That’s the provocative title of a long and fascinating article by Franck Salameh in the Fall 2011 Middle East Quarterly; it’s too richly detailed, and goes in too many directions, for me to try to summarize it, so I’ll just pull out a couple of quotes and send you to the source for more. Here Salameh quotes cultural anthropologist Selim Abou on Lebanon’s “endogenous and congenital multilingualism”:

From the very early dawn of history up to the conquests of Alexander the Great, and from the times of Alexander until the dawning of the first Arab Empire, and finally, from the coming of the Arabs up until modern times, the territory we now call Lebanon—and this is based on the current state of archaeological and historical discoveries—has always practiced some form of bilingualism and polyglossia; one of the finest incarnations of intercultural dialogue and coexistence.

And here is his final judgment on Sherif Shubashy’s book Down with Sibawayh If Arabic Is to Live on!:

This then, the recognition and normalization of dialects, could have been a fitting conclusion and a worthy solution to the dilemma that Shubashy set out to resolve. Unfortunately, he chose to pledge fealty to MSA and classical Arabic—ultimately calling for their normalization and simplification rather than their outright replacement. [….] This is at best a disappointing and desultory solution, not only due to its chimerical ambitions but also because, rather than simplifying an already cluttered and complicated linguistic situation, it suggested the engineering of an additional language for the “Arab nation” to adopt as a provisional national idiom.

His final paragraph begins “Ultimately, however, it is society and communities of users—not advocacy groups, linguistic guilds, and preservation societies—that decide the fate of languages.” I trust no one will be surprised if I applaud. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)


  1. Perhaps it’s the late hour, but I am less then impressed. First, there’s the muddled terminology:
    “Languages or dialects often perfunctorily labeled Arabic might not be Arabic at all…” (Well then what is it?)
    “Middle Easterners are steering clear of Arabic in alarming numbers…” (Who are those Middle Easterners and which Arabic are they stealing clear from?)
    This includes this nugget:
    “Arabic linguistics—which seldom bothers with the trivialities of precise cognomens denoting varieties of language, preferring instead the overarching and reductive lahja (dialect/accent) and fusha (Modern Standard Arabic, MSA) di-chotomy to, say, the French classifications of langue, langage, parler, dialecte, langue vérnaculaire, créole, argot, patois, etc.”
    Salameh seems to prefer the latter to the former without explaining why while at the same time he seems perfectly content with the dichotomy when he speaks of ‘Arabic’ (meaning MSA) and languages of Lebanon, Egypt etc. Moreover, it seems he doesn’t understand the meaning of th word ‘dialect’ when applied to Arabic.
    Which brings me to his choice of sources: he cites only one bona fide scholar of Arabic, Thackston. No Clive Holes and his magnificent “Modern Arabic: structures, functions, and varieties”, no Handbuch, no Owens, Corriente, Jastrow or any of the hundreds of first grade scholars who have written on Arabic diglossia. The only supporting evidence he brings are writers, especially Taha Hussein. He couldn’t really find anyone else, anyone more recent than 1956 to be witness to the difficulties of learning MSA?
    And – finally – for what? We have learned there is diglossia in the Arabic-speaking world, that it sucks and that some people have proposed elevating the colloquial varieties to standard languages. Well done. Did we get a well-informed analysis? No. Did we get a list of pros and cons? No. We got some shit everyone know, some empty platitudes about mulicultural polyglossic Lebanon, some interesting tidbits and a whole lot bitching about Arab nationalists.
    Meh, I say.

