Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Language use in Tunisian politics

Unless you've been stuck on an iceberg in the Antarctic, you probably know that the Tunisian people have earned themselves imperishable honour, no matter what happens next, by kicking out their thieving, torturing control freak of an ex-president Ben Ali. Mark Liberman (via LH) has already commented on his unusual choice of dialect in his last speech. Fortunately, he's yesterday's news, so I'm going to comment instead on the language being used by the newly significant figures jockeying for power. Due warning: the sociolinguistics of politics is not my specialty, and I don't have much prior experience of specifically Tunisian language use, so read on at your peril and feel free to correct me if you have a better idea. For non-Arabic speakers, the key point to remember is that in any one country Arabic has at least two basic levels - formal Fusha and dialectal Darja - which are different enough grammatically and lexically to be considered separate languages, but which can be combined in appropriate circumstances.

The Prime Minister is Mohamed Ghannouchi. He first came to prominence on Saturday when he briefly declared himself acting President. This speech was entirely in Fusha - no efforts to add a personal touch here, simply officialese. The only dialectal features I notice are the pronunciation of jīm as ž, and of some short low vowels as ə. The delivery, however, is notably non-fluent - he's reading it slowly from a paper, pausing sometimes every three or four words, and he makes a mistake in case marking ('ad`ū kāffati 'abnā'i tūnəs "I call upon all the sons of Tunisia" - should have been kāffata.) Today, as Prime Minister he announced the new cabinet; his speech is a bit less halting (although still halting enough that you get several elision failures, like li al-ħayāti l`āmmah for lilħayāti l`āmmah), but as before it is entirely in Fusha and is being read out from a paper. The names, however, are pronounced in Darja, as they would be in conversation. Reminiscent of Chadli Bendjedid, this looks like the delivery of a politician who feels the need to speak Fusha for symbolic reasons but isn't actually fluent enough in it to do so impromptu - he was born in 1941, when Tunisia's educational system still operated largely in French. More tellingly, his delivery betrays the fact that he has never had the need to master rhetoric or appeal to a mass audience.

Moncef Marzouki, a secular leftist opposition figure calling for the old ruling party to get out, similarly sticks to Fusha throughout a recent interview with Aljazeera, avoiding dialect forms with remarkable persistence. His language use nonetheless contrasts strikingly with Mr. Ghannouchi's: Mr. Marzouki speaks quickly and fluently off the cuff, without consulting any visible notes, and without any conspicuous errors in delivery. Yet Mr. Marzouki is only 4 years younger than Mr. Ghannouchi, and, having studied medicine, undoubtedly did his university in French; has he simply been more motivated to learn to speak to a wide audience? The choice of consistent Fusha seems to reflect Aljazeera's pan-Arab audience; in an older video, aimed more at a Tunisian audience, he again speaks primarily in Fusha, but makes a number of shifts into Darja, for example evoking immediate reactions (eg, with Darja underlined: lākin anā lammā wužəht bihād əṭṭalab qult: āš nənžəm nḍīf 'anā? "But me, when I was faced with this request, I thought: "What can I add?") or quoting proverbs (eg sāl əlmužaṛṛab ma tsālš əṭṭbīb "Ask a person with experience, not a doctor") The effect, to me, is reminiscent of a classroom lecture.

The regime's favourite bogeyman for many years, the Islamist leader Rachid El Ghannouchi, has announced plans to return shortly, though not to run for office. In his speech of 2 days ago, he uses Fusha consistently and fluently, with an intonation reminiscent of a sermon, and shows only sporadic dialectal phonetic features (eg qámə` for qam` "repression"). Yet he shifts into Darja briefly (at about 4:50): after warning security forces that those who kill innocents will be damned to Hell, in the maximally formal language of a quotation from the Qur'an (wa-may͂ yaqtul mu'minan muta`ammidan, fa-žazā'uhu žahannamu xālidan fīhā, wa-ġaḍiba ḷḷāhu `alayhi wa-la`anahu wa-'a`adda lahu `ađāban 'alīmā "Whoso slayeth a believer of set purpose, his reward is hell for ever. Allah is wroth against him and He hath cursed him and prepared for him an awful doom"*), he suddenly caps it with a brief colloquial appeal to their common sense: əṭṭāġiya muš məš isədd a`līk "the tyrant isn't gonna save you". I can't hear any obvious traces of his southern origin (no g replacing q, for example), but I don't know Tunisian dialects well enough to spot subtler indications.

