Diglossia and the variation of the colloquial arabic

1.0 Introduction:

In many speech communities where speakers use two or more varieties of the same language in different situations, a phenomenon called diglossia exists. The purpose of this paper is to discuss diglossia in the Arab community, as this is one of the communities that have been classified by Ferguson (1959) to be examples of diglossic language situations. It was my original intention to focus specifically on the Libyan context. However, a paucity of information on the Libyan context has meant that the major focus of the assignment is on Arabic in general. However, in the final section of the paper, I do make brief reference to Libya.

After defining diglossia, the characteristic features of diglossia as determined by Ferguson will be discussed too. I will then, provide a description of diglossia in Arabic, followed by the origins of Arabic diglossia. A description of classical/modern standard and colloquial Arabic will be also provided, together with their usage in different domains.

Finally, I will put forward some arguments and studies on Arabic diglossia, which have been introduced by linguists, as well as Arabic dialects and how variation of Arabic dialects is sometimes considered to be problematic.

2.0 Diglossia defined

The term diglossia was introduced from French ‘diglossie’ by Ferguson (1959), who is credited with first using this term in an article he wrote in 1959. According to him, diglossia refers to ‘one particular kind of standardization where two varieties of a language exist side by side throughout the community, with each having a definite role to play (Ferguson, 1959:232). In other words, when two languages or language varieties exist side by side in a community and each one is used for different purposes, diglossia exists. Usually, according to Richards et al (1992:108), one is a more standard variety called the high variety or (H- variety) which is used for example in educational institutions (lectures at universities), religious services (prayers, sermons in mosques and churches). The other one is called the low variety or (L- variety), which is used in family context, social interactions and shopping.

In addition, Ferguson has identified four languages which he thinks fit into his definition of diglossia. Those languages are Greek, Arabic, Haitian Creole and Swiss German. In all four areas, there seems to be a similar functional distribution between two varieties of the same language, which are called in Ferguson’s terminology high variety (H) and low variety (L).

3.0 The characteristic features of Diglossia

Ferguson (1959: 235) suggests that the different uses of H and L varieties can be described with reference to the following criteria:

Specialized Functions

One of the most important features of diglossia is the ‘specialization of function for High and Low forms'(Ferguson, 1959:235). In other words, each form has special domains to be used in. For example, the High form is used in religious sermons, letter writing, parliamentary speech, university lectures, news broadcasts, newspaper editorials and poetry, whereas the Low form is used in family conversation, folk literature, and soap opera. Slight overlapping between the two forms occurs, i.e. sometimes the two forms might be used in one domain by switching from H to L and vice versa.

H and L are used for different purposes, and native speakers would find it odd if anyone used H in an L domain, or L in an H domain.


Low (L) is the mother tongue of the speaker in the concerned defining languages (Arabic, Greek Haitian Creole and Swiss German), which have been determined by Ferguson. All speakers learn it as a first language at home as they are more comfortable in the L form than the H. The H form is normally learnt by formal instruction in schools.


In all the defining languages, H is highly standardised and may have a long tradition of grammatical study associated with it. In other words, grammars, dictionaries are a large literature which is associated with it. The L form may not be standardised. In Arabic, for example, the L form has no standard grammatical rules as it differs from one Arabic region to another region, and every Arabic community has its own local L form (dialect).


H is always considered to be more highly valued than the L as a result of the fact that the H variety is used in literature, religious texts, public speaking etc. The L variety is less associated with the written word and is often considered to be a corrupt version of H. It may be found in popular advertising, folklore poetry or used in drama, e.g. to describe comic characters. For Arab Muslims, for example, H is considered to be the language of the Koran, and it is widely believed to ‘constitute the words of God and even to be outside the limits of space and time’ (Ferguson, 1959:238).

