Thursday, 12 January 2012

When Arabic Marries Greek: Cypriot Maronite Arabic

A marriage between two languages that leads to the birth of a new language is fascinating. The product of such a contact usually leads to an interesting cultural hybrid which is a reminder of the similarity between people who were once upon a time 'different'. When cultures assimilate and blend beautifully they give humanity yet another evidence of the possibility of coexistence. What I mean by contact here is not the kind of contact that I discussed in my previous blog post about pidgins which is based on a hierarchical relationship between master and slave/servant. Here, I mean a less hierarchical relationship between members of both communities.

Unsurprisingly, Arabic came in contact with many languages across the world. This goes back to the time when Arabic was a lingua franca during the Islamic Golden Age. While sometimes the product of contact is a load of loanwords, it is less common to see the birth of a new language as a product of language contact. However, one of the peculiar cases of Arabic being in contact led to the birth of a new language. It appears that there is a dialect of Greek Arabic, called Cypriot Maronite Arabic (CMA), spoken by the Maronite community in Cyprus who migrated from Lebanon during the 1100s. Only about 1300 speakers of CMA remain today mostly in the village of Kormakiti.

Tsiapera (1964) refers to this language as a 'dialect' of Lebanese Arabic. I prefer to use the term 'language' instead, because while Arabic speakers might find some words intelligible, the large Greek vocabulary along with the Latin and Turkish influences, could make CMA unintelligible by many Arabic speakers. However, it's not so difficult to understand the gist of what is being said in CMA if one is familiar with Levantine Arabic. Tsiapera also discusses the structure of the language at different linguistic levels and it appears to be similar to Arabic in some areas but also very similar to Greek in many other areas.

My attention was brought to this language when I listened to the BBC's report on CMA and other endangered languages in the Middle East, here.

Like many minority languages spoken around the world, CMA made it to the UNESCO's endangered languages list. The UNESCO classifies it as one of the severely endangered languages in the world. Unfortunately, this means that a whole culture is in danger of extinction. Once again a language is endangered  because linguistic diversity isn't as practical today. In the case of CMA, the language is being dominated by Greek because it's the language of the wider community. The following video is the first part of a series of videos which show the efforts of young members of the Maronite community in Cyprus to re-nourish the vitality of the language of their parents which they have not had the chance to acquire.

I must say how fascinating it is to hear bits of Arabic spoken in a Lebanese fashion in what seems to the 'Arabic ear' at first glance as a chaotic attempt to speak Arabic! It's as though this linguistic orchestra stands as a witness of a historical assimilation of cultures and identities. A portray of a truly beautiful linguistic mosaic.