As for the protesters? Well, listen for yourself to one of the latest. Some slogans are definitely dialectal: Tūnəs, Tūnəs, ħəṛṛa ħəṛṛa, wa-t-tažammu` `ala baṛṛa "Tunisia free, RCD out!" Others are purely Fusha (though minus inconvenient case endings, as is common in less formal Fusha): yā tažammu` yā žabān, ša`b tūnəs lā yuhān "RCD you cowards: The people of Tunisia will not be belittled!"** Not hearing anything in French though, which is interesting given its prominent position in the Tunisian sociolinguistic environment: I suspect French would (rightly) be viewed as inappropriate for an appeal to the people of the nation, no matter how many people may speak it as a second language, whereas Fusha or Darja are equally suitable for demonstrations.

*: Stupid mistake corrected, and Pickthal translation of 4:93 substituted. It was getting late when I wrote that.
**: Looks like I misheard this one too! Corrected following Bilel's comments below. I guess transcribing YouTube videos is a risky business.


John Cowan said...

The people united will never be defeated.

Michael Farris said...

"The people united will never be defeated."

Except for when they're defeated...

Anyway. My small knowledge of Tunisian comes from a colleague I've done some projects with.

She says there's essentially no awareness of darja being anything worth studying or cultivating and that linguistic debate in the country is mostly about French vs English (the latter being especially important in the important tourism sector).

Since tourism in the short run is sure to suffer (will there be enough stability soon enough to save the 2011 season?) it will be interesting to see how that works out. Especially since the short term effect of increased English would probably be a further reduction in social mobility.

I was thinking the disgraced ex-president publicly using darja won't help it and there will probably be backlash to fusha in public use especially if Tunisian politics is going to get a fresh infusion of religion.

Jemmy Hope said...

Have you encountered this word yet - tawanasa (I think), explained as 'tunisization'? A discussion of the term here -
Something for the immovable objects who hold power in the North African nations to fear.

Lane said...

You mention that names are given in their darja pronunciations - is that not normal? When speaking fusha, do Arabs fusha-ize personal names, even?

Anonymous said...

yā tažammu` yā šabāb, ša`b tūnəs lā yuhāb
Salam Lameen, people are saying:
yā tažammu` yā žabān, ša`b tūnəs lā yuhān
That makes more sense.

Anonymous said...

RCD Dégage
That's the slogan now on the streets, in French!!!
Here other slogans if you're interested in:
Attachghil este7qaq ya 3isabet essorraq
Wizaret edda5iliya wizara erhabiyya

Ya trabelsi ya 7aqir 5alli el5obza lelfaqir
5obz w ma w ben3li la
5obz w ma wel ghannouchi la
5obz w ma wet tajammo3 la
ya mowaten ya dha7iyya 7ess 7ess belqadhiyya
ya boulis ya dha7iyya 7ess 7ess belqadhiyya
la la lettrabelsiyya elli nehbou elmizaniyya


Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Thanks Bilel! Long time no see - koul chi mabrouk and hope you're doing well!

Lane: depends - keeping dialectal pronunciation is fairly normal at a national level, but pan-Arab newscasters often go for a more Fusha pronunciation of the names. It would be interesting to look at that in more detail.

Anonymous said...

Thanks lameen, but I think it's still too early for saying "mabrouk"...
The dictator escaped, but the dictatorship is still ruling...
I expected you'd write mainly about the political actuality in the maghreb "since Algeria may be the next country infected by this illness named freedom" this how they speak about the tunisian revolution in german media...

A "funny" issue that may be interesting for you, is the difficulties facing journalists from all over the arab world (not the tunisian ones) by pronouncing tunisian names and cities...
An egyptian spoke about Sidi Abi Zayd (respecting fusha grammar rules) on Aljazeera, referring to Sidibouzid... A quite tricky task is reading names with ق ...
In regional dialects in Tunisia it's a g (like in good) in others it's a Qaf... so journalists just make their choice...
Another aspect that can be interesting for you, is the official language of the revolution on Facebook/twitter, after the declarations of Michèle Alliot-Marie, many people wanted to protest by writing only in arabic and english, but no more in french...


