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.