Translation Never Arrives

I’ve been thinking of various different understandings of what translation is and what it does. One of the most intriguing questions to me is the relevance of understandings of translation to the understandings of gender. I’ve recently read A. Finn Enke’s essay on translation for the TSQ’s first issue.

Enke writes the following for what translation creates: ‘Translation creates two things: first, something new; and second, the illusion that there was an original from which the translation sprang’ (242). I really like the keyword ‘illusion’, because that describes it the most clearly. When we look at a translation we imagine it to be that original created anew in a new language, and in a new culture. Enke goes on to reminds us that that the search for the original is futile. ‘But there is no original: the poem is a medium, a conveyance. We ask, should our translations conform to audience expectations or transform them? We dance between, always doing both, by the very act of being’ (242).

Enke frames the discussion on translation with its relationship to transgender: ‘Transgender highlights the labors of translation, inhering an implied “before” and “from which.” The present moment does not tell the story, only that there is one worth telling’ (243). In reading this, I think it may be worthwhile to compare how the common perception of translations that always involves the ‘original’, and the common perception of trans persons that always involves an ‘originating’ gender.

Then, ‘As a term, transgender translates an infinite multiplicity into a single disciplinary body. But this project fails, and its failure incites creative elaboration, the proliferation of stories. Transgender demands above all the need for more context, more story, and thus the translation into transgender never arrives and rests’ (243). I find this to be possibly the most important line in the entire essay. It never arrives and never rests points to translation as a never-ending process. Not only in terms of translation into transgender, but translation itself. The constant retranslations of texts is a constant production of knowledge, always new, and never ending. New translations elaborate, and give new context. A translation produced in the 90s is never the ‘same’ translation when produced in the 2000s. When translating, we ask ourselves what’s worth focusing on in a translation, it’s never the same, and these questions never rest.

Not All Translations are Translations

‘A translation which is declared to be, and is recognized as being, in all respects equal to its prototext, may well continue to be a translation in a genetic sense but it no longer functions as such.’ The Conference of the Tongues, Theo Hermans, 2007: 7.

The Septuagint and the Book of Mormon, Hermans demonstrates, are two translations that are no longer translations. The two books may be thought of as ‘equal in value and status’ as the original they are based on.

The Book of Mormon’s original is the mythical tablets that an angel showed Joseph Smith. JS then translated the tablets into English, once the translations were done, the original tablets disappeared with the angel. All that was left of the Book of Mormon was the translation of the Book of Mormon, therefore it became the original itself. This is what Hermans considers to be equivalence, a text is considered equal in value and status as the original. When it becomes such, it is not replaceable by another translation. Granted this example is a bit problematic, there is no other original to base a translation on.

Hermans gives another example, the Septuagint. There are various legends around this text, however what happened was that it became the Bible in Greek. He notes that the differences the Septuagint had with the Bible in Hebrew are irrelevant to the issue. Equivalence ‘does not preclude differences in meaning’, some theologians considered the differences as of divine origins, and considered the Septuagint equivalent to the original.

This notion of equivalence seems productive for me, as it side-steps the trickiness of the notion among other translation theorists. Hermans says equivalence ‘is not a feature that can be extrapolated as the basis of textual comparison’. This is major, as a lot of theorists (such as Eugene Nida) would think of equivalence on the textual level, in other words, it avoids the pre-occupation of questions such as “does ‘Logos’ mean ‘Word’ or does it mean ‘Intellect’?”

I’m currently thinking about Hermans’ notion of equivalence would mean in relation to Qur’an translators and translator-theologians. Perhaps the equivalence of translations to the original is something Qur’an translators are most worried about, that readers would consider it to be the Qur’an, rather than simply another interpretation of the Qur’an. I’m especially curious of cases were Qur’an translators want the translation to be the Qur’an, equivalent, equal in status and value. I’m thinking of Rashad Khalifa and then his student Edip Yüksel and the translations they both have produced.

Those two translations may be the topic of an upcoming post, and a paper I’m currently writing.

The Arab-Nahuatl Jinn

Recently something about the animal axolotl popped up in my Twitter timeline. Following my typical curiosity, I looked it up on the English Wikipedia, then on the Arabic Wikipedia.

The Arabic Wikipedia talked about a water ʿifrīt [ʿifrīt al-māʾ] and a Mexican salamander [samandal al-maksīk]. This was getting a bit odd for me. A ʿifrīt is an Arabian mythological being, a type of jinn. Many One Thousand and One Nights stories (canonical ones or derived ones) feature a ʿifrīt or other jinn of some sort.

