One of the forty-one languages in which you can watch “Frozen” is Modern Standard Arabic. This is a departure from precedent. Earlier Disney films (from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to “Pocahontas” to “Tangled”) were dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, the dialect with the largest number of speakers in the region, based in a country with a venerable history of film production. Generations of Arabs grew up watching Egyptian movies, and the Disney musicals capitalized on their familiarity with this particular dialect.
Modern Standard Arabic is very similar to Classical Arabic, the centuries-old lingua franca of the medieval Islamic world. Today, it is the language of officialdom, high culture, books, newscasts, and political sermonizing. Most television shows, films, and advertisements are in colloquial Arabic, and the past several years have seen further incursions of the dialects into areas traditionally reserved for the literary language.
Ironically, though, children’s literature has remained deeply resistant to the trend toward vernacularization. “If we read to them in dialect, when are they supposed to learn real Arabic?” is the answer I usually get when I ask other parents about this state of affairs. As a scholar of Classical Arabic and a native speaker of Lebanese Arabic, I have always felt this to be a false choice. Setting aside the fraught question of what constitutes real Arabic, there is surely something to be said for introducing children to literature that speaks to them. [...]
Why Disney decided to abandon dialectal Arabic for “Frozen” is perplexing, and the reaction has been mixed. Many YouTube viewers are annoyed, with some fans recording their own versions of the songs in dialect. An online petition has called for Disney to switch its dubbing back to Egyptian Arabic, plaintively wondering, “How can we watch ‘Monsters University’ in the Heavy Modern Arabic while we saw the first one in Egyptian accent that everybody loved…?”
How indeed? Or perhaps the real question is: Why? Why is Disney willing to commission separate translations of its films for speakers of Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, European French and Canadian French, but is moving in the opposite direction when it comes to Arabic? The answer cannot be that the dialect markets are too small. The population of all of Scandinavia is less than a third of Egypt’s, but is represented by five different translations of “Frozen.” There are nearly ten times as many Moroccans living in Casablanca alone as there are Icelanders in the whole world. The markets are there. What is missing is a constituency for cultural production in dialectal Arabic.
Of course, it isn’t Disney’s job to cultivate such a constituency. Nor is its assumption that Modern Standard Arabic is a lingua franca suitable for all forms of literature and all Arab audiences a species of Orientalism. It reflects, rather, an ideology propagated by linguistic purists in the region, rooted in many centuries of literary and religious history. The Arab world, however, is no longer culturally unipolar, with most of its films and music originating in Egypt. The most popular soap operas of the region are Syrian, North African films are staples of the festival circuits, and some of the largest media conglomerates are based in the Gulf. This is to say nothing of the effect that the Web and social media are having on the penetration of Arabic dialects into written communication, which is incalculable.
The age of the Arabic vernacular is here; someone just needs to tell the talking snowman.
Lots of good stuff in there (is it really true that Arabic kids don’t get read to in their own language?!), and he links to things like “Let It Go in 41 Languages, which includes Icelandic, Vietnamese, Turkish, Croatian, Estonian, Hebrew, Lithuanian, and Canadian French.” Read the whole thing!