variationist research and explores their historical, social, ideological, and political roots. An attempt to disambiguate the outcome of language variation and change will always necessitate investigating a host of affective, social, historical, political, and power-related factors. Language variation and change often signify practices of linguistic convergence and divergence that reflect conflicting or harmonious attitudes, social identities, or sociopragmatic ends. Therefore, language variation is one manifestation of d...

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