  2. (stupid iPad keyboard…)

  3. I entirely agree with bulbul. The author’s support for making all-domains languages of the spoken Arabic varieties is less than lukewarm. If it stultifies the Arabic countries to be diglossic in MSA and the local variety, let them be diglossic in French or English and the local variety instead, as if it were just as easy (or, Ghu knows, easier) to learn French as to learn MSA for a native speaker of an Arabic variety!
    What is more, the long digression about Descartes is nonsense. If Descartes wrote in French, he also wrote in Latin; indeed, the very next work after the Discours of 1637 was the Meditationes of 1641. As for Descartes as the pioneer of written French, that’s downright silly: written French was at least 500 years old in his day, and had been a language of belles-lettres for centuries. If Descartes and his contemporaries wrote in Latin, it was because they were addressing not only France but the whole world (at least the parts they knew). By the same token, if they also wrote in French for the same audience, it was because French was no longer merely local but an international language (indeed, until 1914 the international language), the furthest thing from a “lowly popular lahja“. What is more, though Descartes came from Touraine and therefore his mother tongue was very close to Standard French, the same was not true by any means of everyone who wrote in French.
    We even hear, forsooth, that “Small language unification movements — as in the cases of, say, Norway, Israel, and France — can and often do succeed. […] Moreover, traditionally, the small language unification movements that did succeed
    in producing national languages benefitted from overwhelming, popular support among members of the proposed nation.” Is he really as ignorant as he pretends of the history of compulsory francization in France? To compare it with Norway or Israel is beyond ridiculous.

  4. By the same token, if they also wrote in French for the same audience, it was because French was no longer merely local but an international language
    John, I’m no expert, but I don’t buy that; why write in two languages for the same audience? Ok, French was the language of diplomats, but surely Latin was still the international language of European scholarship in the 17C: Newton, say, used Latin for the Principia; I doubt he even spoke French. No, Descartes only wrote in French in order to reach the French audience that wouldn’t understand Latin. And by the 18C, rather than adopting yet another language many people didn’t understand, science and philosophy were translated into the language of the intended audience. French was spoken, say at the Congress of Vienna, because a common language was required for conversation, but there was no reason not to translate printed academic texts into many local languages.

  5. “Small language unification movements—as in the cases of, say, Norway, Israel, and France—can and often do succeed.”
    Is the author actually aware of the details of the three wildly different situations he names? In Norway, Nynorsk is a minority language concentrated in west Norway and the Bokmal language produced by centuries of Danish rule remains dominant; in Israel, Hebrew took off because it was the only language common to the entire diaspora and challengers like Yiddish and Ladino were hobbled by demographics and politics; in France, well, the Francophone nature of France is the consequence of centuries of consistent state policy towards non-French languages, among other things.
    As for the Middle East Quarterly, it’s a journal associated with various neo-conservative causes, including favouring the fragmentation of the Arab world. (Not that I support its unification, mind; it’s just that I’d prefer choices about language and identity in groups to be made by people in the groups involved because it’s convenient for them, not by outsiders who want to enable divide-and-conquer.)

  6. in Israel, Hebrew took off because it was the only language common to the entire diaspora and challengers like Yiddish and Ladino were hobbled by demographics and politics
    Hebrew also had prestige going for it — and still does.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    I assume that the facts about Arabic, in terms of diglossia and the very wide range of local “dialects” are old hat / conventional wisdom to the sort of people who read this blog but not necessarily to the intended audience of the article, so I don’t necessarily view that as a fault. The author’s own political/philosophical perspective (I was very unsurprised to find out from some googling that he is not only a Lebanese emigre but a Maronite — Maronites being one of the Arab-speaking ethnic groups that are particularly likely not to self-identify as being “Arabs”) is obviously part of what’s going on, but that doesn’t invalidate the point that the reasons for propping up MSA have a lot to do with political/theological projects whose merits, if any, have little to do with language.
    On the other hand, I’m not about his claim that the diglossia problem is a major reason why Arab-world higher education is irrelevant to the world at large. Spanish-speaking countries don’t have this issue (or at least not nearly to the same extent), but the universities of Spain and all of Spanish-speaking Latin America are grossly underweight if not totally MIA in terms of their contribution to worldwide academic/scientific/scholarly culture. (I just went down someone’s list of the 400 “best” universities in the world and the first one in a Spanish-speaking country was tied for #169 – and any bias toward Anglophones and long-established incumbents was not total, as witness the presence of various upstart South Korean universities in the top 100 – the “best” university in a majority-Muslim country, fwiw, was right next-door at #167 and probably doesn’t have too many Arabophones on campus on account of being in Malaysia.)
    Whatever the reasons for the marginality of Spanish and Latin American universities (culture/economics/politics/history/etc.) they have little if anything to do with any handicaps associated with the Spanish language, and I imagine many plausible accounts for the marginality of Arab-world universities (and/or scientific/scholarly research in general) could be advanced that have little or nothing to do with the linguistic situation.
    As to the praise of the supposedly naturally polyglot nature of Levantines/Lebanese, the Francophone orientation is what it is for various contingent historical circumstances. What goes unsaid is that the indigenes of Lebanon in fact ultimately (albeit slowly) completely abandoned their old language (Syriac) in favor of the language of the Arabs who had invaded and subjugated their ancestors (outside the cities, at least,Syriac had by contrast survived the pre-Arab millenium of Hellenistic/Roman/Byzantine rule). I’m not sure if the most fanciful and anti-Arab sectors of Maronite/Lebanese nationalism (e.g. those enamored with “Phoenicianism”) have tried to promote any real revival of Syriac outside its limited remaining liturgical use, although various related Aramaic-descended dialects survive marginally in Syria and Iraq.

