06 March 2011

Arabic script

The problems of monolingual readers of multilingual European texts are nothing compared to the problems of monolingual (or monodialectal) readers of texts in Arabic script.  Because there is apparently no standard way of writing the different dialects (we should really call them languages, in the same way that we call various Chinese "dialects" as languages), it is extremely difficult for a reader to decipher texts written in non-universal Arabic.  Here is an account of that difficulty:

“A text written in dialect is fully intelligible only to those Arab readers who are its native speakers or are familiar with it through other direct experience.  This is especially true of the less central dialects, but it is applicable even to such a central dialect as that of Cairo or Beirut.  Although these central dialects are, grosso modo, comprehensible to many Arabs throughout the Near East and North Africa through film, popular songs and the like, their nuances are, more often than not, lost on those from different regions.  A novelist who writes dialogue in AM (i.e., his own dialect) is therefore likely to attract a much smaller reading public in neighbouring Arab countries than his colleague writing in FU.  He also risks becoming a ‘local’ writer rather than  one who addresses the reading public of the entire Arab world.

“Dialects in the Arab world never developed writing systems of their own, and AM is normally reduced to the uncongenial orthography of FU.  Thus the reader, especially one who is not a native speaker of the dialect in question, faces many difficulties in deciphering them.  Moreover, as there is no stable tradition of committing the dialects to writing, texts that employ AM are very often inconsistent in the use of Arabic characters for this purpose.

“Since the narrative sections of an Arabic novel or short story are customarily written in FU, the use of AM in the dialogue produces a text consisting of two different linguistic types.  Admittedly, the use of dialectal dialogue is a common practice among European and other novelists, who are not loathe to mix dialectal repliques with narrative sections whose language is usually more akin to the standard variety.  But it would seem that the lingual gap between the written and the spoken varieties of Arabic is much greater than what we find in most European languages.”  (Genre and Language in Modern Arabic Literature, by Sasson Somekh, 1991)

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