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Arabic: Under the big tent
March 10, 2010 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Arabic: Under the big tent

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the language of written discourse, university courses, academic and scientific texts and conferences, TV and radio news…but it is not how people speak to each other. The language of daily life is conducted in one of many colloquial Arabic dialects, often quite different from MSA, which is adapted from the language of the Koran and written in the dialect of Mecca.

So MSA is the big tent, with all these dialect campfires burning brightly under its big top — all the same, but very different too. This diglossia, the co-existence of two separate versions of a language, represents two different levels of education.

An Arabic-speaker who does not have a formal education has difficulty understanding the TV news or reading a newspaper. Some villages may only have a handful of people with enough knowledge of MSA to impart the news of the world to their neighbors.

I wonder how this split between book learning and the spoken Arabic word impacts a set of depressing figures from the UN: 65 million illiterates — a fifth of the Arabic population.

The total number of books translated into Arabic during the 1,000 years since the age of Caliph Al-Ma’moun (a ninth-century Arab ruler and scholar) is less than the number of books translated in Spain in one year. That’s right – one year.  Overall, Greece publishes five times more books translated from English than does the Arab region.

The number of books written originally in Arabic, as opposed to translated, is modest for such a large population.  The UN reports that 7,230, 7,080, and 5,910 books were written originally in Arabic and published across the Arab world in 2006, 2007, and 2008 respectively. In comparison, 1,480, 1,880, and 1,650 works were translated into Arabic over that same time period. This means that in 2008, 72% of books published in the Arab world were written originally in Arabic. The other 28%, of course, were translated into Arabic from another language. When compared to the 172,000 books published in the United States in 2005, however, 8,710 books published in the Arab world in 2006 is really just a drop in the bucket.

My company has been working in this language for years, but I personally don’t know much, just what I read in the papers. I wonder what it’s like to learn MSA in school when you speak a different dialect at home.  What kind of accent do you go for professionally vs. with your family?

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