Mark Liberman has a Language Log post about the implications of the fact that not only do very few of the U.S. Foreign Service officers in Baghdad have any proficiency in Arabic, but what proficiency they have is in the literary (standard) language, known in Arabic as fusha, which is spoken on a daily basis by almost no one in the Arab world. The following anecdote represents the exception that proves the rule:

Parkinson relates the story a friend who was a passionate supporter of fusha and who decided to stick to it exclusively in his family in order to give his children the full advantage of having it as a native language. Getting on a busy Cairo bus with this friend and his three-year-old daughter, the two of them, father and daughter, were separated and the yelling that was necessary to reestablish the contact took place in fusha making the entire bus burst out in laughter.

The quote is from Mohamed Maamouri‘s 1998 paper “Language Education and Human Development: Arabic Diglossia and its Impact on the Quality of Education in the Arab Region” (pdf, html cache), which has much more information if you’re interested in the topic.


  1. dearieme says

    When my wife was young, she had a Polish friend who, when visiting her grandfather, was required to talk to him in Latin.

  2. Hmm… that transcription is problematic. I assumed it represented something like fuša (fuchsia?) but in fact it’s fu???.
    The nice thing about our lack of diglossia in modern society is that I almost never get mocked for speaking Latin on the bus 😉

  3. Outsider says

    When studying Arabic, one is required to start from Literary Arabic (also the only Arabic which can be written). Only then can one progress to spoken Arabic, and even that has local pronounciations and vocabulary.
    I think spoken Arabic is mostly outside the realm of the western academic world.

  4. I think spoken Arabic is mostly outside the realm of the western academic world.
    And I think hundreds and hundreds of books and articles on Arabic dialects published in the West prove you wrong.
    But back to the topic: the problem here is not that those Foreign Service officers have been taught Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Bureacracy being what it is, I expect they will deal with a lot of Arabic documents produced by and for the Iraqi government and those are written in MSA. The problem is that they have been taught ONLY MSA. To communicate effectively with their Iraqi partners, not to mention Iraqi staff or even people like construction contractors or engineers, they must be able to at least understand if not speak the dialect. The good news is that going from MSA to the dialect is not that difficult. But again, that only highlights the problems within the Foreign Service.
    That Passport blog Mark Liberman links to is a fine example of popular misconceptions concerning translation and interpreting. Not everyone who is fluent is capable of translating and very few people are capable of interpreting. Both of those skills take training and practice. One thing that is often overlooked here is the question of how exactly are these people supposed to employ their language skills? Are they to function as translators/interpreters, are they to use the language in everyday dealings with Iraqis to make things go more smoothly and/or quickly or both? If it’s option number one, well, the Foreign Service should hire professional translators/interpreters. If it’s option number two, 3/3 proficiency is just fine for a career FS officer. If it’s option number three, Lord help them.

  5. the only Arabic which can be written
    Anything that can be spoken can be written. The problem is that the spoken varieties of Arabic, rather than being treated as national vernaculars like the Romance languages, are treated as embarrassing vulgarities that foreigners shouldn’t be exposed to, which means that foreigners either find it hard to communicate or have to go to excessive trouble to acquire fluency.

  6. I know several people who are studying or have studied Arabic here in the UK (Cambridge and SOAS). In each case, as I gathered, the main focus, from the start, was on Fusha. Starting from the first year, people also did a limited amount of spoken practice, but whereas for Fusha great care was taken to learn grammatical rules, explanation of colloquial grammar seems to amount to little more than tips for converting Fusha into colloquial, like “add b- for the present tense” or “drop case endings”. The main task of learning the colloquial was left to the third year, when (in both courses) the students took a year abroad in the Arab world. (I suspect this essential step renders them automatically suspect in the eyes of much of the US government.) But even (especially!) during this year, they do not receive any kind of grammatical explanation of the colloquial; they are expected to pick it up in daily interaction.
    There is no reason why the “Western academic world” shouldn’t be able to cover colloquial Arabic better. Comprehensive English-language grammars of various country’s colloquial Arabics, and even sometimes courses, certainly exist; Georgetown has a good series, for example. However, I haven’t yet met any undergraduate who was actually being assigned such texts.