It’s as if we appropriated an animal from the Americas that does not exist in the Arabias, and considered it a variant of the ʿifrīt, except this one is not the type made of smokeless fire, rather the water ʿifrīt is water-based.

This may be a part of our underlying fear of using foreign borrowings in the contemporary standard of Arabic. That we attempt to force things that weren’t under our sight in the past to be culturally Arabized to our satisfaction first. Despite the fact that standard Arabic (in its classical and modern forms) are overwhelmed by borrowings: šāy, firdaws, timsāḥ, ṭūb, dirham, dīnār, ṭāzaj, etc.

I actually find it a lot of fun when dealing with foreign borrowings than having to figure out the possible derivations of something. If something comes easily, why spend extra effort to find an alternative? Why call axolotl a water ʿifrīt when you can call it āšuluṭl?

Of course unless you had fantastical imagination, but then I guess you could apply that in a fantasy novel without making the readers think of a water animal in Mexico. But for now, an axolotl has become a Arab-Nahuatl jinn because someone took issues with its very Nahuatl name.

What Do You Look for in a Translation?

The New York Times published two short essays a few days ago titled “What do you look for in a translation?”. This article was first pointed out by a close friend of mine, that included a minor refutation along the lines of “issues of accuracy is an outdated way of seeing translations”.

Needless to say the pieces didn’t do their lit-reviews well, they could’ve at least started with a basic text on translation studies, seriously.

This text was discussed in passing in a class I’m attending, where my professor pointed out Ben Van Wyke’s comment to this piece, which I quote in full:

As a professor of translation studies, and somebody trying to get this young field recognized, it would be nice if reviewers of translations had some idea, even minimal, of the field so that we don’t hear the same recycling of clichés we have been hearing for 2000 years. Mendelsohn might be more guilty of this, but Stevens’s reference to Plato is funny in that much of contemporary translation scholarship is driven by Nietzsche’s critique of Plato that posits a rethinking of the way language (and, consequently, translation, reflected in postmodern scholarship… eg. Derrida) is embraced not only by the articles above, but most of the comments afterwards. There is a political, anthropological, economical, colonial, gender-biased – and the list goes on – component to translation that is consistently ignored by reviewers and the general population that insist on out-dated concepts such as fidelity or “staying close to the original” that do not hold up under close scrutiny (Caveat: opposing the concept of “fidelity” is not a call for “infidelity,” it is the very questioning of this very shaky dynamic). The question/title “What do you look for in a modern translation?” followed by these kind of answers is an insult to modern translation studies and a simplification of an area that has much more influence on/in all of our lives than we would like to admit.

Note: Ben Van Wyke who now teaches in IUPUI graduated from the PhD program in Translation Studies at Binghamton University, the same program which I am currently enrolled in.

Underestimating a linguistic variety

It is no secret to anyone in the Arabic-speaking societies that Arabic has many varieties, so many varieties. As I have previously discussed, even within the relatively small region of the Gulf there are many varieties. It is not unusual for people to assume of their spoken variety to be of a lower quality than the standard, that is the Fuṣḥa. People learn to admire those who speak Fuṣḥa fluently, flawlessly. This admiration must come from somewhere.

The Fuṣḥa is the form of Arabic that is taken to be the standard form, and it has three main faces: Qur’anic Arabic, Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic. All three faces are part of the Fuṣḥa, but of course, those aren’t considered to be equal. The Arabic of the Qur’an is at the top of the ladder because it is the form of Arabic used in the Qur’an. Although Qur’anic Arabic itself stemmed from the variety of Arabic spoken by the tribe of Quraysh, and by the Prophet Muhammad. This variety became prestigious. because the tribe speaking it inhabited Mecca, a major religious center for many Arabians of that age.

Here, we begin to see a problem. The language of Quraysh being treated as the perfect language, and all other related forms of the language, all other forms of Arabic, including the Arabics that were contemporaneous with Qurashi Arabic began to be considered flawed.

This comparison with the perfect Arabic continues to exist. Not only is a variety of Arabic compared to the perfect Arabic, but the other Arabics compared with one another, then evaluated depending on which is closer to the perfect. Consider for example this article by Asmaa Al Hameli published in the UAE daily The National. It discusses a form of Arabic I’ve heard many people talk about, and sometimes complain about. I’ve heard many people coming to similar conclusions about it: that it is broken. Conclusions about some varieties of Arabic being considered broken is not isolated to this form of Arabic, people describe other Arabics that came into being through contact between different cultures as broken too: Gulf Pidgin Arabic is only one of many.