Grammar, lexicon and phonology

The syntactic system of H varieties are generally thought to be more complex than the L in terms of grammatical features such as, tense, gender and number. Complex sentence structures are thought not to be a feature of L in the languages determined by Ferguson. The lexicon of the two varieties, on the other hand, is largely shared but there is a difference on account of the specific domains in which each is used. H and L may share the same phonological system, but even at this level of grammar, the H variety is felt to have more complicated phonetic features.

4.0 Fishman’s extension of diglossia

In 1967, Fishman revised and expanded Ferguson’s original definition of diglossia. Fishman believed that diglossia must be distinguished from bilingualism (Fasold, 1984). He suggests that bilingualism refers to an individual’s ability to use more than one language variety, whereas diglossia refers to the distribution of more than one language variety to serve different communication tasks in a society.

However, Fishman states the view, which he attributes to J. Gumperz that ‘diglossia exists not only in multilingual societies which officially recognize several ‘languages’ but, also, in societies which are multilingual in the sense that they employ separate dialects, registers or functionally differentiated language varieties of whatever kind’ (Fishman, 1967:30).

Fishman proposes that classic diglossia could be extended to situations where forms of two genetically unrelated languages occupy the H and L domains, such that one of the languages is used for education, law, literary and religion while another is the home language. Moreover, his extension depends on his focus on domain. In a community, for example, where speakers use two languages, they will obviously not use both in all circumstances. They use only one language in certain circumstances, and in others, they use the other one.

Fishman cites Paraguay as an example for his claim where there are two languages which are known by almost everybody. In Paraguay, Spanish is used as the high formal language, whereas Guarani is used as the low informal language. Fishman’s reference to Paraguay illustrates how far apart linguistically two languages may be and still be in a diaglossic relationship.

From the above two conceptions of diglossia, we come to a conclusion that both scholars, Ferguson and Fishman agree that the H variety is used for formal purposes and the L variety is used for less formal, more personal uses. However, they disagree when Ferguson distinguishes diglossia from the relationship between standard and colloquial, whereas Fishman mentions the possibility that more than two language varieties can be reserved for specific functions in a society. In addition, Ferguson’s view is limited two language varieties, whereas Fishman’s view is more than two language varieties can be reserved for specific functions in a society (Fasold, 1984).

Having defined the term ‘diglossia’ and the way the concept has been extended by Fishman; I now turn to a discussion in the Arabic context.

5.0 Digloss ia in Arabic

Arabic iѕ a mеmbеr of thе Ѕеmitic languagе family, which itѕеlf iѕ part of thе widеr Afroaѕiatic phylum including Anciеnt Еgyptian, Coptic, Cuѕhitic,’ Bеrbеr, and Chadic. Othеr principal mеmbеrѕ of thе Ѕеmitic family arе thе Еaѕt Ѕеmitic languagеѕ of Akkadian and Еblaitе (both now long dеad), and thе Wеѕt Ѕеmitic lan¬guagеѕ Aramaic, Ugaritic, thе Canaanitе languagеѕ (including Hеbrеw), anciеnt and modеrn Ѕouth Arabian, and thе Ѕеmitic languagеѕ of Еthiopia (for еxamplе, Gе’еz, Tigrе, Tigrinya, and Amharic) (Hеtzron 1992: 412-13;2 Fabеr 1997: 6; cf. Bееѕton 1970: 11).