Anonymous said...

Lameen or anyone else:

What do you think is the likelihood that this will spread across the region, especially to Egypt?


Jongseong said...

Further to Lane's comment, I'd like to know more about the pronunciations of Arabic proper nouns. I deal with the issue of transcribing names into the Korean alphabet, and Arabic poses a huge difficulty not only because short vowels and gemination are not usually marked in writing but also because of the existence of different pronunciations.

The only existing proposal I know uniformly assumes the Fusha pronunciation for all Arabic names, and the resulting transcriptions seem quite artificial to me, especially as romanizations are usually based on the Darja pronunciations. So your comment about a more Fusha pronunciation used for personal names in pan-Arab broadcasts intrigues me. Any pointers as to where I can learn more about this issue?

Anonymous said...

I'm not linguist, but i think that the transcriptaions, the romanizations are not the same in the arab countries:
Bilel, 빌렐 my own name can be romanized as Belal (common in Egypt for example) or Bilal (common in Algeria for example)
If you want to transcribe names into korean, just trust the pronounciation of the names, that's what I would suggest.
Not all names are in Fusha, specially "old" names and many family names are in darja, anyway you have to trust the pronounciation...
This name:
Is a good example for the different pronounciations (may be Lammen can do it better in IPA).
Fus7a: ʕʊθmɛn 웄멘
Darja in Egypt: ʕosmɑn 어스만


Jongseong said...

Thanks, Bilel. The Fusha-based transcription of Arabic only assumes the three vowel qualities /a i u/, so عثمان would be written 우스만 (Usŭman) even if the last vowel is fronter in actual pronunciation. By the way, in Korean ㅅ or ㅆ is [t] if not followed by a vowel, so you do need the epenthetic vowel ŭ.

'Trusting the pronunciation' would be a much simpler solution if we knew the pronunciations! Koreans are much more likely to come across Arabic names in texts and/or through an intermediary language such as English.

Anonymous said...


Fus7a: ʕʊθmɛn 웄멘
Darja in Egypt: ʕosmɑn 어스만

I used ㅆ because it's more significant, since you dont have the θ sound in hanguel, it's a good compromise i think between the [t]-sound ans the [s]-nature of ㅆ, and in the second tarnscription, i used 어 instead of 우 because it's more accurate to describe the ʕ sound..
And what you called epenthetic vowel, i'm not linguist, but you need this one in the transcription of the egyptian version of the name, because they read it as an [s], an emphatic s, so written in Fus7a it sounds like
To write this in hanguel you have to use this epenthetic vowel, since if you write 엇만 you read Eot/man, so you should add this voyel to get 어스만 = Eo/seu/man, which describes the egyptian pronounciation better.

I've learned Hanguel and know that ㅆ should'nt be used for non-korean words, but that's how I "feel" it should be done, may be because it looks better ;-) as the simple ㅅ.


David Marjanović said...

Tunisian people have earned themselves imperishable honour, no matter what happens next, by kicking out their thieving, torturing control freak of an ex-president Ben Ali

What poetry :-)

Especially with the pessimistic disclaimer "no matter what happens next". But I'm pretty optimistic about this. I really don't think the Tunisians will put up with another dictator. Tunisia was a "stable façade democracy" for long enough.

Lukashenko started his 4th term as president today. Backed by Russia, he said "the virus of revolution can only be caught by weak countries"... I don't think that was a coincidence.

RCD Dégage
That's the slogan now on the streets, in French!!!

Oh yes. I've even seen it in English, "RCD OUT".

Jongseong said...

@Bilel, an epenthetic vowel is just a filler vowel to enable Koreans to pronounce consonants separately; otherwise, the consonants are not pronounced as intended. 웄멘 for example would be read as /unmen/ in Korean. All sibilants and affricates (ㅅ, ㅆ, ㅈ, ㅉ, ㅊ) first become /t/ unless followed by a vowel, and if a nasal consonant like ㅁ or ㄴ follows they become /n/. So the epenthetic vowel really is necessary to indicate any kind of fricative/affricate/stop sound in front of ㅁ or ㄴ, or even ㄹ which becomes /n/ in such an environment. Batman is transcribed as 배트맨 (baeteumaen) in Hangul.