  8. The author’s support for making all-domains languages of the spoken Arabic varieties is less than lukewarm.
    Yes, exactly, it’s like he doesn’t know what he’s arguing. At one point, he seems to advocate for the expanded role of Western languages at the expense of Arabic (e.g. his apparent support for Salman Masalha’s or the remark on Middle Easterners and their rejection of Arabic), but a few steps later, he seems perfectly content with keeping MSA in a bilingual educational system (the Abu Dhabi example on p. 54 and apparently all references to Lebanon). The impression I get is that he is not arguing any consistent position, just throwing (mostly outdated) stuff out there to fill pages with text.
    Also, his comparisons with the Latin-speaking Europe and the reference to the rise of the vernaculars as a model to be followed ring especially hollow in light of statements like this (emphasis mine):

    But many Qataris and Persian Gulf Arabs hint to more pressing and more substantive impulses behind curricular bilingualism: “necessity-driven” catalysts aimed at replacing linguistic and religious jingoism with equality, tolerance, and coexistence; changing mentalities as well as switching languages and textbooks.

    While the adoption of national languages was more of a symptom then a cause, in European history, it correlates with the rise of national and religious factions and the violence that goes with it. Is this truly something to be imitated?
    Finally, one thing that truly chafes my nuts, a quote from Shubashy:

    I have for very long thought that the difference between MSA and the dialects was infinitely minimal…

    Then you are an idiot. I don’t blame average Joes for thinking so, especially in light of the propaganda, but you are an intellectual and you are supposed to think. And if you really think that the difference between māḏā turīdu and ʕāwwiz ē is infinitely minimal, then I would advise some more self-education.

    Foreigners who are versed in MSA, having spent many years studying that language, are taken aback when I speak to them in the Egyptian dialect…

    Back in the, say, 60s, that would be understandable. But these days with “Kullu tamam” and “Kalimni arabi” and Wikipedia and Google and all the other stuff, if anyone who has spent more than two hours studying, nay, preparint to study Arabic still has that reaction, they should perhaps consider alternative intellectual pursuits, like economy. Or, if you want to go a more respectable route, astrology.

  9. One of my petty hopes on this world is that one day Arab nationalism will become Semitic nationalism, whose linguistic expression remains Arabic (fusha or dialects at the wish of the Semites), but with a different historical vision: instead of a unique focus on the magnificient poetry of the desert tribes and Islam, equal attention and sense of historical succession would be given to the Akkadophone and Aramaic heritage — especially as the old sense of the word “Arab” seems have never quite died out, anyway.

  10. In Norway, Nynorsk is a minority language concentrated in west Norway and the Bokmal language produced by centuries of Danish rule remains dominant
    That’s not quite right. Nynorsk isn’t a minority language, it’s a spelling convention used for certain dialects from all over Norway. Bokmål is the other one that’s closer to Danish; it’s used mostly in SE Norway. Both are taught in Norwegian schools, much to the irritation of the pupils.