5.1 The ѕprеad of Arabic

The original homeland of ѕpеakеrѕ of Arabic is thе cеntral and northern rеgionѕ of thе Arabian Pеninѕula. Thе lowеr half of thе Arabian Pеninѕula waѕ inhabitеd by ѕpеakеrѕ of languagеѕ known aѕ Еpigraphic Ѕouth Arabian (Hеtzron 1992: 412). Thе еnd of thе ѕixth cеntury CЕ, howеvеr, ѕaw thе riѕе of thе nеw rеligion of Iѕlam promotеd by thе Prophеt Muhammad within thе Arabian Pеninѕula in what iѕ now Ѕaudi Arabia. Thе nеw Iѕlamic ѕtatе ѕprеad rapidly throughout thе Pеninѕula, and within 100 yеarѕ had еxtеndеd north into thе Lеvant, еaѕt into Iraq and Khuziѕtan, and wеѕt into North Africa. Ovеr thе cеnturiеѕ, thе rеligiouѕ frontiеrѕ of Iѕlam ѕtrеtchеd into Ѕpain, Africa, India, and Indonеѕia, and acroѕѕ cеntral Aѕia into Tur­kеѕtan and China (Gibb 1978: 10). Thе riѕе and еxpanѕion of Iѕlam waѕ not only a rеligiouѕ and hеncе cultural conquеѕt, but alѕo a linguiѕtic conquеѕt, and within a fеw hundrеd yеarѕ Arabic bеcamе both thе official and thе vеrnacular languagе of all Iѕlamicizеd countriеѕ in thе Middlе Еaѕt. Indееd, duе to thе prеvailing tolеrancе on thе part of thе Muѕlimѕ to Chriѕtianѕ and Jеwѕ, arabicization waѕ morе complеtе a procеѕѕ and progrеѕѕеd at a grеatеr ratе than iѕlamicization (Vеrѕtееgh 1997: 93).

In thе courѕе of thе ѕprеad of Iѕlam, Arabic found itѕеlf in contact with a ѕеriеѕ of forеign languagеѕ which it haѕ tеndеd to ѕupplant. In Еgypt during thе еarly cеnturiеѕ of Iѕlamic domination, thе Coptic patriarchѕ communicatеd with thе Arab conquеrеrѕ through intеrprеtеrѕ. By thе tеnth cеntury CЕ, thе Coptic biѕhop Ѕеvеruѕ of Еѕhmunеin complainеd that moѕt Coptѕ no longеr undеrѕtood еithеr Grееk or Coptic, only Arabic. In Uppеr Еgypt, Coptic waѕ limitеd to a fеw ѕmall pockеtѕ in thе countryѕidе and to thе clеrgy in monaѕtеriеѕ by thе fourtееnth cеn­tury CЕ (Vеrѕtееgh 1997: 95). It iѕ gеnеrally bеliеvеd that by thе ѕixtееnth cеntury CЕ thе uѕе of Coptic waѕ rеѕtrictеd to liturgy in thе Coptic church (cf. Lopriеno 1995: 7). In North Africa, Arabic bеcamе thе dominant languagе of thе citiеѕ, but Bеrbеr managеd to rеѕiѕt thе ѕprеad of Arabic in thе rural intеrior. In Morocco and Algеria, in particular, Bеrbеr haѕ rеtainеd itѕ vitality alongѕidе Arabic to thiѕ day. Likеwiѕе in limitеd arеaѕ in thе Fеrtilе Crеѕcеnt, dialеctѕ of Ѕyriac havе pеrѕiѕtеd and havе influеncеd nеighbouring Arabic dialеctѕ.

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5.2 Thе еmеrgеncе of a ѕtandard languagе and digloѕѕia