The pidgin of Arabic spoken in the Gulf has been noticed by researchers as early as the 1960s. Smart in 1990 points out that he noticed “a fairly developed pidgin in the Sultanate of Oman (then Muscat and Oman)” while teaching oil company employees Arabic between 1966 and 1968. He says that this variety, which he calls Gulf Pidgin, was used “between the indigenous Arab crews and foreign (European and Indian) supervisors and technicians.” Smart goes on to detail his first-report on Gulf Pidgin Arabic, with the major flaw of using examples collected from cartoons drawn by native speakers of Gulf Arabic imitating the speech of the migrant laborers. These examples cannot be considered to be examples of the actual pidgin, rather it’s an example of foreigner talk, a simplified form used by the native speaker when speaking to people who’s not competent in the language (usually foreigners).

Foreigner talk was identified by Al Hameli in her article, however she identifies the speakers of foreigner talk as “culprits”. I understand the condemnation, however I prefer not to condemn. Foreigner talk is nothing new, and it is not at all unusual. Why condemn a phenomenon that occurs in every cross-cultural situation where the participants don’t share a language? The Swiss example given by Al Hameli may very well be an exception, although my experience with the Swiss Germans and Swiss Italians using their languages with me is much different and I felt that the way they used their languages with me was simplified, probably much simpler than what they would typically use amongst themselves.

Næss (2008) points out that this variety of Arabic, is becoming “conventionalised and unified as a first-generation contact language”. This means that Gulf Pidgin Arabic is beginning to have a regular structure with its own rules. Unlike Smart, Næss collected much of her examples from interviews with sixteen individuals living in and working in Buraimi, Oman and Al-Ain, UAE. Her research on Gulf Pidgin Arabic points out how GPA’s grammar takes from the pre-existing Arabic dialects (Gulf Arabic) and reduces its complexity. The phonology system is reduced: 29 consonants become 18, the possessive system becomes simpler, the negation system is reduced, the verbal system is different. Each of those issues were discussed and demonstrated in dedicated chapters.

Among the most interesting developments in Gulf Pidgin Arabic isn’t that it was merely studied by researchers, but also that its speakers have produced poetry. An Omani sociolinguist colleague has pointed this out in her blog, not only the eight-verse poem, but also a music video with a modified form of the poem, which was also discussed by the UAE daily Gulf News early in 2012. The poem has rhyme and meter. It is written using the traditional Arabic hemistich pattern. The poem tells us about the situation of its main character who’s a migrant laborer who hasn’t seen his family in years and who hasn’t been paid in two years, which happens to be quite common in parts of the Gulf region.

It is fascinating to read how structured Gulf Pidgin Arabic is. It is even more fascinating to see it in creative (poetic) form. It would be irresponsible for consider this form of Arabic spoken by migrant laborers as “broken” or “incorrect”. If it has a complex grammatical structure (although on the surface it may seem simple), then why should we consider it “broken”? If its creative use exhibits rhetorical power, then why should we consider it “broken”?

Perhaps it is comfort that makes us consider this variety of language to be a broken variety, an incorrect variety. Should comfort factor in to this? The variety of Arabic I speak merges two emphatic phonemes in Arabic together. It makes certain people uncomfortable that I pronounce it that way, some even think it is incorrect. Perhaps comfort is a slippery slope that could lead us darker places. Was it not discomfort with linguistic varieties that lead the post-revolutionary French Henri Grégoire to recommend in his Rapport that France has to annihilate the vernaculars spoken in France in 1794, most of which he decreed “degenerate”, or in softer terms: “broken”.

I wonder if there would be a turning point that would make people consider Gulf Pidgin a language, or in the special case of Arabic dialectology: a dialect of Arabic, worthy of its place? Just as other forms of Arabic are considered Arabic. Perhaps if it were to one day become a language spoken in the household? That seemed to be the case with Ki-Nubi and Juba Arabic, they became spoken at home by families.

A quick bibliography of reading material on this topic:
* JR Smart (1990). ‘Pidginization in Gulf Arabic: A First Report’ in Antrhopological Linguistics. 32(1/2).
* Unn Gyda Næss (2008). Gulf Pidgin Arabic: Individual strategies or a structured variety? Oslo: University of Oslo.
* Fida Bizri (2005). ‘Le Pidgin Madam: un nouveau pidgin arabe’ in La linguistique, 41(2).

The Mufti and the Translations

An article was published by The National on June 21, 2013 on the recent publication of Talal Itani’s translation of the Qur’an; a press release from February 2013 announces the publication.

