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The Emergence of Modern Standard Arabic

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Kees Versteegh

From The Arabic Language
© 1997 Kees Versteegh
Used by permission of the Edinburgh University Press.


Both vocabulary creation and regional variation are factors that have contributed to the gradual modification of the Classical language, so that it can no longer be regarded as identical with the modern variety of the language, usually called Modern Standard Arabic. Ideologically, of course, the modern language is still the same as the language of the Qur'an and the Classical period, but in practice it is easy to see that there are differences, not all of them lexical. On the one hand, this is because many of the idiosyncrasies of the Classical language have become obsolete. Thus, for instance, one seldom finds in a modern text the intricate constructions with verbal nouns that are quite common in Classical texts. Similarly, some categories have become obsolete, e.g. the energetic yaktubanna . On the other hand, the modern language has developed new grammatical devices, in particular in the language of the media, which is heavily influenced by European languages. One of the most characteristic features of this language is the extensive use of verbal constructions with the dummy verb qama bi- as a substitute for active verbs, e.g. qama bi-ziyara instead of zara 'to visit'. In passive constructions, the verb tamma is used as a substitute, e.g. tamma tawqi al-ittifaqiyya 'the agreement was signed', instead of a passive verb. Other characteristics of the language of the media include the limited use of the coordinative particle fa- and its replacement by wa-, and the extensive use of expressions like wa- dalika, kull min in enumerations.

In literary prose, the differences between Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are much less marked because authors tend to classicize their style, both in syntax and in the selection of the vocabulary. In some cases, however, the use of colloquial language, particularly in Egyptian literature, may create a new difference. The choice of informal registers is a further source of variation between the Arab countries as well. But lexical differences are responsible for most of the regional variation in Standard Arabic. In spite of the fact that the Standard Arabic language is regarded as the most powerful symbol of Arab unity, and in spite of the unifying work of the Academies, one immediately recognizes a Moroccan text from an Egyptian text or a text from the Gulf states. Partly, this variation is caused by differing local traditions in the creation of new vocabulary. Partly, it is also a result of the different colonial history of the regions involved. In North Africa, for instance, there is a natural tendency to look at French examples and model the text, even on the level of syntax and stylistics, on a French example. One finds, for instance al-wazir al-'awwal ([from] French premier minister ) instead of the usual term ra'is al-wuzara' ; huquq ([from] French droits ) instead of rusum . Stylistic expressions include sami l-muwazzafin ([from] French hauts fonctionnaires ), wudi'a fi l-isti'mal ([from] French mettre en usage ), bi-'unwan ([from] à titre de ), and the use of prepositions with verbs like tahadata ma'a ([from] French s'entretenir avec ). In some cases, North African phraseology was not directly inspired by French, yet differed from that in the Arab East, as in the choice of the dummy verb waqa'a in expressions like waqa'a nasr al-bayan 'the publication of the declaration took place', where Eastern Arabic would use tamma or gara . In Arab countries without a French colonial past, English usually replaced French as a model. In Egypt, for instance, France and French had been the model for most attempts at modernization in the nineteenth century, but after the First World War, this role was taken over by Britain.

The reintroduction of Arabic as the official language of the Arab countries also raised the question of its role in education. The poor standards of language instruction were a constant source of concern, and since the nineteenth century there has been a call for simplification of the grammatical system. Some scholars claimed that Arabic in itself was perfectly well suited to accommodate contemporary needs, if only it was purified from the corruption that had crept in. They believed that the main obstacle to the general use of the standard language in society was the failure of the educational system to reach large parts of the population. There was, of course, a logistical problem because of the lack of schools and teachers, but most specialists agreed that this in itself did not explain the lack of success in teaching Standard Arabic to those children who did attend schools. Even today, hardly anybody after graduation is able to write flawless Arabic, let alone extemporize in speaking, and there is a general antipathy towards 'grammar', even among those who advocate the use of Standard Arabic.

The two keywords in the discussion were tabsit (taysir) an-nahw 'simplification of grammar' and tabsit al-luga 'simplification of language', but the distinction between the two notions tended to become blurred. In the 1950s, a grammatical text was rediscovered, which sparked off a renewed interest in the matter of grammar teaching. Ibn Mada' was a grammarian from Cordova (d. 592/1196) who wrote about the refutation of the grammarians ( Kitab ar-radd 'ala n-nuhat ), proposing the abolition of the concepts of 'amal 'governance' and qiyas 'analogy' from grammar. Among the scholars who occupied themselves with this text was the Egyptian linguist Sawqi Dayf, who maintained that this text was the solution to the problems of Arabic language teaching. With the abolition of 'amal and qiyas from grammar, he asserted, it should be much easier to teach Arabic. Abstract discussions among the Arab grammarians, some of which had found their way into the current textbooks for schools, did nothing to enhance the understanding of the language and merely served the theoretical interests of the grammarians. His proposal to replace the Arabic notions of 'nominal sentence' and 'verbal sentence' (cf. above, p. 8o) with the Western concepts of 'subject' and 'predicate' could, however, hardly be called a major improvement. Other proposals, too, were terminological in nature only. They involved the introduction of a new notion of 'complement' ( takmila ), and the look at replacement of the traditional terms mudaf and mudaf 'ilayhi for the constituents of the genitive construction by the term magrur bi-l-'idafa . The success of these proposals has been limited.