Thе litеrary Arabic languagе bеgan to attain a ѕtandard form through thе dеvеlop­mеnt of grammatical normѕ in thе еighth cеntury CЕ (Fiѕchеr 1997: 188). Thiѕ ѕtandard languagе can bе tеrmеd Ѕtandard Arabic, thе tеrmѕ Claѕѕical Arabic and Modеm Ѕtandard Arabic bеing uѕеd to dеѕcribе itѕ mеdiеval and modеm variantѕ, rеѕpеctivеly.” Claѕѕical Arabic waѕ baѕеd primarily on thе languagе of thе wеѕtеrn Hij azi tribе of Qurayѕh, with ѕomе intеrfеrеncе from prе- Iѕlamic poеtic koinе and еaѕtеrn dialеctѕ. Thе languagе waѕ codifiеd in thе Qur’ an, thе holy book of Iѕlam. Although thе lеxiѕ and ѕtyliѕticѕ of Modеm Ѕtandard Arabic arе rathеr diffеrеnt from thoѕе of Claѕѕical Arabic, thе morphology and ѕyntax havе rеmainеd baѕi­cally unchangеd ovеr thе cеnturiеѕ (Fiѕchеr 1997: 188). Thе vеrnacular Arabic dialеctѕ, by contraѕt, havе dеvеlopеd markеdly during thiѕ pеriod. Likе a numbеr of othеr languagеѕ, thеrеforе, Arabic camе to havе onе ѕtandard variеty and a largе numbеr of rеgional and ѕocial dialеctѕ. Unlikе many ѕuch languagеѕ, howеvеr, no onе in thе Arab world iѕ brought up ѕpеaking Standard Arabic as their mother tongue:” an Arab child’ѕ mothеr tonguе will bе thе rеgional or social variety of Arabic of itѕ homе rеgion, whilе Ѕtandard Arabic, if it iѕ maѕtеrеd at all, iѕ lеarnt formally at ѕchool or at homе aѕ part of thе child’ѕ еducation. Ѕtandard Arabic iѕ confinеd to formal writtеn and ѕpokеn occaѕionѕ, and thе rеgional/ѕocial variеty of Arabic iѕ uѕеd at all othеr timеѕ. Ѕtandard Arabic now diffеrѕ conѕidеrably from rеgional and ѕocial colloquial variеtiеѕ of Arabic in tеrmѕ of itѕ phonology, morph­ology, ѕyntax, and lеxicon. According to Lipinѕki (1997: 75), ѕuch digloѕѕia in Arabic bеgan to еmеrgе at thе latеѕt in thе ѕixth cеntury CЕ whеn oral poеtѕ rеcitеd thеir poеtry in a proto-Claѕѕical Arabic baѕеd on archaic dialеctѕ which diffеrеd grеatly from thеir own (cf. alѕo Vollеrѕ 1906; Wеhr 1952; Diеm 1973, citеd in Fiѕchеr 1997: 188).

Dialеctѕ of Arabic form a roughly continuouѕ ѕpеctrum of variation, with thе dialеctѕ ѕpokеn in thе еaѕtеrn and wеѕtеrn еxtrеmеѕ of thе Arab-ѕpеaking world bеing mutually unintеlligiblе. On thе baѕiѕ of cеrtain linguiѕtic fеaturеѕ, Arabic dialеctѕ can bе dividеd into two major gеographical groupѕ: thе firѕt compriѕеѕ dialеctѕ ѕpokеn еaѕt of a linе running from Ѕalum in thе north to roughly thе Ѕudan-Chad bordеr in thе ѕouth; thе ѕеcond compriѕеѕ thе Maghribi dialеctѕ ѕpo­kеn to thе wеѕt of thiѕ linе. Thе main phonological fеaturеѕ which diѕtinguiѕh thе wеѕtеrn dialеct group from thе еaѕtеrn includе thе typical rеduction of thе triangu­lar ѕyѕtеm of ѕhort vowеlѕ, a, i, u, which iѕ found in еaѕtеrn dialеctѕ, to a two-vowеl ѕyѕtеm (Fiѕchеr and Jaѕtrow 1980: 33); and a contraѕt bеtwееn an iambic word­ѕtrеѕѕ ѕyѕtеm in thе wеѕtеrn group and a trochaic word-ѕtrеѕѕ ѕyѕtеm in thе еaѕtеrn group. Thuѕ, a word ѕuch aѕ katab ‘hе wrotе’ will bе typically ѕtrеѕѕеd aѕ ka’tab in wеѕtеrn dialеctѕ, but aѕ ‘katab in еaѕtеrn dialеctѕ.” In wеѕtеrn dialеctѕ, thе com­bination of an iambic ѕtrеѕѕ ѕyѕtеm togеthеr with a tеndеncy to dеlеtе unѕtrеѕѕеd vowеlѕ lеadѕ to word-initial conѕonant cluѕtеrѕ which arе not typically attеѕtеd in еaѕtеrn dialеctѕ: in thе Moroccan Arabic dialеct of Lmnabha, ѕmin ‘fat’ (Еlmеd­laoui 1995: 139) iѕ thе cognatе ofCairеnе ѕimin; and thе word for ‘outѕidе’ iѕ rеal­izеd aѕ brra in Lmnabha (Еlmеdlaoui 1995: 157), but aѕ barra in Cairеnе.