The Itani translation is not the issue of this blogpost, rather Dubai’s Chief Mufti Ahmad Abdulaziz Alhaddad’s comments are. The article included comments from him regarding Qur’an translations in general. They seemed to me cautious and slightly discouraging: that Itani’s commendable intentions were misplaced, and he should seek approval from an Islamic authority before publication.

Approval from an authority is not the only issue though, the Chief Mufti (CM) gives three points on translating the Qur’an “accurately” (for clarity, quotation marks for the rest of this post exist because I consider the concepts within them questionable):

  • Have a “clear understanding” of each verse.
  • Be an expert in the target language, know grammar and structure to convey a “correct meaning”.
  • Be a part of a committee, perhaps to share the burden of translating a holy text.

The problems are various in these comments, though they aren’t new problems at all. These issues present themselves everywhere, and they become an important issue in sensitive texts, like scripture, legislation, and contracts. Religious institutions have always tried to play a role (actively or passively) in the translation of scripture: The Vatican hierarchy was restrictive of translating the Bible, the Protestants were ever-translating. Islamic religious institutions based in Arabic-speaking societies avoided (or disparaged) the idea of translating the Qur’an, often overlooking the traditions that one of the Prophet’s Companions is said to have translated the Qur’an.

Religious institutions that do involve themselves in the act of translations often seek to authorize translation projects or endorse existing translations. The CM’s warned against “unauthorized translations” that have not been “approved by a specialized committee”, and Itani’s plan for “review and endorsement” by Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment and Egypt’s Azhar. The distinction of authorization and endorsement is not major, I only see it as a degree of power. The higher degree of power goes to authorization, that is before and during the act of translation, endorsement occurs after the act of translation.

Authorization can be quite restrictive and more controlling, I don’t see a purpose for it except in acts of standardization and official uses: the Vatican officially used the fourth-century translation known as the Vulgate after it was authorized by Pope Damasus I and translated by St Jerome in the fourth century. The King James Bible (actually called the Authorized Bible by some) was one of the three official Bible translations used by the Church of England, which they’ve used almost ever since. The English language wouldn’t be the same without the standardizing influence of the King James translation.

Endorsement is a bit less exclusive as an organization considered an authority might not restrict itself to using an endorsed translation. These things are more like an approval for the general public to use, in order to add a marketing value on a particular translation. The problem with both authorization and endorsement is not that they exist, but it is who endorses and authorizes these translations.

The three points are laced with problems. How can a “clear understanding” of the Qur’anic verses exist if the exegetes differed on what the verses meant? These differences come into existence by how exegetes used different criteria to extract meaning. Did exegetes focus on linguistic issues alone? Historical issues, particular through the use of hadith? How about the modern theological focus on (pseudo)science? How about the goals, such as the production of law? If you need to see how vast and varied tafsirs can get, take a look at Anthology of Qur’anic Commenaries, there’s plenty of examples where tafsirs (even within the same theological school) can differ greatly.

Translators and their translations are almost exactly the same as exegetes. They are influenced by a variety of factors when translating a text. The goals of the translator can influence the way the translator reads a text. The theological background, choices of tafsir, etc. Most translations with translator’s notes detail what theological references they relied on when working.

The second point stresses grammar and structure too much. It’s almost as if the CM’s impression of language is nothing but grammar and structure. A text carries much more than simply cohesion (grammar) and coherence (structure). If we were to take Beaugrande and Dressler’s seven standards of textuality as a general guide on language (through text), then there are five more standards that are missing in this point: intentionality, informativity, acceptability, situationality, and intertextuality. (See a summary here and the detailed Introduction to Text Linguistics for more). Assuming that those two are the only things when writing (and translating) a text, is a bit outdated, linguistically speaking. Granted, you could argue the B&D is a bit old too but compared to this comment it doesn’t seem so.

A factor that you could argue is a part of situationality is how power (and of course centers of power) can influence the meaning that a reader sees in a text, since no text exists in a vacuum. It was not in a vacuum when it was written, and it is not in a vacuum when read. The contexts during the writing and reading all influences the meanings. It defines “correct meaning”. Correct meaning almost always comes from centers of power. As an example we could take a look at the Jabriyyah doctrine and Mu‘tazilah doctrine that were spread during the Umayyad and Abbasid reigns which was spread by the regime’s religious establishment, the Jabriyyah doctrine was to establish a divinely-destined attribute to the Umayyad dynasty, while the second doctrine was a theo-political requirement, and theologians who didn’t subscribe to them were subjected to prosecution.