  11. Yeah, the slogan of the Nynorskers are “Write Nynorsk, speak dialect”, anyway.

  12. J.W.,
    re facts abouts Arabic diglossia being old hat only for us hatters:
    This is Middle East 101 and even if it may not be the type of information your average educated person should have, it is something a reader of this type of journal – who we assume has more than a passing interest in Middle Eastern affairs – should know.
    Then again, as Randy points out, this is a neo-con publication and experience shows that these guys are not that keen on actual knowledge.

  13. AJP: You have a point there: “same audience” was going too far. But look at Newton’s two major works of physics. The Principia is done more geometrico: it’s all axioms, postulates, and proofs, and it’s in Latin. The Opticks is basically a report of experiments, and the theoretical parts of it are structured as rhetorical questions like “Is not Light a Body”? The first edition of 1704 was followed by a Latin translation of 1706 (I’m not sure if Newton wrote it or someone else), but as far as I can tell the 1717 second edition and the 1730 edition were not translated. In essence, Latin vs. English was part of a larger stylistic choice. Similarly, I suspect the people for whom the Discours was written could read Latin just fine.
    Minus273: In order to form a truly Semitic nationalism, the Arabs as a whole will have to come to terms with the Semites who are Jews, and vice versa.
    “Moishe Rabbenu vas a joik!”
    “A vot??!”
    “A joik! Forty years he spent in dat desert, end he hez to stop in the vun place that hez no oil?

  14. When the Brits tried to establish Egyptian dialect as its own language, the backlash was based on a kind of linguistic pan-Arabism. The idea was that if the evil Brits succeed in getting rid of fusHa, it would create a domino effect that would result in the loss of the linguistic tie binding all Arabs.

  15. The ultimate anti-Arab-nationalists are of course the Maltese, who are all “We don’t speak Arabic (well, maybe, privately, if you push us), and in any case we are absolutely, positively not Arabs.” Somehow this doesn’t seem to bother any Arab nationalists: at least, there seem to have been no calls for the extermination, cultural or actual, of the Maltese (except in Australia, of all places, and also from Anthony Burgess, of all people).

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    To tie back to the Jamaican Patois thread, maybe what the Arab world needs is Christian missionaries translating the Bible into the various regional/colloquial/non-fusha varieties, to help establish each of them as respectable freestanding full-spectrum languages. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and writing them in a non-Arabic script (a la Maltese) might help too.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    (There is obviously a long tradition of Bible translation into Arabic, but as far as I can tell from wikipedia the modern translations from the mid 19th century forward are all into some version of MSA although they vary somewhat in register.)

  18. Trond Engen says

    In Norway, Nynorsk is a minority language concentrated in west Norway
    That’s not quite right. Nynorsk isn’t a minority language, it’s a spelling convention used for certain dialects from all over Norway.
    Well, you’re right, both of you. Nynorsk was designed to represent dialects from all over Norway, and does so quite well for all except the half-Swedish region around Oslo. In its heyday before the backlash started in the thirties it was used as primary language in schools in most corners of this cornerful country. These days, going the way of all Welsh, it’s largely confined to the western region, its frontier being pulled slowly farther and farther away from the cities.

  19. J.W.,
    There have been a few already, back in early 20th century. These were, however, translations into Judeo-Arabic taking advantage of preexisting tradition of translations from Hebrew, Aramaic and French. However, the Judeo-Arabic translations of the Gospels (as well as those of popular literature of the day, e.g. Dumas) were not done in pure colloquial Judeo-Arabic, but rather in a kind of translationese which mixed darija with forms specific to Judeo-Arabic (e.g. “lam” with perfect as the chief form of verb negation).

  20. You know more about the evolution of these languages than I do, but rightly or wrongly the idea that Descartes wrote in French so that his work might be more widely understood is a commonly held one; I first remember reading it in the dreaded AC Grayling’s biography.
    There’s another approach to style where you make everything more arcane. According to Wikipedia, via Newton’s account of writing the third volume of the Principia, he first wrote “in a popular method, that it might be read by many”, but to “prevent the disputes” by readers who could not “lay aside the[ir] prejudices”, he had “reduced” it “into the form of propositions (in the mathematical way) which should be read by those only, who had first made themselves masters of the principles established in the preceding books”.

