Mark Liberman has a fascinating post, “Ben Ali speaks in Tunisian ‘for the first time,'” explaining the background to the quoted statement “Today’s speech shows definitely a major shift in Tunisia’s history. … Ben Ali talked in the Tunisian dialect instead of Arabic for the first time ever.” As Mark says:
By “Tunisian dialect” Youssef Gaigi means what the Ethnologue calls “Tunisian Spoken Arabic“, and by “Arabic” he means what the Ethnologue calls “Standard Arabic“, often referred to as “Modern Standard Arabic”.
For those who aren’t familiar with Arabic diglossia, a plausible analogy would be to equate “Classical Arabic” with Latin, to compare “Modern Standard Arabic” (MSA) to the variety of Latin used in the Vatican (with words and phrases added over the years to refer to more recent objects and concepts), and to link the various “spoken” Arabics (sometimes called “colloquials” or “dialects”) with modern Latin-derived “Romance” languages like French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, etc.
(I find his use of “the Ethnologue” odd; to me it sounds like “the Google.” But maybe I’m the odd man out here.) Mark offers this telling anecdote:
A story may illustrate some of the ideologies involved. A few decades ago, a Tunisian linguist who had studied in the U.S. returned to a university position in Tunisia. Because some of his published work dealt with the phonetics and phonology of Tunisian Spoken Arabic, one of his colleagues formally accused him in the faculty senate of bringing the Tunisian nation into disrepute, by suggesting in print that Tunisians spoke such a degenerate and incorrect variety of Arabic.
An interesting point is that the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, whom Ben Ali replaced, did not limit himself to the classical language: “Bourguiba used a constellation of linguistic codes — Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, and French.” And don’t miss the excellent commentary in the thread by bulbul; I hope Lameen weighs in as well.
Update. Lameen weighs in.