The last issue is of the committee translations. There’s not much that I see problematic about this. Collaborative translations occur everywhere, just like collaborative writing and research. The problem is that collaborative committees often require the adherence to a certain strategy or standard in order to produce the translation. It may be stricter as the committee grows, lesser as the committee is smaller.
Of course, when it is a case of an individual translator, then there’s a lot of space to explore marginal and innovative translation strategies. The only thing that the translator risks is failure. Failure is cheaper for an individual than for an organization or a committee.

Examples of innovative translations produced by individual translators or duos are William Tyndale who dared to produce a Bible translation that used different terms than the ones used by the Roman Catholics, such as “congregation” instead of “Church” or “overseer” instead of “bishop”, therefore taking away the basis for the Vatican’s hierarchy, he was punished, rather than rewarded by being strangled then burnt for the translation. Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation too attempted a different reading of the Qur’an. Or perhaps the poetic rendering of the translations, such as Fazlolah Nikayin. Or perhaps to serve smaller sects or theologies such as the Qur’anist translations of Rashad Khalifa and Edip Yüksel.

Individual translations are not only a way to produce innovative translations, but also serve lesser-know and lesser-taught languages. Think of minority languages, or those spoken by less than a few million people: Hawai’ian, Fiji Hindi, Gullah, Kven, and so on. Just try establishing a committee of translators and editors who can work with those languages and Qur’anic Arabic.

I’m not condemning committee translations, there’s plenty of successful ones out there. You know, like the King James Bible translation and the Luther Bible, like Qur’an translation known as the Saheeh International, the heavily critiqued Hilali-Khan translation (successful, I think, because of the official support it has been given), or like the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible, the Septuagint, which has a mythical legend about how it was translated in order to make it a holy translation too. These translations work well in denominational or institutional settings. They could help maintain a certain uniformity, particular doctrinal uniformity to the theological leanings of a religious authority.

I can imagine that there would be many who would heed the CM’s warning about unauthorized or unapproved translations, however I see more than a minority who wouldn’t know, or care, or be interested in the warning. Perhaps even many of those who take reading translations of religious texts seriously often end up reading (and exploring) a variety of translations.

Non-Standard Varieties in Translation

A common challenge in literary translation is the issue of a non-standard variety of language being used in the text. Literature has no shortage of using dialects and varieties that can seem unusual when written: Cockney in Pygmalion of GB Shaw, African American English in A Raisin in the Sun of Lorraine Hansberry, or Joual form of Québécois French in Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Sœurs, and a created variety of English that Zachry spoke in Cloud Atlas and the simple speech of the neanderthals of William Golding’s The Inheritors in contrast to the complex speech of the new humans.

The solutions to this challenge is varied. It’s common enough that it becomes often discussed. Since I started my MA at AUS, I’ve discussed this problem more times than I can count. I’m hardly a month into my doctorate studies and I’ve discussed this issue twice. The solutions I’ve seen are three.

The first option is to ignore non-standardness in the source text. I see this as highly problematic. Often the contrast between the standard and non-standard varieties of a language tell us something. It is a detail that is difficult to ignore when read in the source text. Take The Inheritors as an example, the story is about a group of neanderthals who speak in a very simple way, whereas the new humans at the end of the novel are capable of using complex language (For a discussion of this see MAK Halliday’s 1971 paper “Linguistic function and literary style”, this was republished here and here). How do you carry along this contrast when you use one standard variety all through the text?

The second option is to force yourself to find a non-standard variety of the target language that is “comparable” (intentionally scare-quoted) to the non-standard variety used in the source text. I scare-quote comparable for a reason: will you really find a variety that has the same set of stereotypes as the source text’s variety? By doing so you could be introducing a different context into the text when translating. For example, when translating a text using dialectal features of Southern American English into Arabic, would you use a dialect among the dialects of the Bedouin Arabs? The sociolinguistic context of each variety is different, therefore incomparable. However, it was a successful strategy when Michel Tremblay’s play was translated into English, the variety used in place of Joual was Glaswegian Scots: The Guid Sisters. (Scots, in my opinion and in the opinion of many, counts as a language separate from English, but it is often portrayed as a dialect of English.)