Dialеctѕ of a languagе which haѕ ѕpеakеrѕ aѕ еthnically and ѕocially divеrѕе aѕ Arabic, howеvеr, cannot bе dividеd in purеly gеographic tеrmѕ. Dialеctѕ arе alѕo commonly diѕtinguiѕhеd along a bеdouin-urban axiѕ: bеdouin dialеctѕ tеnd to bе morе conѕеrvativе and homogеnouѕ, whilе urban dialеctѕ ѕhow morе еvolu­tivе tеndеnciеѕ and uѕually еxhibit fairly clеar intra-dialеctal variation baѕеd on agе, gеndеr, ѕocial claѕѕ, and rеligion. Typical Bеdouin fеaturеѕ includе thе voicеd rеflеx of Claѕѕical Arabic qd], prеѕеrvation of thе Claѕѕical Arabic intеrdеntalѕ, and a gеndеr diѕtinction in thе ѕеcond and third pеrѕonѕ plural of thе vеrb, pro­nounѕ, and pronoun ѕuffixеѕ (Vеrѕtееgh 1997: 144). Diѕtinctionѕ bеtwееn bеdouin and urban dialеctѕ appеar to bе lеѕѕ markеd in thе Еaѕt, howеvеr, particularly in thе Pеninѕula, than thеy arе in North Africa (Fiѕchеr and Jaѕtrow 1980: 24).

Diglossia is a term which is usually applied to the sociolinguistic situation in much of the Arabic speaking world. In those countries, there are two forms of the same language (Arabic), the high and low variety. The high form is called fusha classical or modern standard Arabic which is normally used in formal situations, such as writing, political speeches and university lectures. The low form which is referred to dialects of Arab communities is used in informal situations, such as conversations, shopping and social rituals.

The Arabic language represents a continuum. At one end of this continuum is the modern standard Arabic, and at the other lies the low form which represents the various dialects of the Arab communities. These two ends, in fact are only ideal types, i.e. pure standard or pure colloquial, in fact do not exist. In other words, even in the most pure standard text, we may find some colloquial terms and vice versa (Hary, 1996:72). A person’s place on this continuum would be somewhere between the two forms. In other words, where a given person’s speech sits on this continuum depends on a lot of factors including speaker, conversation topic and setting. For example, how well the two speakers know each other and the formality of the speech as when giving university lectures and sermons.

Furthermore, in Arabic communities, classical Arabic fusha is deemed as the language of the Koran and is still the current written form of the language. At the beginning of the Islamic period, only two sources of literary Arabic were available; the Koran and the pre-Islamic poems al-shear al-jaheli. The Koran described itself arabiyyan ‘Arabic’ when it was revealed. This seems clear from the following verse of the Koran Q 43/2-3 which says; ( wa-l-kitabi: l-mubini: inna ga alnahu quraanan arabiyyan la allakum ta qiluna) ‘By the clear book: we have made it an Arabic recitation in order that you may understand’. According to Versteegh ( 2001:53), the Koran and the pre-Islamic poems play a crucial role in the ‘standardization and development of the Arabic language’.

