Saturday, March 26, 2016

Lexical gaps in diglossia: When you can't write what you know

"Write what you know" is what they tell aspiring writers. If you're an English speaker who made it through high school, you should be able to do just that, on any topic that you know anything about (although the spelling might need work.) In Algeria (as in other Arabic-speaking countries) diglossia makes it a little more complicated. You may have mastered the grammar perfectly, and gotten a great score on your high school exams. You may be an excellent plumber, or a great fisherman, or an expert carpenter - and you certainly have no problem talking about any of these things in Darja (dialectal Arabic). But try to write about any of those fields, and you're almost guaranteed to run into the limits of your Fusha vocabulary (standard Arabic).

You don't even have to get all that specialised to run into difficulties. If you're Algerian, all of the items listed below should be familiar to you from daily life - some of the words might be different in your region, but you almost certainly still know a Darja word with the appropriate meaning. But how many of them can you name in Fusha? (No fair using a dictionary, especially since you're unlikely to have a Darja-Fusha dictionary.)

  • تورنيفيس (screwdriver)
  • لومبرياج (clutch of a car)
  • زربوط (top)
  • حرّايق (nettle)
  • مشيمشة (loquat)
  • بلاّرج (stork)
  • أكليل، أزير (rosemary)
  • رعف (to have a nosebleed)
  • زبر (to prune)
  • ددّش (to toddle)
  • هترف (to sleep-talk)
In the very unlikely event that you did know all of these in Fusha, ask yourself for each one: if you used this word in an article, how many readers do you think would understand? Granted, a couple of them are trick questions - cases where the Fusha word is basically the same as the Darja one. But the main point stands even in those cases: you probably didn't know that before checking it, and for at least one of those words, I can confirm from personal experience that there are professors teaching in Arabic, and journalists working in Arabic, who didn't know that either. In Algeria (though not necessarily in other countries, like Egypt), the default assumption is always that a Darja word is wrong until proven otherwise.

It's understandable that Algerians (and quite likely other Arabic speakers) tend not to know these words in Fusha. How often do any of them come up in journalism, or religion, or poetry, or any of the other contexts in which people are most frequently exposed to Fusha? But what it means is that even well-educated Algerians don't know enough Fusha to adequately describe their daily life, much less to write all they know. In effect, compared to their Darja abilities, they're suffering from a Fusha-specific language deficiency that limits what they can write about. If you agree with me that it would be nice to see more good Algerian novels, or even more Algerian DIY handbooks, then that's a problem.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this. That's more or less how I imagined this situation, but you put it in words so well.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Bear in mind that I'm not claiming to describe diglossia in general, but diglossia as it plays out in Algeria. As I implied, the situation in Egypt is rather different: there, people seem to feel relatively free to use dialect words in print for concepts pertaining to everyday life, including tools and animals (at least if they're Cairene dialect words). Other diglossic situations, such as Tamil and Sinhalese, are no doubt different in their own ways.

Abu Ilyás said...

By the way, there is an interesting plea for more loanwords and less calques in Leila Messaoudi, "Le technolecte et les ressources linguistiques. L’exemple du code de la route au Maroc", Langage et société, 2002/1, 99:

Jim said...

"As I implied, the situation in Egypt is rather different: there, people seem to feel relatively free to use dialect words in print for concepts pertaining to everyday life, including tools and animals (at least if they're Cairene dialect words). "

I wonder how much the sense that Egypt is a separate entity, vaguely superior culturally to everyone around them - basically a Pharaonic identity - plays into this.

Anonymous said...

Jim, that probably plays a part. We can only speculate but I also suspect/theorize (been to Egypt but not spent that much time there or spoken to too many Egyptians) that the geographical and political centrality of Egypt in the Arab world and its huge size i.e. biggest country in the Arab world plays a major part too. North Africans acutely do feel they are peripheral and "lesser Arabs" (whether they state it consciously or subconsciously), whereas hey Egypt is smack bang in the heart of it all!

Next to Palestine and the Gaza strip with the world news focused on it. Next to arch-enemy Israel, home to the globally important Suez canal, just a short boat ride from Saudi Arabia separated by the red sea etc etc.

The other thing is the role of Nasserism, with Nasser being the iconic head of Arab nationalism.

Egypt is in some ways the France of the Arab world, quite proud in an arrogant way about its centrality (both geographically and politically) to the region it is part of this translates itself in many ways including the Egyptians proud readiness to use Egyptian Arabic rather than be embarrased in doing so.

- Shah Jalal

Anonymous said...