  21. Latin translation of 1706 (I’m not sure if Newton wrote it or someone else)
    Samuel Clarke.

  22. John Emerson says

    The Lutheran Church I grew up in had a schism around 1920 and my understanding is that it was related to Danish language vs. Norwegian. Nobody in the church really remembers any more. The church was probably bilingual then already, and Danish (I think) services for the old people continued until about 1950.

  23. Criminy. Newton paid Clarke $100,000 in current dollars for that translation. Nice work if you can get it!

  24. There’s another approach to style where you make everything more arcane …. Newton’s account of writing the third volume of the Principia
    Crown, I don’t read the passage you excerpt as showing that Newton wanted to conceal arcane knowledge behind a facade of Latin. It continues: “Not that I would advise any one to the previous study of those [preceeding two] books. For they abound with such as might cost too much time, even to readers of good mathematical learning. It is enough if one carefully reads the definitions, the laws of motion, and the first three sections of the first book. He may then pass on to this book, of the System of the World, and consult such of the remaining propositions of the first two books, as the references in this, and his occasions, shall require.”
    Newton was trying to ensure that whoever engaged with his more advanced ideas had familiarized themselves with the simpler ones on which they built. His decision to write in Latin reduced the number of people who could read the Principia, and so the number of people who might argue seriously against his propositions – but it also reduced the number of philosophasters he would have had to deal with.

  25. Trond Engen says

    Since the other thread is closed, what are the details of AHD’s new etymology for alfalfa? Etymonline, presumably following established wisdom, seems to take it from a word of good Arabic pedigree.

  26. I don’t read the passage you excerpt as showing that Newton wanted to conceal arcane knowledge behind a facade of Latin.
    No, I didn’t mean that. Newton apparently felt that people were picking Parts I & II apart based on the wording rather than on the science, so feeling threatened he switched, not to Latin but to a mathematical language.
    Even if I knew the word I wouldn’t call them philosophasters, either. They – some of them, anyway – just wanted to know what he was on about. There’s nothing wrong with that.

  27. It would be a unfair to climb up on the shoulders of giants and then pull the ladder up after you.

  28. I just went down someone’s list of the 400 “best” universities in the world and the first one in a Spanish-speaking country was tied for #169
    Some years ago I interviewed Gibraltar’s minister of education for a piece in the Times Educational Supplement. He told me that all Gibraltarian youngsters went to British universities or colleges for their tertiary education, and when I asked innocently what happened if one wanted to go to a Spanish university, looked at me as if I was mad.
    Gibraltarians, incidentally, use English for schools, business and commerce but Spanish at home.

  29. what are the details of AHD’s new etymology for alfalfa?
    “Spanish < Arabic al-faṣfaṣa : al-, the + faṣfaṣa, alfalfa (variant of fiṣfiṣa, ultimately (probably via Coptic p-espesta : p-, masculine sing. definite article + espesta, alfalfa) < Aramaic espestā < Middle Persian aspast < Old Iranian aspasti- : *aspa-, horse; see ekwo- in App. I + -sti-, food, fodder; see ed- in App. I).”

  30. Hi,
    I am starting a new online Arabic teaching school and enjoyed reading your blog and comments. I am looking for someone who might be willing to do a language exchange – learn Arabic for free, with my school, in exchange for writing blogs about it. Please let me know if there’s any interest.

  31. I note that AHD4 got as far as Persian. The OED doesn’t get past Arabic, but its remit doesn’t necessarily include tracing borrowings past the original source, though sometimes it does so anyway.

  32. Bulbul and John pretty much nail it here, I’m afraid. I would add that:
    – The sobering translation statistics are at once doubtful and misleading: on the one hand, many published translations are unregistered, and hence missing from official statistics; on the other, a large segment of the reading public habitually reads untranslated books in French or English, making the need for translation less acute than it seems.
    – The paranoia surrounding this issue has a larger basis in fact than you might imagine. However amicable Lebanese Maronites’ historical relationship with French may be, in Algeria, French policies acted to destroy Arabic literacy both as a side effect of colonialism (they confiscated the public lands by whose revenues the schools were funded) and directly (they officially declared it a foreign language and marginalised it in education even for the very few Arabs who were admitted.)
    There are plenty of more recent Bible translations into colloquials, some in Latin characters ( The politics of this are about what you’d expect.
    Love the alfalfa etymology, by the way – I would never have guessed the Persian origin!