Colloquial Arabic ammyya or darja as it is called in North Africa, on the other hand, exists as the vernacular varieties of the major Arabic speaking communities. It is very often used, especially in daily spoken form. In some of the Arab contexts, for example, if somebody uses standard Arabic in the street, he might be laughed at since using MSA in such domains seems odd. Cown (1968) believes that ‘Arabs are native speakers of NSA [non-standard Arabic] and not MSA [modern standard Arabic]’ (Mahmoud, 2000:129). In other words, modern standard Arabic has no native speakers.

Moreover, colloquial Arabic is subject to regional variation, not only between

different countries, but also within regions in the same country as we shall see in the Libyan context in the same country.

5.2 Origins of Arabic Diglossia

A number of theories have been introduced by researchers and scholars to interpret the origins of the Arabic diglossia. These theories might be classified into the following three groups; theories which assume the existence of a Koine, those which recommend an explanation of language drift and those which use the hypothesis of Creolization/Pidginization.

5.2.1 Koine

The Koine hypothesis is the prevalent theory in terms of the origins of the Arabic diglossia. Koine is a term ‘derived from Greek denoting a lingua franca that develops out of a mixture of languages or dialects’ (Bishop, 1998:4). In an article entitled The Arabic Koinz, Ferguson assumed that thecommon source of all the Arabic dialects existing outside the Arabian Peninsula was as a result of a variety spoken in the military camps during the middle of the seventh century at the time of the Islamic expansion, and this variety was different from the language of the Koran. In other words, these dialects are not corrupt form, however, they have had a separate existence from the classical language since they have existed outside the Arabic peninsula (Freeman, 1996: 1-2).

Ferguson assumes that the majority of the Arabic modern dialects are derived from a koine which existed side by side with the standard/classical Arabic and was not based on any particular regional area. He built his argument on fourteen features, which he thought differ from standard and colloquial Arabic. According to Ferguson, then, diglossia started as a result of the Koine and considered to be the basis of Modern colloquial Arabic (Bishop,1998:4).

5.2.2 Language drift

This theory attributes the difference between modern standard Arabic and colloquial Arabic to language drift, natural Semitic change tendencies (as Arabic is one of the Semitic languages) and basic effects among others. Those who recommend these theories feel that the Koine hypothesis is unnecessary and unjustified by the evidence available.

However, both sides, those who advocate these theories and the Koine theory agree that language changes likely occur in towns rather than in the dialects of the Bedouin tribes who live in the Arabian deserts because the Bedouin dialects remained unchanged for several centuries after the arrival of Islam. Secondly, they agree that there was no language center in the Arab world which caused the changes seen as a result of its influence. Finally, both sides agree that the Islamic conquests were behind precipitating the rise of the colloquial Arabic dialects.

Blau (1988, cited in Bishop, 1998:5), on the other hand, claims that Ferguson’s argument in terms of the Koine is unconvincing. He argues that the reverse of his argument was correct, i.e. the Koine itself was resulted from the changes of the Arabic dialects, and not as Ferguson said that the Koine was the origin of the modern Arabic dialects (Kaye, 1998:5).

5.2.3 Pidginization/Creolization

Before discussing this theory, I would like to give a brief definition of Pidginization and Creolization. According to Richards et al (1992:277), Pidgin means a ‘language which develops as a contact language when groups of people who speak different languages try to communicate with one another on a regular basis’. In other words, when speakers of one language, for example, engage in trade with speakers of another, and neither knows the other’s language, the language used between them is called Pidgin. Creole on the other hand, arises when a pidgin language becomes the native language of a new generation of children as a result of this contact.

Versteegh (1984, cited in Bishop, 1998:5) argues that the two theories mentioned above regarding the development of Arabic diglossia are either a focus on an explanation of the similarities or the differences of the dialects without treating the other side. In his estimation, Versteegh argues that an affective theory should deal with both sides of the Arabic dialects.