How did Algerians become so proficient in Darija/Algerian compared with their country's official language Fus7a? I know, I know, our dialects are simply not proper languages, we just can't resist using them most of the time to communicate with each other. And we don't seem to grow out of the habit of understanding our national idoms more than our true language Fus7a. These dialects have a natural unfair advantage over Fus7a that needs to be addressed through policy, law and spiritual blackmail. God forbid North Africans started to standardize dialects, nothing would stop these pervasive idioms from becoming even more useful than they presently are, what chance would Fus7a have then to catch up to these inferior languages. [End of juvenile sarcasm]

I would not put it past us Moroccans to suppress our own dialect but at the same time admit Egyptian dialect words into our vocabulary. We are a very strange people in need of introspection. Since the days of Apuleius this region has purposefully neglected its own linguistic potential, justifying this decision with the most short-sighted and self-deprecating excuses imaginable.

John Cowan said...

Dmitry Pruss raises the point at Languagehat that car parts and tools have to be ordered in writing and receipted for in writing, not to mention described in written manuals. How is that done, if the Standard Arabic words are not generally known? Is it all in French, or all oral?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Anon: If there's one constant across all political alignments in North Africa, it's the firm belief that we are "not normal". Which itself is "not normal", if you ask me...

Dmitry (reposting from LL): French was an astute guess. Yes, reading and writing (not speaking) around mechanics, DIY, carpentry, electronics and the like is typically in French; that’s the default language of the manuals and the receipts, that’s the commonest language of formal vocational teaching, and that’s the source of a disproportionate number of the imports. That’s also where practically all of the post-1830 technical vocabulary of Darja is borrowed from. Maybe if the early Arabization campaigns had focused more on vocational training and less on humanities courses, things would have gone better…

Anonymus said...

Apart from the tiny community of the remaining Pied-Noir, is there significant part of Algerian population that use French as the daily life language? is thare a chance that French of french based creole will become the algerian native language?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Some of the upper-middle class do speak French at home and/or with friends. If it hadn't been for the policy of Arabisation, French might be as entrenched on the popular level in Algiers now as it is in, say, Dakar (though probably not Abidjan). By now, though, I don't see much danger of French becoming the Algerian native language; the observed trend, over the past two decades at least, is a decline in fluency in French and in comfort with speaking French.

Daniel N. said...

I wonder: why are there no Darya-Fusha dictionaries? I mean, writing a dictionary is something that enthusiasts like to do. Is the very idea or putting Darya words to writing strange?

Finally, why not just write in Darya?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

There probably will be someday; such dictionaries exist for the dialects of other Arabic-speaking countries, such as Sudan or the UAE.

Why not just write in Darja? Good question. Mainly, uncertainties over who would publish it, whether anyone would read it, and whether the tabloids would decide to make you the hate object of the month for it.

Anonymus said...

Regarding the 'high' language in algeria, you wrote that french has been weakened during the last 20 years, what came instead? was the knowledge and usage of MSA increased? do people talk in Darja about subjects their parents talked in French?

petre said...

My (very subjective) experience from Oran is that people (who can) talk about Euro-important things in French and Arabo-important things in Fusha. Darja is left as a kind of "kitchen-language", a bit like Yiddish was for the Hebraicizers.
There's no real mystery about how Darja develops, once it breaks free of normative Arabic: just look at Maltese. There won't be any way out of it until North African (arabophone) speakers are convinced that their own way of speaking is good, and doesn't depend on the external standards of either Saudi Arabic or European French.
Well, that's just what I think.

Anonymous said...

The situation regarding the 'average' Egyptian's usually unconscious decision on his/her dialect usage and how that 'translates' into feelings of superiority, potential semantic inflexibility, geo-political identity and so on should also take into account the fundamental nature of contemporary Egyptian monolingualism. Egyptians simply - and largely - do not have interactions or significant residual strata with aboriginal and/or former colonial languages (today) to such an extent as do many other Arabic speakers in the region. The extent of usage of French, Kurdish and Tamazight have no paralells in Egypt today and that leaves many Egyptians with relatively little disposition for any potential linguistic relativism apart from the pan-Arabic phenomena of diglossia. An added factor is - ironically - the fact that when an Egyptian meets a non-Egyptian speaker of Arabic, the 'other' almost surely has some (or more than some) knowledge of 'Egyptian' and, thus, inadvertently cements the Egyptian's linguistic laziness and/or unconscious feelings of linguistic (and other forms of) superiority. It is indeed a rare occurence to encounter an Egyptian, even one who has spent decades in the GCC and/or Libya (massive Egyptian 'diasporas') who can speak as the 'locals' do. Mutuality in linguistic (or rather, dialectical) acquisition is markedly absent and one would be hard pressed to see this as an advantage.