  7. However, I haven’t yet met any undergraduate who was actually being assigned such texts.
    We, the class of ’02 at Comenius, studied both Jordanian Colloquial Arabic and Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. Same was/is true of the ’07 mob, only they have better books, like this one.

  8. The backward Slovaks are keeping obsolete intellectual traditions alive. Comenius was a great man in his time, but he’s been superseded by the wizards of the multiversity.
    Somewhere else I argued that th State Dept. does not want people to become too fluent, for fear that they’ll “go native” (e.g., the highly suspect “Arabists”.) The British Empire followed this policy to a degree. Working with a crew of disposable local dragomans*, subalterns, and compradores has always been preferred.
    *not dragomen.

  9. Cum grano salis says

    aurens were be thou.

  10. What exactly does “subaltern” mean in the context of the British Empire’s relations with the natives?

  11. Interestingly enough, even Arabs often put down vernacular. The only Arabic I know is what I’d picked up in Oman and Yemen, and expat Arabs (particularly Egyptians) considered things like the use of “mu” instead of “ma fi” (meaning ‘not’, pardon the vulgar transliteration) terribly improper. I take it that speaking a more Egyptian dialect is considered a bit more upper-class, is it not?
    Not that this changes the fact that US FS (and soldiers) should learn Iraqi Arabic.

  12. I’m writing my thesis on diglossia, so I am indeed interested in the article…thanks!
    A personal experience of my own about speaking Fusha: a couple of years ago I was studying in Cairo for a year and during spring break I went to Barcelona. I was doing some homework in a park one afternoon, when a Moroccan guy strolling by noticed the Arabic script. He stopped and asked me a question in Spanish, but I don’t know Spanish so he then asked me in Arabic if I could read what was written on my papers, and I answered in Arabic.
    Then he sat down and we talked in Fusha for about two hours (and I had a horrible sunburn to prove it). Judging from his lexical choices he had excellent Fusha. I asked him what he did for a living in Barcelona, and he said “manual labor.”

  13. Subaltern means low-ranking military officer, higher than a NCO, who has a lot of operational responsibility but almost no autonomy. Spivak picked the word up to describe the status of educated colonial subjects generally. I assume from the way she used the word that there were, in India for example, subalterns of local origin in the British colonial military. I do not actually know that this is true.

  14. When I was studying Moroccan Arabic, I met so many people that insisted that “It’s not written!” Then I showed them my darija workbook and a newspaper (both written in Arabic script) and they were usually stunned. People really get worked up about it – I occasionally mentioned that it was easier to learn using the Arabic script instead of transliteration, and it was like I’d insulted their mother or something.
    And I did NOT start by learning fus’ha. There is no “requirement” that I should.

  15. you found an actual newspaper written in colloquial arabic? we definitely don’t have such a thing in egypt. the only things usually written in colloquial arabic in egypt are blogs and text messages and song lyrics/scripts.
    john emerson,
    “dragoman”s are known in egypt as “turgoman” from the egyptian arabic “targama” which means translation. or maybe…the word targama came from the (probably turkish) dragoman. interesting stuff either way.

  16. “Subaltern” seems to be nearly equivalent to “lieutenant”, which etymologically has the flavor of “standing in” for the real authority, like a “place holder”.

  17. A couple of remarks:
    a) the book on Egyptian Colloquial Arabic by Ondras that Bulbul’s post noted is now available in English as well.
    b) There was a recent series of postings at the Arabic Language and Lingusitics Mailing List
    about the issue of teaching university students a colloquial Arabic dialect first, and then fusHa, rather than the currently almost-universal practice of starting with the classical language. The emotions and rhetoric displayed on the question were fascinating, although I suspect that, in a world of ever increasing interpersonal and electronic interaction between the Arab world and those outside it, there will likely be a steadily greater demand for more conversationally-oriented instruction and competency.