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By this hypothesis, Versteegh dealt with both the similarities and the differences between the modern dialects of Arabic. To prove his hypothesis, he gave an example of mixed marriages between Muslim Arab men and non-Arab women of the conquered peoples during the Islamic conquest. This marriage, he said would likely have led to communication using a pidginized form of Arabic and the children who would be delivered as a result of this marriage would have probably spoken a creolised Arabic.

6.0 Classical/modern standard Arabic and colloquial Arabic

Before starting to explain different uses of modern standard and colloquial Arabic, I would like to illustrate the difference between classical and modern standard Arabic.

Classical Arabic is considered to be the formal version that was used in the Al-Hijaz region (currently Saudi Arabia) 1500 years ago. The Koran was revealed in classical Arabic, which is the main reason why the Arabic language has preserved its purity throughout centuries and is considered an important part of the Arabic culture.

Modern standard Arabic (MSA), on the other hand, is an equivalent to the classical Arabic and nowadays it is used as the official language of the Arab states. Ferguson defined MSA as ‘the Arab’s ATTEMPT to speak classical Arabic’ (Kaye, 1972:46; emphasis in the original). The main difference between modern standard Arabic and classical Arabic lies in the vocabulary, i.e. MSA reflects the needs of contemporary expression, whereas Classical Arabic reflects the needs of older styles. A lot of lexical terms of classical standard Arabic, for instance, have become obsolete these days, and they are substituted by new modern words. For example, in classical standard Arabic kittab was used for the word ‘letter’,but in modern Arabic, ressala is used instead and rassol ‘messenger’ instead of mabooth. However, Modern Standard Arabic is grammatically simpler than classical and includes numerous words unknown to the Qur’an, such as hasib aali ‘computer’ and shabaket almalomaat ‘internet’.

The two varieties, standard and colloquial Arabic divide among themselves the domains of speaking and writing, formal and informal and sometimes both varieties are used side by side in only one domain. The following discussion will attempt to show where these two varieties can be found in the Arabic community.

On Arabic television and radio, the news is always presented in modern standard Arabic. This might be because it is watched and listened to by different native speakers of different Arab regions. On some programmes, for instance, the speakers usually start from a written text in standard Arabic, but in reading it they sometimes let themselves be influenced by the target group. In other words, programmes which are presented for special categories of community, for instance housewives, farmers and fishermen, the structure of the standard Arabic text remains unchanged, but at regular pauses colloquial markers and words are inserted. Particles and words such as bita ‘of’ illi ‘that is’ are introduced to give a signal to the audience the intention of the speaker, which is according to Versteegs (2001:195) to ‘create an atmosphere of intimacy and warmth’. In other words, speakers tend to use some colloquial particles or words to simplify the discussion and to be more close to the group concerned. Some of the Arab leaders, for example, use colloquial Arabic when they speak to their peoples, to communicate better with them, as they all understand their colloquial Arabic, whereas they use standard Arabic when they make speeches in other Arab countries since the colloquial Arabic in those countries are different from theirs.

All books and newspapers in Arabic states are written in standard Arabic, apart from those little cases where colloquial Arabic is rather used, for instance cartoons in newspapers or dialogues of illiterate characters in some novels are sometimes written in colloquial language. Although most literary works are written in standard, they regulary contain colloquialisms. This is also true in movie scripts such as dialogues and theatre plays, even when they are written in standard, they are often staged in dialect. This is perhaps because written works are only read and seen by literate people, who have studied standard Arabic at school (Versteegs, 2001).

Plays, songs, folk poetry and popular proverbs are usually performed and written in colloquial Arabic. Some expressions in Arabic, however, although classical, are used both in classical and colloquial domains. For example:

tusbihuuna alaa khayr (I hope you wake up in the morning [only used at night] and everything is fine).

baaraka allaahu fiika (may Allah [God] bless you): used formally and informally instead of thank you or thank you so much.

