Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Gulf Arabic in Omani FM stations: Who said anything about having a fake accent?!

Last summer, I was researching the language style of Omani broadcasters in a local Arabic radio station. I wanted to see whether they are as radical as I thought in their linguistic divergence from the speech of the callers. Based on what I hear in local FM stations, I hypothesized that they would be highly divergent by speaking in Gulf Arabic forms all through, while most callers would speak in more 'realistic' varieties of Arabic that we hear more commonly in Oman. I chose phonological variables which I thought are stereotypical of Omani dialects as well as being distinguishing identity markers. However, this post today is not to discuss the findings of my research, but to discuss an example from my data which made me inclined to believe that most broadcasters who speak in Gulf Arabic are probably putting on a voice and may be not speaking in the way they 'normally' do away from the microphone. 

GCC map.

Before I go into what I found, let me just briefly explain the situation in Oman. Oman is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which includes six Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman. If you check the foundations and objectives of the GCC, you will notice that their  bonding is not only political but also for historical, social and cultural reasons. Of course language is part of this society and culture. They use the term 'homogeneous values and characteristics' in their statement. It is this 'homogeneity' that is constantly being emphasised in the GCC through media and education and other means, which is all to serve the idea that 'Our Gulf is One' (خليجنا واحد). This homogeneity is not only to create regional nationalism and a sense of belonging to the Arabian Gulf as a whole, but over the years it emphasised the similarities between the nationals of these 6 states, including linguistic similarities. When you look at the GCC states, you will notice that indeed they are very similar in culture, except that from the outside Oman is unique. For example, GCC nationals generally all have ghutra and iqal as their headdress, except Omanis who dress in kuma or mssar (turban) instead. 

The different headdresses in Oman and the GCC.

Omani headdresses. Left: man has a kuma on. Right : man has a  msar (turban) on his head.

On a linguistic level, Oman is also unique in the sense that Gulf Arabic is not as widely used in the country as in the other GCC states. Instead, a variety of Omani dialects are generally used. Even the official website of teaching Gulf Arabic, suggests that Gulf Arabic is spoken “to a lesser extent" in Oman. Arabists specializing in linguistics such as Johnstone and Holes also suggest that the dialects spoken in Oman are different from the ones spoken in the other GCC states, and they classify them under a different type. The fact that Oman is politically a member of the GCC yet at the same time most Omanis do not sound like nationals of neighboring GCC countries, together with the fact that they are being constantly reminded of the similarities the people of the GCC share (or 'should' share?) combined with the importance of the GCC homogeneity, emphasizes, in my opinion, the Omani difference and puts a lot of pressure on Omanis to behave linguistically like the dominant GCC dialect which is spoken by the majority in the region. The relevance of what I just explained will be understood better as I now move on to explain what I found in my data.

It happened when I was listening to a conversation between a caller who is a female Omani child with one of the most linguistically divergent broadcasters in my study; which means that he spoke in Gulf Arabic without attempting to speak in Omani dialects, which are the dialects in which most callers spoke. For the sake of anonymity, I will call the girl Noor. From the content of their conversation, I understood that Noor is 6 years old and about to be admitted to grade 1 in school. Noor performed for a few short sound clips for the station which were then used as sound effects for different programs on the station. For example she would say short phrases like yallah goolu waray ('come on, say it with me'). In all her performances, Noor would speak in Gulf Arabic. Not a single performance of Noor is done in a variety of Omani Arabic. So far so unsurprising. Nothing new. I got used to this kind of unrealistic linguistic representation on Omani Fm since I was a kid. But then something happened in the call between Noor and the broadcaster while I was listening attentively to my data, like a child watching a captivating Sherlock Holmes cartoon looking for clues, and I almost shouted: “Aha! I caught that!” when I heard it.

Noor, the girl who performs in Gulf Arabic all the time revealed to be a speaker of a completely different dialect when she spoke to the broadcaster in a relaxed setting. Note that apparently, she knows many of the station's crew, including the broadcaster himself (I knew this because she calls them 'uncle', a polite form of address when addressing someone who's older than you in Arab culture, also because of their mentioning of previous events in which they have met in person). Noor actually speaks in a very Interior- Omani dialect, which is not close to Gulf Arabic at all. Ha! Why does she speak in an Omani variety when she is speaking casually and not performing, while she speaks utter Gulf Arabic when she performs? Why doesn't she say for instance, the more common Omani version of yallah goolu waray which is yallah qoolu waray? Is the [q]  sound (uvular plosive) so hideous to the ear when spoken in non-Standard Arabic? Or is it just embarrassing to admit that we speak in a different way compared to the GCC? Are we peer pressured at all to speak like our Gulf neighbors? Obviously, the 6-year-old did not decide to speak Gulf Arabic because she understands the social meanings associated with it. Obviously she was instructed to do so by someone who works in the channel. Instructed. Unfortunately, they do not realize that she's being taught from a tender age to grow with linguistic insecurity because her dialect isn't favored; hence build a negative attitude towards the norms of her own speech. Even worse, she's taught from as early as 6 years old to fake an accent and to associate Gulf Arabic with media. It's more like an unwritten rule (actually I'm starting to think it's written) “Gulf Arabic speaks for Omani media”; especially for entertainment shows. I think Omani broadcasters working in FM stations who depend mainly on their voice to represent an Omani identity, should understand that it's okay to be different. There should be no urge to speak in Gulf Arabic and run away from reality while distancing themselves from the callers, just to sound like Arabian Gulf nationals. Why can't we be members of the GCC while still be unique? Do we have to be copies of each other to 'unite'?!  

Before I drop my pen for today, I'd like to make it clear that I am not a prescriptive linguist who highly values one variety over others. In fact, in this activity specifically, I am very descriptive. I am just an observer of a phenomenon that for many years has led us Omanis, linguists and non linguists, to wonder why on earth is there a huge linguistic gap between what is really heard in Oman and what is heard in the Omani media?

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