  18. Amazing. I remember when I first tried to study Arabic at Oxford (mid 80s) I tried to get into the class that included spoken Arabic (I still don’t know which dialect) and was told by Alan Jones, now Professor of Arabic, to get lost. (He thought it had nothing to do with my thesis.) I later managed to talk my way into a different course, a two-term course in MLA for graduate students who needed to be able to read the language (as Lear says, Question not the need) — obviously much less use than the course I’d tried to take, though better than nothing. The thing that really stuck in my mind was the apotropaic bloodymindedness of the Oriental Institute (so unlike the hail-fellow-well-met five-and-three-quarters-a-side-give-or-take-the-odd-ablative attitude of the average classicist, always keen to rope in previously unconcerned bystanders). [I throw this in because LH has stated that off-topic is unknown to the blog. Loved the LL post.]

  19. Re “subaltern”:
    In its “post-colonial” political sense, the term was apparently developed by the Subaltern Studies Group (rather than Spivak herself, though she was/is a part of it). They borrowed the term from Antonio Gramsci, who (from my very limited reading) seems to have used it to describe groups such as intellectuals in European society — e.g., “Intellectuals of the urban type have grown up along with industry and are linked to its fortunes. Their function can be compared to that of subaltern officers in the army. They have no autonomous initiative in elaborating plans for construction. Their job is to articulate the relationship between the entrepreneur and the instrumental mass and to carry out the immediate execution of the production plan decided by the industrial general staff, controlling the elementary stages of work.” (From his Prison Notebooks.) Note the clear analogy to military hierarchy: industrial “general staff” issuing orders to the “subaltern” intellectuals.
    I have the impression that the post-colonial usage has broadened “subaltern” to mean potentially any lower-ranking group, including peasants or proletarians, so the meaning has drifted from its military origins.

  20. Aha, I never knew that sense of “subaltern” was from Gramsci—thanks for that tidbit! (And here we see an example of the virtues of off-topicity.)

  21. Thanks for the explanation of “subaltern.” I knew the miliatary sense (but thanks for pointing out the parallel with “lieutenant,” something that had escaped my notice), but the collonial sense is tangentially relevant to this paper I’ve been writing forever on interpreters in Ptolemaic Egypt. Of course that’s theoretically due tomorrow, so I doubt I’ll be talking too much about that 😉
    And Forsoothsayer: dragoman comes from turgoman, not vice-versa. It comes from the semitic root *trgm, same as “targum” if you know that word. Forms of “dragoman” show up all over the European languages, even Byzantine Greek (though I’m not sure quite how early.) A scholion on Xenophon’s Anabasis 4.2.18 glosses hermêneus as dragoumênos. Trying to figure out what dragoumênos was gave me fits, until I realized it was just another cognate of dragoman.

  22. Forsoothsayer: Re: “or maybe…the word targama came from the (probably turkish) dragoman.”: Definitely not. “Targama” comes from the root t-r-g-m, which Hebrew shares and is the only Hebrew root pertaining to translation. We Jews have been translating for long enough (what with exile and all) that you can be sure our word for translation didn’t come from Turkish. 🙂

  23. Ran: there’s also Biblical Hebrew ???? (mel??, melitz). I can’t look it up right now, but I think t-r-g-m in Hebrew actually first shows up as an Aramaic borrowing, and the root (though it shows up in many Semitic languages) is believed to ultimately originate in Akkadian and/or Ugaritic rather than to be a shared, inherrited root. As I mentioned, that paper is due tomorrow. So if someone else can fill out the specifics I will be grateful 😉

  24. Yes, Ugaritic rgm and Akkadian ragāmu simply mean “speak”. trgm would presumably be a back-formation from a derived form of this root (like tjr “trade”, which I seem to recall Lipinski tracing to Akkadian mkr “trade” by root extraction from something like taggār < tangār < Akkadian tamkārum “merchant” – or, to take a less conjectural case, like Algerian Arabic t-msxr “joke, jest (vb.)” < extracted from Cl. Arabic masxarah “jest (n.) < sxr “joke, jest (vb.)”.)

  25. < tangār < tamkār

  26. < tangaar < tamkaar (the comment box has eaten about half my comment twice now; trying without unicode chars.)

  27. The problem wasn’t the unicode, it was the “less than” signs, which get interpreted as the opening of an HTML instruction. I fixed it by replacing all of them by & lt ; (<).

  28. I had a stupid problem too, resulting from using the wrong browser. The question marks in my last comment should read: מליץ melīṣ.

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