The third option is to create one from scratch. You could take up the standard but oversimplify it in the case of the neanderthals, possibly abbreviate and contract expressions in the case of Les Belles-Sœurs and Pygmalion, or create lexical and syntactical features that seem unusual in the case of Cloud Atlas. This is my preferred strategy, I see it as a chance for a translator to input some of his creativity into the text he’s working on. This is not a new strategy, it’s been used before and often. Take for example the case of translations into Modern Hebrew (this example I found in Translators through History 2012: 53), which was for a time undergoing a period of revival and, because of two thousand years of strictly liturgical use, it lacked a spoken variety. I quote from the book the following paragraph:

“Translators had to resolve these difficulties, since the source texts included both spoken language and references to modern phenomena. This need was met by renewing Hebrew and extending its own range of resources. This included reviving old words by changing or enlarging their original meaning, giving new meaning to words whose old meaning had been forgotten and, in addition, coining new words or creating neologisms, on the basis of existing grammatical forms. When translators wanted to create ‘a spoken variant’, they sometimes disrupted the old language on purpose by using idioms incorrectly. Hebrew also benefited from its contact with various source languages, enriching the stock of Hebrew resources by imitating grammatical and syntactical forms, borrowing words, and translating expressions literally in the form of calques.”

I see this strategy as not merely creative, but also beneficial for any language, you’re giving the language you’re working with a new way of expressing ideas and describing experiences. The paragraph right after the one quoted above says how Hebrew fiction writers continue to use fictitious spoken language in their writings.

MA Thesis: Ideology in the Translation of Legal Treaties

In April, I completed my MA studies at the American University of Sharjah. My thesis is now available online for viewing at the following address:, direct PDF link here and here.

My thesis advisor was Dr. Basil Hatim. The abstract is quoted below, with links added:

The British Colonial Era produced a number of international treaties, such as the 1820 General Treaty of Peace with the Arab Tribes. The treaty produced in English was translated into Arabic three times. This study analyzes the differing discourses between the three translations in order to uncover the influences that played a role in the production of the translation. The study analyzes differences in skopos, word choice, and sentence structure in order to uncover the influences. This study demonstrates, despite the common assumption that legal translations are literal, that legal treaties may be translated differently depending on the context and cause of its translation. The study concludes that significant differences in the goals of the translation can result in significant differences in the discourses between the three translations.

Comments and critiques are obviously welcome.

Language Diversity in the Gulf: The Non-Arabics

This is the second of the two-post series related to the linguistic situation in the Gulf region. The previous post was be on the variety of Arabics in the region.

The sociolinguistic nature of the southern coast of the Gulf only (the northern coast is quite diverse too) is even yet more complex when taking into consideration the non-Arabic languages spoken in the communities. Much of the diversity lies in the Lower Gulf region, that is the UAE and Oman, with a variety of Indo-Iranian languages and South Arabian languages.

Much of the Indo-Iranian languages arrived within the last few centuries with migrations of merchants across the Gulf, with the notable exception of Kumzari. Kumzari is an endangered language spoken by the indigenous Kumazirah community in the Musandam peninsula, it is the only Indo-Iranian language to be historically indigenous to the southern coast of the gulf. It is closely related to Luri, a language spoken on the northern coast.

Kumzari is endangered because the official focus of the Gulf societies is on the official language and not the heritage languages. A recent report by the AFP on two researchers (Christina van der Wal and Erik Anonby) working on the Kumzari language notes that the language used in schools is Arabic, and not the community’s mother tongue. Recently there has been a bit more coverage on this language in The National, including a video. The case is similar for Lawati, Lari (also known in the region as Ajami with its varieties like Bastaki, Evazi, Khonji, Gerashi, etc.), Balochi, and Jadgali, all of which are endangered languages; they are not taught in schools and often lack documentation and research.

Only recently have there been efforts to document the region’s endangered languages, Lawati has been undergoing documenting by two Omani scholars, Amel Salman and Nafla Kharusi had teamed up to work on the sound system of the Lawati language, along with studies on the identity of Lawati and Swahili speakers in Oman.

There are also other non-Arabic languages spoken in the region, but also understudied and endangered. Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle surveys these languages in a chapter of The Semitic Languages and lists them as six Modern South Arabian languages: Mehri, Harsusi, Bathari, Hobyot, Jibbali (or Shehri), and Soqotri.

The least endangered amongst those is Mehri, a South Arabian language originally spoken in the south of Oman and in Yemen, but also spoken in Eastern Saudi Arabia. It is the most comprehensively documented languages among the Modern South Arabian languages. Harry Stroomer collected a corpus of Mehri texts from Oman in 1999 made up of stories and poems, and Aaron Rubin published a descriptive grammar of Mehri in 2012 based on that corpus. Along with that, quite recently, the American Insitute for Yemeni Studies published a poetry collections titled the Diwan of Hajj Dakon translated from Mehri in English and Arabic. The rest of the languages are not as widely spoken (some may be extinct), and not as comprehensively studied as Mehri is.