  33. Love the alfalfa etymology, by the way – I would never have guessed the Persian origin!
    The Modern Hebrew word for alfalfa is אספסת aspeset, which Klein compares to Aramaic-Syriac אספסתה aspasta, and says they derive from Persian ispist, isfist, whence also Arabic isfast.

  34. I also found many of the arguments in the article unsatisfying. But the man’s demand for pluralism in the face of imposed Arabness (a tyrannical position which he illustrates well with a few chilling quotations) should surely not be dismissed out of hand.
    The problem is that while we can see what he is arguing against (someone writes a book criticising MSA and is forced to step down from office — come on, I didn’t imagine Hatters being such staunch supporters of linguistic tyranny), it’s unclear what he’s ultimately arguing for. “The recognition and normalization of dialects” seems to be the general agenda, but this would be easier said than done. Apart from signalling the breakup of the Arabic world, with stupendous and potentially cataclysmic results, on a more concrete level this would entail the development of a set of new languages, all with new writing systems, which I can’t imagine would be achieved with the mre flick of a switch.
    Incidentally, I would like to point out that Victor Mair’s work on Chinese, while highly erudite and professional, raises hackles amongst the Chinese for similar reasons. He rightly argues against the misleading and highly simplistic notion that Chinese is a language of many dialects unified by its writing system, but the ultimate endpoint of his argumentation appears to be that Chinese would be better split up into a number of languages written in the Roman alphabet. In carping at traditional ideas, he unfortunately goes rather too far the other way and downplays the fact that those much-maligned characters do play a major role in ensuring that the Sinitic languages are more than just a ‘language family’.

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    I see that Lameen’s blog has some posts from this past November on political arguments about language/diglossia/etc. in Tunisia which are (duh) thoughtful and interesting.
    I am wondering why the factors generally said to have reduced the range of dialect variation (and dramatically increased the %age of the population that could function to some extent in the standard/prestige variety of the language) in e.g. German and Italian over the last century or more (e.g. mass government-controlled education plus mass exposure to radio/tv announcers modeling the prestige variety) have not done the same in the “Arabic” speaking world. Less competent educational/media systems (even w/o political unity, they’re all at least nominally committed to promoting fusha, right?), or just in some sense a less workable/natural standard to aspire to? One hears it claimed that as of 1870 fewer than 5% of the population of Italy natively spoke “standard” Italian, but at least *someone* did if they chanced to have the right geographical/class background (just as some people in England really do grow up speaking with RP) and that was perhaps different from a situation where no one actually speaks fusha with friends/family behind closed doors.

  36. J.W. Brewer says

    Oh, and to be fair to whatever retrograde-sounding fellows caused the MSA critic to lose his job, that is nothing compared to the awesome “Evangelika” controversy of 1901 in which an ill-starred attempt to translate the New Testament from the original koine into Modern Greek caused riots (with fatalities) in the streets of Athens and the fall of the Greek government of the day.

  37. Bathrobe: You make Mair’s position sound more apocalyptic than I think it actually is. He definitely does favor the adoption of Pinyin as the universal writing system for Standard Mandarin. He is also in favor of abandoning ‘language’ as the English equivalent for fāngyán, proposing the term topolect instead. But I haven’t seen any evidence that he wants Standard Mandarin to be abandoned as the common language of either the Han people or the Chinese state(s) in favor of a congeries of separate written languages.
    J.W. Brewer: I think part of the problem is that Modern Standard Arabic is an underspecified norm. The only fully specified part of it is the Classical Arabic register, which is too remote and too lexically impoverished to use as a modern standard language. Otherwise, writing and especially speaking MSA is a delicate compromise between Classical, certain agreed-upon simplifications (more of them in speech than in writing, certainly), and one’s own colloquial. To agree upon and adopt a fully specified MSA would be to concede that there exists a fully formal variety of Arabic other than that of the Qur’an, which is unthinkable.

  38. Indeed, I have found evidence to the contrary here [reparagraphed for readability]:
    The contributions of the tetragraphs to the cultural and political continuity of China are undeniable. At the same time, however, they have inhibited unification of spoken Han languages by perpetuating a vast congeries of topolects, most of which have never been written down. The tetragraphs permit individuals from different topolectical backgrounds to pronounce them in wildly varying fashions. For example, M[odern] S[tandard] M[andarin] chen (“array”) is read as tsan in Hangzhou, dzang in Shanghai, dzing in Ningpo, teng in Fuzhou, tin in Amoy and Swatou, and zhen in Canton. Through a judicious and well-planned introduction of Pinyin, standardization of MSM could be achieved within a reasonable period of time, whereas the present policy of benign neglect ensures that the mutually unintelligible Han topolects will probably persist indefinitely.
    t is noteworthy that few of the leaders of the Pinyin movement during the past 30 years, men such as Zhou Youguang, Ni Haishu, and Yin Binyong, were native speakers of MSM and yet they all could write beautifully correct romanized Mandarin. A similar situation obtains with S[oviet] D[ungan, a topolect within the Mandarin dialect continuum that has been written alphabetically since 1928], where speakers of the non-standard Tokmak dialect are able to read and write the standard language.
    So long as related speech forms are mutually intelligible (i.e., are truly dialects and not separate languages), it is possible to select one of them as standard even before complete unanimity of pronunciation and usage is attained among all the members of a linguistic community (indeed, absolute unanimity is impossible because each speaker inevitably has his or her own idiolect).
    This is also illustrated by the relationships that obtain among West Texas, Eastern Maryland, Boston Brahmin, and Midwestern varieties of American speech. They each have a unique pronunciation and special expressions but they remain, nonetheless, mutually intelligible and all employ the same standard for written English. From this and other evidence, it would appear that appropriately phased romanization of MSM would actually stimulate unification of the Han topolects rather than prevent it.
         —Victor Mair, “Implications of the Soviet Dungan Script for Chinese Language Reform”

  39. J.W., “Standard” Italian and German have spread, and even become the native language of an increasingly large population probably more due to internal mobility than TV, or even education. Over the last century in both countries people have moved around a fair amount due to study and work (not to mention large population transfers from outside the current boundaries in 1945), resulting in marriages across dialect boundaries, or simply groups of school kids from different regions playing together. As a result a lot of children really only know the standard language well. Seems to me the homogeneity of Polish and Russian is probably also due to a result of a lot of population transfers over the last century. This circumstance does not exist in the Arab world – there is no central Arab capital where Tunisians, Lebanese, Iraqis and Egyptians need to speak MSA to each other all day, nor massive permanent transfers of, say, Maghrebi speakers to Saudi Arabia. China, on the other hand, does have a lot of internal mobility, which will probably strengthen the transformation of putonghua into a true spoken language over the next century.

  40. @ John Cowan:
    That is an interesting extract. I’m glad you found it, because it does seem to elucidate Mair’s thinking. Although if his thinking really is that romanisation is the best way to standardise MSM and prevent the perpetuation of mutually unintelligible topolects, then I’m not sure that isn’t even worse.

  41. What I’d like to have are officially-backed, logical, pinyin-style romanizations for all the Chinese languages/topolects. I recall that Mair has lamented the difficulty of writting down non-Mandarin languages in hanzi (and in the comments he seems to agree that romanization would be a solution for topolect literature); I doubt he’d want Chinese linguistic diversity to be reduced.

  42. There has been considerable movement towards a centralised spoken standard in most Arab countries, in fact – but that spoken standard is normally the colloquial of the capital, even when that means moving further away from Fusha (as in Bahrain, where Shia who use Classical q in their native dialect replace it with non-Classical g.)

  43. @Lameen
    Interesting. What is the (colloquial) standard adopted in Bahrein that would involve moving further away from Classical pronunciation?

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