Sunday, 25 December 2011

أنا مافي معلوم كلام واجد عربي



I'm sure the title sounds familiar to many readers. It's very common to hear this kind of language in this part of the world. I've often heard comments about the use of this language, and how “it ruins Arabic”. I've been told off by people from an older generation when I used it, they'd ask me in a criticising tone, “why do you speak to them in broken Arabic? You should speak to them normally so that they'd pick up proper language”. Before I knew what this language is all about, I used to reply to their comments with “I can't help it, really. I do it unconsciously”. The general attitude toward this language is, I feel, quite negative. People don't like to hear a distorted form of Arabic. But this 'distorted' form of Arabic is actually a language on its own, not Arabic. It's a pidgin language (pronounced like 'pigeon' as in the bird). There are many views on where the name 'pidgin' comes from, but I think the most popular view is that it comes from a Chinese mispronunciation of the English word 'business'. 
Another belief about the word 'pidgin' is associated with pigeons since at some point they were used to send messages hence in a way facilitate communication, just like pidgins.
Simply put, a pidgin is a simplified language that is born as a result of two languages being in contact for some time, and where there is no interlanguage common to both speakers, yet there is an urging need to communicate. This could be a result of limited relations between the speakers of the two languages; like sellers and buyers in the market for example or more typically relationships which involve power hierarchy such as the one between master and servant. The slave trade which took place during the 16th - 19th centuries was an important cause for the development of many pidgin languages which are based on the languages of the European colonisers. Slaves that were taken from their homelands to different parts of Europe did not speak the language of their European masters, nor did the Europeans speak any of the African languages spoken by the slaves. And there was no other common language between the two sides either. This situation provides typical ingredients for the birth of a pidgin.
Typically, the vocabulary of pidgin languages is a mixture of the host language (in this case a European language such as English) as well as the African languages of the slaves. The grammar however, would usually follow the structure of the African languages probably because it's the way the slaves were used to combine words and their lack of understanding of the grammatical system of the European language.
Some parts of the world where pidgins and creoles are spoken (from: APiCS

Pidgin languages are simplified in the sense that they are developed for the most basic communication needs. This means that many functions of language such as poetry, literature or news reporting cannot be expressed, or if they are used for such functions, they usually carry a humour effect. Also, because pidgins develop for functional reasons, they have no native speakers, they're born as a result of a pressing need to communicate. Some pidgins however, do develop complexity and are therefore able to function in more complex functions of language, just like non-simplified languages. They also become native languages to their speakers. When this happens, they are no longer called pidgin, instead they are called creoles. There are countries that recognise creoles as an official language such as Haiti and Papua New Guinea, which have Haitian Creole and Tok Pisin as one of their official languages, respectively.
In a place like Oman and certainly the Arabian Gulf, where nationals seem to reserve a lot of the manual work to a migrant labour force, a similar situation arises. Could the large number of Asian migrants be contributing to the linguistic situation in the region? Most labourers come from a poor background and many of them are not literate in their own mother tongue, let alone speak other languages like Arabic or English. They come to the country, usually leaving their families, to find a job that would provide them with a better living only to realise that they're facing a barrier that they have yet to overcome: the linguistic barrier. What happens in a situation like this? The Arabic speaking master cannot speak any Indian language, while the labourer cannot speak Arabic. There is no third language that they both understand to communicate in. This situation leads to the formation of a pidgin in order to facilitate communication. It probably starts as common sense or a mechanism of what I'll call 'linguistic survival' as in an instinctive need to survive in a communication in order to be able to function properly in a job or to gain a living. But with time, it becomes more of a trend, the trend becomes a habit, the habit becomes a norm and the norm stays until using it becomes almost unconscious. And I think this is the situation in Oman.
Most people don't realise that this is a language (I didn't before I studied linguistics). What doesn't help is that some dictionaries explain a pidgin as an 'artificial' language. I don't like the term 'artificial' here because it reminds me of machines and machine translation and perhaps computational linguistics, but not pidgin. I mean the situation of two cultures (hence languages) being in contact is very humanistic, how can it be artificial? 'Artificial' sounds as though it means that it's 'not natural', but what I see is the exact opposite: when two languages come in contact and when there is no way of conveying meaning in linguistic communication between the speakers of two languages, it is only 'natural' that a pidgin would be formed. Mixing some languages together or simplifying them does not make them artificial, I'd say. It may be a simplified form of language but it's still a language that has a structure, grammar, vocabulary and domains of use and important social factors that contribute to the identities of the people who use it. For example, I imagine that the below verses of poetry have a humour effect because this language is not meant to be used for this language function (poetry):

إسم أنا كومار عتيق    أخو أنا والله صديق 



بابا أنا شيبه كبير **** ماما أنا مريض كتير 


أخو أنا كلو صغير **** مافي فلوس أنا فقير 

عشره سنه شغل هنا **** مافي شوف أهلي أنا 

ممكن موت أنا هنا **** فكر مشغول تعبان أنا 

أتنين سنه مافي فلوس **** كفيل كلام بعدين يشوف 

والله هرام لازم فلوس   مسلم أنا مافي هندوس 


لازم أنا سفر رمضان **** إنسان أنا مافي هيوان






One reason why the above lines might sound awkward and maybe humourous is because pidgins are not developed enough to be used in complex language functions such as poetry. A lot of pidgin languages around the world have been negatively stereotyped and used for humour effects which could lead to discriminating its speakers and it seems like this is the case with Gulf pidgin discussed here. I once asked a Nigerian friend of mine if she speaks Nigerian pidgin, she said she does sometimes but quickly added “but that's not a language, that's just rotten English”. In the case of Indians or Asians in the Gulf, many of them are blamed for not speaking Arabic because such a situation hinders communication; as if it's the poor peoples' fault! The fact that they don't speak Arabic does not make them stupid or inferior and I believe it's unfair to blame them for thatThey have a language that they are competent in and proud of just like we are about our own languages. Such linguistic barriers should not be dealt with in a discriminating way.
Many enthusiasts about Arabic argue that this pidgin is a threat to the Arabic language, which they see as sacred because it is the language of the Holy Quran. I don't see that it's a threat for the simple reason that it's always been and will always be the case that there are hundreds of dialects of Arabic spoken around the Arab World, this has been the case for centuries yet it didn't affect the Holy Quran or the competence of Arabic speakers. So a pidgin that functions for basic communication only, shouldn't be a threat. I don't think this pidgin corrupts Arabic or that it's likely to develop into a creole because migrants don't seem to be using it with their children. English, French and Portuguese are some languages which form the basis for many pidgins and creoles around the world. They didn't corrupt the main languages even though they are widely used, much more than Gulf pidgin, did they? And anyway, what's 'corrupted' language? Who decides how people should speak? I think it's discriminating to think of pidgin speakers as being inferior just because they don't speak the language of the wider community fluently and happen to be poor. If someone insists on blaming the Asian labour force for 'corrupting their Arabic' and finds this as an excuse to discriminate them, I suggest they go pick up a trowel and do the gardening work in that roundabout instead, if they're very concerned!

4 comments:

  1. Enlightening! Thanks for this post!

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    1. Thank you for passing by and dropping a comment Ghudaina :)

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  2. Enlightening article indeed ! Thank you for those insights on the socio-linguistic situation in Oman.
    It would be interesting to provide for non-arabic speaker transcription of your quotations... :)

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  3. Thanks for your comment and feedback, Clémentine. Will certainly try to transcribe/transliterate Arabic texts for non-Arabic speakers next time :)

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