Swahili, too, is a part of the linguistic diversity in the region. It is spoken by Zanzibari Arabs (many who migrated to Yemen, Oman, and the Emirates after the Zanzibari Revolution and the collapse of the Sultanate) and Afro-Arabs who were involved in the trade (including the slave trade) between the East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

A majority of these languages are endangered or are facing serious decline in the face of the rise of Arabic, the state-promoted language. Many of the elder speakers of those languages did not teach their children these languages, and those who do do not speak it as fluently as their parents and grandparents. These languages are not taught in schools as heritage languages, and they are not taught by private community organizations in order to preserve them.

Despite the grim situation of these languages, some have become aware of the value of these languages to the society. In June 2010, a two-day symposium held by the Omani Society for Writers and Literati tackled the issue of translating Omani literature into Arabic from non-Arabic languages. This is merely a small gesture from the intellectuals of Oman to help study these heritage languages. However, more must be done to bring attention to these languages and their need for revitalizing.

Documenting and revitalizing these languages requires the heritage speakers to participate and take interest in keeping their languages alive. Only they can have access to their languages’ poetry, stories, and texts. These texts can be collected into a corpus from which linguistic description can be provided. Without the speakers themselves undertaking the responsibility for the upkeep of their language, nothing can be done to prevent these languages and their related cultures from becoming extinct.

Documenting these languages is a first step to helping revitalize these languages. From dictionaries, linguistic corpora, and grammar descriptions of Mehri and Kumzari, teachers and linguists can develop educational resources to help teach the language, maybe even set up a primary school to teach Mehri and Kumzari to the younger generation, and maybe broadcasting radio shows in the languages, as is the case of various Native American communities and the Maori community in New Zealand. Each of those languages mentioned above deserve to be taught to the new generations, to maintain a connection to the rich culture of their ancestors.

Collecting linguistic resources and organizing them takes a lot of effort on the part of communities and researchers. The University of Hawai’i and Google recently launched The Endangered Languages Project aimed at helping communities in collecting and sharing resources on their endangered languages. This project lists on its website a few of the languages I’ve mentioned in this article as “at risk”, “endangered” and “severely endangered”. It would be encouraging if the linguistics faculty in the region would take up their responsibility to study the local linguistic diversity, and contribute positively to the preservation and development of these languages and their communities.

The language situation in the region may seem grim but that can be changed. And this change can only be achieved through the will of the heritage speakers themselves, and through the awareness of the society that among them are speakers of a diverse group of languages. The Arabian peninsula is home to more than just Arabic, it is vital that its society becomes aware of its diversity and participate in maintaining it.

Language Diversity in the Gulf: The Arabics

This is the first of a two-post series related to the linguistic situation in the Gulf region. The next post will be on the variety of indigenous languages of the region that are not Arabic.

The communities of the Gulf region across the last century have witnessed many changes. The political and economic aspects of these changes are the most commonly commented upon, but not much talk about the effect of these changes on the socio-linguistic aspect of the Gulf communities, apart from the occasional news article that bemoans the decline of Arabic in the face of English. While true that Arabic as a language faces competition from English, the situation is far more complex than that.

With an exception of Iran, whose official language is Persian, the countries around the Gulf use Arabic as their official language. This is the simple description of the language situation. The complex description (and the one closer to reality) is not so easy to describe in one post. I will focus in this two-post series on the sociolinguistic reality of the countries in the Gulf, specifically on the UAE and Oman part of the Gulf. The society of these countries might use Modern Standard Arabic officially, but deal with a multitude of varieties of Arabic, and non-Arabic languages (see the next post).

The Arabic language in the Gulf region is made up of various dialects, and these are typically clumped together in category called Gulf Arabic. However the distinction between the dialects is not an easy one; linguists have long struggled to present a typology that allows the dialects to be differentiated (and will likely continue to do so).

The Arabic language used officially is one called the fuṣḥa (the Eloquent Standard), this standard form is commonly called by researchers as Modern Standard Arabic, a form that developed out of the Classical Arabic language which is used in the Qur’an and texts from the early era of Islamic history and the dialect of Quraish. Differentiating between Classical Arabic and Modern Standard is difficult even for Arabic-speakers, both are called fuṣḥa. The Classical Arabic was based on Qur’anic form of Arabic became the de facto standard of Arabic mainly due to its elevated status as the language of scripture.

