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Arabic Standardization


History of and Motivation for Arabic Standardization

Understanding the process of language standardization in the Arab world necessitates

probing into the sociohistorical factors that motivate the attitudes that Arabs have toward
their language. Records of the existence of standardized Arabic dates to the fifth century
CE; yet it is unclear whether or not this standard is the literary outcome of many dialects
or represents one particular dialect (Hourani, 2002). Local dialects of Arabic within the
Arab peninsula contributed to the emergence of a standardized form of Arabic, called fusha
(Standard Arabic [SA], literally the eloquent language). This resulted in an unprecedented
amount of knowledge production, using the medium of SA.
Language for the Arabs played a central role in expressing and maintaining their cultural
history and was regarded as the diwan (record) of the entire speech community (Cachia,
2002). Some scholars have argued that due to the role Arabic came to play in the construc-
tion of the Arabic speech community, the members of that community possessed a more
profound and intimate knowledge of their language than did speakers of other languages
(Versteegh, 1997). Such in-depth knowledge and development of the language called for
the restriction of borrowed words, which are considered dakhila (intruding).

Standardization as a Means of Language Maintenance

With the expansion of the Muslim empire, many non-Arabs adopted Islam. These new
Muslims quickly learned SA (Cachia, 2002) as an assertion of their new religious identity.
This adoption represented an instance of positive linguistic assimilation with Arabs as
they came into contact with local languages and cultures of the new converts (Mansour,
1993). Consequently, Arabic was not only the language of religion but also a literary and
scientific language in the Arab world (Hourani, 2002).
Arabs noticed the introduction of lahn (deviant, divergent speech) in the speech of
the growing number of non-Arab Muslims. In addition, the expansion of the Muslim
empire marked the beginning of the divergence between SA and spoken dialects of Arabic
(Versteegh, 1997). In fact, the renowned scholar Ibn Khaldoun, considered by some
scholars to be the father of sociology (Kalpakian, 2008), argued that Arabic standardization
was introduced due to this divergence from Arabic speech norms. Ibn Khaldoun argued
that grammatical rules for SA were introduced given the growing concern for the religious
texts becoming incomprehensible due to potential language change, as these linguistic
changes occur through hearing (Versteegh, 1997). Therefore, he maintained that Arabs
codification of SA was able to reverse such divergence and maintain linguistic continuity.
The task of standardizing Arabic was given to the famous Arabic scholar Ad-Duali by
the ruler of Basra, Ibn abiihi (Shehadeh, 2007), as well as to Sibawayh, a non-native Arabic
speaker, considered the father of Arabic grammar (Versteegh, 1997) and whose influence
on grammar continues today. Standardization stems from the need to preserve linguistic

The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, Edited by Carol A. Chapelle.

2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal0036
2 arabic standardization

congruity and continuity of the Arabs with each other and with the past. In light of diverg-
ing dialects in the entire Arabic-speaking community, establishing the grammar of SA meant,
for the Arabs, maintaining unity, conformity, and stability, rather than asserting linguistic

Dialect Ideology

Access to understanding local Arabic dialects is only possible through the listeners ability
to understand SA, as the link between these dialects can only be established through the
attainment of the standard language. Greeting expressions such as Iraqi Arabic Sh lunak?,
its Moroccan equivalent La bas lik?, or the Levantine expression Kifak? (all translated as
How are you?) are all related to SA. These expressions would be unintelligible or mor-
phophonologically opaque to speakers of other Arabic dialects, unless they possess access
to the standard variety.
Many scholars have asserted the importance of investigation of the vernacular languages
alongside the standard language in their function and use (Milroy & Milroy, 1999). However,
given the diglossic nature of the Arab world (Ferguson, 2000) and due to the covert pres-
tige Arabs attach to their local dialects, the vernacular languages in the Arabic context
cannot substitute for the standard language. As with the Swiss German language situation
(Watts, 1999), the standardization of any one dialect to the exclusion of others would
constitute a disconnect from the wider Arabic-speaking community. Moreover, Arabs, due
to their attachment to their local dialects, do not view the standardization of any local
dialect, including their own, as capable of representing the entire Arabic-speaking com-
munity. In fact, in the 1930s, when a few Egyptians called for the standardization of the
Egyptian dialect to replace SA in Egypt (Haeri, 2003), these calls were rejected by most
Egyptians, given their attachment to SA and their desire for linguistic unity with the greater
Arab community. Arabs view the relationship between SA and the dialects as that of rich-
ness and complementation, rather than conflict and opposition.

The Colonial Encounter

The recent colonial encounter of the Arab world with European countries and the contact
of Arabic speakers with transplanted European languages have resulted in a linguistic
domination of Western languages in the Arab world. The modernization of SA took shape
through this language contact. Abdulaziz (1986) argues that the standardization process
in the modernization of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) meant an extensive lexical,
morphological, and syntactic influence by and borrowing from Western donor languages,
especially English. Colonial language policies in the Arab world led to the strengthening
of standardization as an assertion of linguistic independence from the colonial powers
(Tazi, 1986). In fact, the rise of Arab nationalism in the postcolonial context increased the
need for Arabs to assert their linguistic identity, maintain their linguistic unity through
MSA, and implement Arabization policies to assert the presence of SA in functional domains
formerly allocated to European languages (Chakrani, 2010). With the standardization of
SA and the increasing literacy rate, speakers from different parts of the Arab world are
able, with a minimal education, to communicate using the standard language (Abdulaziz,

SEE ALSO: Academies of the Arabic Language and the Standardization of Arabic;
Standardization in Human Language Technology
arabic standardization 3


Abdulaziz, M. H. (1986). Factors in the development of modern Arabic usage. International

Journal of the Sociology of Language, 62, 1124.
Cachia, P. (2002). Arabic literature: An overview. London, England: Routledge.
Chakrani, B. (2010). A sociolinguistic investigation of language attitudes among youth in Morocco
(Unpublished dissertation). University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Ferguson, C. A. (2000). Diglossia. In L. Wei (Ed.), The bilingualism reader (pp. 6580). London,
England: Routledge. (Reprinted from Word [1959], 15, 32540)
Haeri, N. (2003). Sacred language, ordinary people: Dilemmas of culture and politics in Egypt.
New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hourani, A. (2002). A history of the Arab peoples. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Kalpakian, J. (2008). Ibn Khalduns influence on current international relations theory. Journal
of North African Studies, 13(3), 35770.
Mansour, G. (1993). Multilingualism and nation building. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Milroy, J., & Milroy, L. (1999). Authority in language: Investigating standard English. London,
England: Routledge.
Shehadeh, H. (2007). AlLugha AlArabiyya wal Lahja Alaamiyya. Retrieved September 9, 2009
Tazi, A. (1986). Harakat al-Taariib fiy Al-Maghrib. Proceedings of Taariibu Al-Taaliim Al-Aaliy
wa Al-Jaamiiy fiy Rubui Al-Qarn Al-Akhiir, 90114.
Versteegh, K. (1997). Landmarks in linguistic thought. Vol. III. London, England: Routledge.
Watts, R. J. (1999). The ideology of dialect in Switzerland. In J. Blommaert (Ed.), Language
ideological debates (pp. 67142). Berlin, Germany: De Gruyter.

Suggested Readings

Albirini, A. (2010). The structure and functions of codeswitching between Standard Arabic and Dialectal
Arabic (Unpublished dissertation). University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Ferguson, C. A. (1959). The Arabic Koine. Language, 35, 61630.