Just like [s], [θ] is officially rendered with ㅅ, specifically in transcriptions of English and Spanish. Smith is 스미스 (seumiseu). ㅆ is used only for the Japanese affricate /ts/ (쓰시마 for Tsushima), which is for historical reasons since /ts/ is usually rendered ㅊ, and for Chinese and Vietnamese where there are contrasts between different s-like sounds that vary regionally (Hanyu Pinyin s is ㅆ, sh is ㅅ; Vietnamese x is ㅆ, s is ㅅ). In the last two languages, the sound rendered ㅆ is [s] and the one rendered ㅅ is a postalveolar [ʂ] in some varieties but in others they are both [s].

Korean only uses the letters for the plain and aspirated consonants in transcribing foreign words in general, but this is a matter of convention as the Korean three-way contrast of stops and affricates doesn't match up neatly to most other languages. For the record, /s/ in most other languages when followed by a vowel corresponds best to ㅆ.

The Korean word-initial ㅅ sound, which is voiceless lenis and slightly aspirated, is very rare among languages. The IPA Handbook transcribes ㅅ as [s] and gives the impression that ㅆ is the unusual sound, but in fact it is the other way around. Koreans who know about the pronunciations of other languages will substitute the ㅆ sound for foreign [s] even if ㅅ is used in writing, and will often use ㅆ in writing for [s] and [θ] in spite of the official guidelines.

Anonymous said...

@ JongSeong
fricative, postalveolar etc. all these words make me scared...
Don't understand them, I'm a graduate in mechanical and process engineering ;-)

Hope my transcriptions are correct, I learned Hanguel with a korean student here where i live, but only few words in korean...

Hanguel rocks!!! ^_^

Jongseong said...

Sorry if the words scared you! I used them since I'm trying to make my comments make some sense to people who don't know hangul at all but are more familiar with the phonetics terminology. I'm always delighted to see people take interest in hangul; I wish I could get the hang of the Arabic script myself.

Cemmust said...

Just a small comment..

We all know that Arabs don't really "speak" Standard Arabic (Fus-ha) in their daily personal and professional lives.

What they speak is their colloquial Arabic languages (Egyptian, Gulf Arabic, Levantine Arabic, Iraqi Arabic...). Often, they mix colloquial with standard. But they never let go of colloquial.

Only on TV news bulletins do they read Standard Arabic. The rest of the programming (talk shows, songs, films: all colloquial)

And only a small number of people (Arabs or Berbers) can improvise and talk without mistakes and with less of an accent.

So this conversation about Tunisians being influenced by their own daily accent (definitely Berber-originated accents) is just so obvious that there is no need to talk much about it.

French-educated Tunisians, and Tunisians who don't read Arabic often, or those who are simply too proud of their national accent, are certainly more inclined to use Tunisian colloquial Arabic on Aljazeera for example, or they simple don't care much about Arabicizing Tunisian names when they pronounce them (because it's.. less authentic!).

Maybe you noticed that the more culturally and linguistically Arabicized a Berber country is (so Tunisia and Libya) the more its ordinary people and intellectuals / politicians look confident and proud of their colloquial Arabic when they speak on Aljazeera for example. (We notice the same attitude with Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Arabs of Arabia..).

Whilst when we watch Moroccans and Algerians on Arab TV like Aljazeera, they do their utmost best to talk in Fus-ha. The Arabization (both cultural and lingual) is at its weakest in these two Berber countries.

John Cowan said...

Michael Farris: That would be when they were not united enough.

james martone said...

The blog and comments are highly interesting. I speak Arabic well, having lived many years of my youth in Egypt. When in Tunisia, I try speaking Fusha, but immediately Tunisians understand from my accent my Egyptian connection, and start speaking to me in fluent Egyptian! It's fun!

Anonymous said...

Great blog ! Great comments. As a native 'Arab' - ised person (in that my 'roots' are not from the Arabian Peninsula), and as an avid amateur linguist, I enjoyed many of the views here. I must salute the person whose brainchild is this blog. My 10 cents .....please do not forget that roughly half of all Egyptians do not speak/sound like the ones many here watch/listen to over the years and decades. Urban Lower Egyptian Arabic is dominant in the A.R.E., surely, but represents only half of all Egyptians.....who, in turn, represent a quarter or so of all Arabic speakers on Earth.