Though Qur’anic Arabic later became the foundation of Standard Arabic, the non-standard vernacular varieties existed and continued to exist. The differentiation between the vernacular Arabics is not a simple issue, some linguists differentiate between Bedouin (or Tribal) and Sedentary (or Non-Bedouin) dialects, such as Reem Bassiouney in her 2009 book on Arabic Sociolinguistics, others differentiate between them geographically, such as Kees Versteegh’s The Arabic Language, who set out five regional dialect groupings, among them is the one that concerns us the most: the dialects of the Arabian peninsula, some of which are varieties that exist on the coast of the Gulf. The dialects of Arabic in the Gulf region are diverse, where multiple varieties of Sedentary dialects exist, and likewise with the Bedouin dialects.

Among the Bedouin dialects are the dialects which now form the most common varieties of Khaleeji/Gulf Arabic, while not always homogeneous, the Gulf Arabic dialect groups a set of varieties under common grammar and phonology, though there are differences as this dialect group spans the entire coast of the Gulf, and is spoken in Kuwait, Ahwaz, the Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. The most prominent dialect among the Gulf Arabics is the Kuwaiti Arabic. This became prominent after Kuwait gained independence from Britain, and set up a rich and free media infrastructure that allowed other Arab societies to be acquainted with the dialect. Among the research produced on the varieties of Gulf Arabic includes Kristen Brustad’s 2000 book on the Syntax of Spoken Arabic, which studied Kuwaiti Arabic along with other prominent Arabic dialects, while Benjamin Hoffiz in 1995 produced his doctoral thesis on the morphology of the Dubai dialect of Arabic. Hamdi Qafisheh who chaired the committee examining Hoffiz’s research, had produced A Short Reference Grammar of Gulf Arabic in 1977, and went on to publish NTC’s Gulf Arabic-English Dictionary. There is also a notable (but hard-to-find) Arabic-Arabic dictionary produced by Faleh Handhal and published by the UAE’s Ministry of Media and Culture in 1978 (the copy I have is a second edition from 1998). Other Bedouin dialects are related to the Najdi dialects, a set of varieties spoken by different tribal groups within the Peninsula.

Among the Sedentary and Non-Bedouin dialects, is the Shiḥḥi Arabic dialect, though spoken by a group of tribes, is distinct phonologically from the Bedouin dialects. This dialect may be one of the oldest Arabic dialects in the region, popular history suggests that these tribes are of the Azd Arabs in Dibba led by Laqit bin Malik who refrained from paying zakat to the Caliph Abu Bakr resulting in a Battle of Dibba in 632.

Another sedentary dialect is the Baḥarna dialect spoken by communities of Baḥarna Arabs, which are concentrated in Bahrain and the eastern Saudi Arabia, but also exist in other parts of the region such as the UAE, and Oman. Other sedentary varieties include Omani Arabic, Dhofari Arabic.

Significant research has been produced on the Baḥrani dialect, the most extensive of which was a sociolinguistic description of the language in Language and linguistic origins in Bahrain (1982) by Mahdi Abdalla Al-Tajir, and in Language variation and change in a modernising Arab State (1987) by Clive Holes.

The rise of regional media, some of which use Modern Standard Arabic, others which use vernacular varieties of Arabics, have played a role in leveling out the regional varieties. For example, Bedouin Arabic is commonly used in television series portraying Bedouin epics and reality shows with competing poets in the genre of Nabati poetry, resulting in many youth adopting linguistic features of Bedouin forms of Arabic. The same is the case with youth who grew up watching Kuwaiti comedies in the 1970s and 1980s, and adopted dialectal features of the Kuwaiti variety of Gulf Arabic.

The same issue exists in the research literature which studies a generic form “Khaleeji/Gulf Arabic” without worrying too much on the differences within different forms of Khaleeji Arabic, or in the case of the United Arab Emirates Univesity, an “Emirati Arabic” studying a post-leveling national variety of Arabic. For example, the Emirati Arabic Corpus currently being produced by Dimitrios Ntelitheos of United Arab Emirates University is focusing on collecting “Emirati” Arabic that exists in Emirati audio and visual media, such as radio and television shows. This effort is without a doubt to be commended, but also there is much need for research in pre-leveling varieties of Arabic.

I suggest this because I believe there is not one Emirati Arabic, but many Emirati Arabics (Shihhi, Bedouin, Coastal, Bahrani, among others), and many Saudi Arabics (Hijazi, Najdi-Bedouin, Qusaimi, Qatifi, among others), and many Omani Arabics (Musqati, Dhofari, Bedouin, among others), and possibly even various Kuwaiti Arabics.