Others concerned themselves with the simplification of the language itself, but in most cases this resulted in nothing more than a general plea for simplification without detailed proposals about the abolition of syntactic or morphological features from the language. Some scholars proposed to leave out the vowels of declension, which, however, leaves the declensional system intact, since in the sound masculine plural a choice must still be made between nominative -un and genitive/accusative -in . Others called for the simplification of the syntactic rules for the numerals to be replaced by the rules of the dialect. More extreme proposals, such as those of 'Anis Frayha and Georges al- Huri, involved the abolition of the feminine plural in the pronouns or the use of the masculine plural instead of the feminine plural in all parts of speech. Since none of these proposals was integrated into a comprehensive didactic concept, they have remained largely unproductive. Nowadays there are very few proponents of this road towards an 'easier language' ( luga muyassara ).

The entire discussion about a simplified language has remained sterile, even when it was moved to a sociolinguistic level. In particular, in Egypt, it has become fashionable to hold that between the level of the standard language ( fusha ) and that of the dialect ( 'ammiyya ) there is an intermediate level, variably called al-luga al-mutawassita 'the intermediate language' or lugat al-mutaqqafin 'language of the intellectuals' (cf. Chapter 12). This variety, many people assert, would fill the gap between the artificial standard and the lower levels of the language continuum. The best that one could say about this sociolinguistic approach is that it legitimizes the informal standard speech of many educated Egyptians. More than speakers from other Arab countries, they tend to leave out most of the declensional endings and freely use a number of dialect expressions.

On the whole, the trend in written Arabic has been towards a stricter regulation of the level of speech, rather than towards an increasing flexibility in the application of the rules. At this point, a distinction should be made between the practice in Egypt and the Levant, on the one hand, and North Africa, on the other. In North Africa, the most pressing problem after independence was how to replace the dominant French language with Arabic, preferably at all levels of society, but at the very least in education. As a consequence, simplification of the Classical language was not an issue. Since Arabic and French had to compete for the status of language of prestige, in the eyes of most language-reformers it would be wrong to devalue the Classical language by debasing it with dialect influence or with the abolition of grammatical rules. Discussions in North Africa on arabicisation ( ta'rib ) concentrate on the introduction of Arabic in domains where formerly French had been the dominant language, whereas in other parts of the Arab world ta'rib usually means the introduction of Arabic equivalents of foreign words, particularly in scientific language.

In recent times, various didactic projects have been set up for the compilation of a basic word list for use in primary schools and for the composition of a basic grammar that includes only the most frequent constructions of the standard language. The essential vocabularies from Tunisia and Lebanon do not seem to have had much impact on the various national educational systems. But there is one project that was based on an explicit didactic and linguistic concept, the Arabic version of the American children's programme Sesame Street ( Ifth ya Simsim ). In the memorandum prepared by the makers of the programme, three categories of linguistic phenomena in Standard Arabic were distinguished: indispensable features of Standard Arabic that were to be used in spite of their absence in the dialect (e.g. the case endings); features that should be used sparingly (e.g. the passive form of the verbs); and features that should be avoided altogether (e.g. the superlative al-'af'alu, the prepositions ka- 'like' and siwa 'except'). In the language of the programme, these principles have been followed rather closely. Moreover, the players, including the small children who play an essential part in the Sesame Street concept, make remarkably few performance errors in their use of Standard Arabic. On the whole, colloquialisms are used very infrequently, and yet there is a certain informal quality in the discourse, achieved mostly by the use of intonational patterns and interjections rather than the introduction of grammatical and/or lexical items from the colloquial language.

The Iftah ya Simsim experiment proves that it is indeed possible to use an informal register of Modern Standard Arabic. It is true that in some Arab countries, in particular Egypt, the programme was criticised because it allegedly contained too many colloquial items. But on closer observation it turns out that this criticism was biased: the pronunciation of the gim as [ g ] rather than [ g ] can hardly be regarded as a regionalism, and the selection of lexical items in any pan-Arabic programme will probably never satisfy everybody. The future will have to decide whether or not the introduction of an informal register of Standard Arabic stands any chance.

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