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!

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?



Thursday, 8 December 2011

We are the world, we are the linguists! Linguists of the world stand united...

If you think linguists are simply nerds living in the world of academia digging up books because they're mad about language, check this out; they have singing talents too! Not very catchy, but the lyrics are humorous and indeed speak the truth (although I'm not sure about the grammar part).

Thank you professors and students of linguistics in Budapest for coming up with this creative way to appreciate linguistics and linguists. Great performance! 


This is dedicated to all linguists in the world :)


There comes a time
When we heed a certain call,
When linguists must come together as one. 
There are people speaking,
They bind and c-command;
It's grammar, the greatest gift of all.

We can't go on 
Pretending day by day
That we know our language works in the brain.
We are all a part of 
God's linguist family,
And the truth, you know, grammar's all we need.

We are the world,
We are the linguists,
We are the ones who make a brighter day 
By making theories.
There's a choice we're making
By forming hypotheses 
And we'll describe a language 
Just you and me. 

Send them a research group
So they'll know that someone cares 
And their data will be thoroughly explored.
God has shown us 
By turning stone to bread 
That even a linguist must be fed.

We are the world,
We are the linguists,
We are the ones who make a brighter day 
By making theories.
There's a choice we're making
By forming hypotheses 
And we'll describe a language 
Just you and me. 

When you're criticized 
There seems no hope at all,
But if you just believe 
There's a usage-based approach.
Well, well, well, well, let us realize 
That debates will always come 
Even though we stand together as one.

We are the world,
We are the linguists,
We are the ones who make a brighter day 
By making theories.
There's a choice we're making
By forming hypotheses 
And we'll describe a language 
Just you and me.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Andaman Islands linguistic treasures, documented just before extinction


The BBC recently reported that Professor Anvita Abbi at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, managed to compile a dictionary of 4 endangered languages spoken in the Andaman Islands. Most parts of Andaman Islands politically belong to India, while a small part belongs to Myanmar. Although it only captures a small angle of language, dictionaries are a good way to document the lexis (vocabulary) of an endangered language. Apparently, Andaman Islands are one of the most linguistically diverse spots in the world although many of these languages are critically endangered according to the UNESCO website. 

It took Professor Abbi 6 years to compile the dictionary of the 4 endangered languages in the Island which are the Bo, Khora, Jeru and Sare languages. While working on her research, Bo and Khora became extinct. Bo, an ancient language of a culture that is more than 65,000 years old died with its last speaker early in 2010. The rapid rate at which languages are dying is compelling enough to try and avoid such a loss in some of the minority languages spoken in Oman. 

Professor Abbi with Boa Sr, the last speaker of the Bo language.

Professor Abbi’s words, "This was my way of documenting ancient and traditional knowledge as words are cultural, archaeological, and environmental signatures of a community” should be indeed a motivation so save the left signatures of the endangered languages in Oman. 

The original article about Professor Abbi's great achievement can be accessed here.


Friday, 2 December 2011

An innovative way to save an endangered language: Possible in Oman?


Lakota is an endangered language spoken in the United States and some parts of Canada by Native Americans who descend from the Sioux tribes. Lakota’s situation is not very different from Jabbali, since the former has around 6000 speakers left while the latter has around 5000. It is mostly the older generation who can speak Lakota fluently.
A Lakota chief 1885 (from Wikipedia) 

However, the good news is that in an effort to save Lakota from dying, the animated cartoon The Berenstain Bears, which for decades has been aired in various languages including Arabic, is now going to be aired in Lakota.  That's right, The Berenstain Bears are going to be speaking Lakota as part of a project that attempts to spread the language to the younger Sioux generation in order to preserve the language. 

The Berenstain Bears was created in 1962
I think this approach to save a language is innovative. Instead of accepting the fact that the language is dying hence document it, record it, and observe it from the older generation while it’s at the verge of extinction, this project attempts to preserve the language not by saving it on paper, but by teaching it to little children, and therefore the possibility of having another generation that speaks the language. In other words, this project foresees the possibility of saving a language by giving children access to another source of input of the language, which is probably more interesting and captivating to them than a conversation with an old person in their family. Consequently, this can increase their chances of acquiring the language.

This brilliant idea makes me wonder if such a project is possible to adopt in Oman. Knowing that a language which is more or less in a similar condition to Jabbali is getting a lot of attention and effort is a motivation. What makes it impossible in Oman?


I leave you now with the Lokata Berenstain Bears trailer: