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.


  1. I always give the Ethnologue an article, too, perhaps because I think of it as a reference work rather than a website, or possibly because the -logue ending confuses my analytical sense.

  2. Huh. Well, all I can say is that even before there was such a thing as a website, when it was just a fat book I occasionally consulted in the library and wished I could afford, I thought of it as Ethnologue. Dunno why; maybe by analogy to reference works like Larousse and Hansard.

  3. Their own use is inconsistent:

    Ethnologue is the comprehensive reference volume that catalogs all the known living languages in the world today. The Ethnologue has been an active research project for more than fifty years. Thousands of linguists and other researchers all over the world rely on and have contributed to the Ethnologue.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    Is the difference that Larousse and Hansard are originally named after individuals? I would look up archaic information on a substantive topic in the Britannica (1911 edition if possible) but the meaning of a Greek word in Liddell (ok, so Scott sometimes gets omitted in my idiolect – my apologies to his great-great-grandchildren). Of course the version of Liddell & Scott I actually own is “the little Liddell” which takes an article. But then again it’s “le petit Larousse.”

  5. Of course, what they Ethnologue calls ‘Tunisian Spoken Arabic’ doesn’t actually exist. Maybe they are referring to the dialect of the city of Tunis, which I don’t think has the status of koiné, though I’m not sure. There exist a number of Arabic dialects within Tunisia, of multiple types (‘bedouin’ and ‘sedentary’) which vary, sometimes greatly, from one another.

  6. Is L & S properly known as “the great Scott”, then?
    I think the Ethnologue mostly calls itself “the Ethnologue”, although the official title doesn’t begin with an article. Then again, the official name of the U.S. is “United States of America”, with no article either.

  7. In my grad school circle we talked about the Big Liddell, the Middle Liddell, and the Little Liddell.

  8. At CUNY’s Latin/Greek Institute, Hardy Hanson referred to them as the Little Liddell, the Middle Liddell and the Great Scott.

  9. michael farris says

    “Maybe they are referring to the dialect of the city of Tunis, which I don’t think has the status of koiné, though I’m not sure”
    According to my source yes and no. There’s a kind of clearly Tunisian Arabic that’s understood everywhere and which is not exactly the same as the dialect(s) in Tunis (though that’s clearly the major source).

  10. I see it’s a solecism to call Liddell & Scott L & S, as that abbreviation is reserved for Lewis & Short, the Greek dictionary being LSJ for Liddell-Scott-Jones.
    Who knew that Short did the letter A and Lewis all the rest? But so it is.

  11. David Marjanović says

    There’s a discussion by bulbul? Where? I can’t find it. He doesn’t seem to have posted on that topic this year.

  12. marie-lucie says

    David, bulbul wrote on the topic on Language Log, as LH mentions above. Reread LH’s post and follow the link. I think he also wrote the same thing on Lameen’s blog, see the other link.

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