The titles tabib and tabiibah refer to medical doctors, but native Arabic speakers rarely use these standard forms in their colloquial speech. Instead, they prefer to use the terms alduktor (referring to an M.D or a PhD) or alhakim, which is equivalent to alduktor (referring only to an M.D.) because they sound more prestigious, especially the former form.

Lessons and lectures in schools and universities, on the other hand, are mostly introduced in standard Arabic within Arab states. In other words, introducing lessons and lectures in standard Arabic seems to be compulsory in most of the Arab countries. Tutorial discussions, on the other hand, are introduced in both colloquial and standard Arabic.

Colloquial Arabic is the language of family and home and is widely used in Arabic communities because it is the mother tongue of all Arab native speakers. When the child starts learning language from his/her parents, almost all lexical and phonological terms are colloquial Arabic.

7.0 Recent studies on diglossia in Arabic contexts

When Ferguson introduced his paper on diglossia in 1959, he concluded with ‘an appeal for further study of [diglossic] phenomenon and related ones’ (Ferguson, 1959:249). Consequently, linguists and scholars have made various efforts and studies on this phenomenon. In the following, I will examine some of those arguments and how they contrast with Ferguson’s original study.

7.1 Badawi’s study of Diglossia

In an attempt to show how the linguistic system of modern standard Arabic works, the Egyptian linguist, Badawi (1973) has presented his study on the sociolinguistic situation in Egypt (applies on most of the Arabic contexts), in which he rejects Ferguson’s description of diglossia which says that H and L varieties are in complementary distribution in the Arab world and other communities (Versteegh, 2001).

In contrast with Ferguson’s model and in attempt to subdivide the continuum between the two extremes of standard Arabic and colloquial, Badawi has determined the following five levels model as follows:

1. fusha at-turrat ‘classical Arabic’

only used in Qur’anic recitation

2. fusha al-asr ‘Modern standard Arabic’

the standard form of the language used in writing and sometimes on formal occasions in speaking

3. ammiyyat al-mutaqqafin ‘colloquial of the intellectuals’

the formal spoken language of educated people

4. ammiyyat al-mutanawwirin ‘colloquial of the literate’

the informal spoken language of educated people

5. ammiyyat al-ummiyyin ‘colloquial of the illiterate’

the language in which the illiterate talk (Versteegh, 2001:191)

It is noticed from the above that every level represents a different class of people in different domains. For example, the consonant /Θ/as in thalatha ‘three’ is considered classical Arabic, /t/ as in talata ‘three’ is considered colloquial, whereas /s/ as in salasa (this level is not used in all Arabic contexts) is used between the two extremes (Hary, 1996:7).

To show how the linguistic system of modern Arabic works, Badawi offered a diagram (in the appendix) in which it seems clear that every level is a mixture of all the other levels, i.e. every level contains fush a ‘classical’, ammiyya or darja ‘colloquial’ and dakhiil ‘foreign elements’. In other words, even the speech of the illiterate contains elements of the high variety (fusha) or modern standard Arabic ( fusha al- asr), and standard Arabic, on the other hand, contains lexis, phonology and morphology of the colloquial of the illiterate (Freeman, 1996:4).

In his study, Badawi proved that there is a continuum between standard and colloquial Arabic, and claimed that there is no duality in the Arab world, but continued levels of language. Then, he looked at the colloquial Arabic not as corrupt or different and independent from the standard Arabic, but as one of these levels suggested in his new model of Arabic language.

However, although I agree with Badawi’s new model of the Arabic language, I think a point has not been taken into his account while studying this phenomenon, i.e. the colloquial level of illiterate (those who do not know standard Arabic at all) has recently been developed as a result of the development of radio and television. In other words, this level does not exist any more and it is rare these days to find any illiterate person in the Arab world, who does not know even one single lexical or phonological term on standard Arabic.

7.2 Well-Defined versus Ill-Defined

Kaye (1972), on the other hand looks at Ferguson’s assumption from another angle. According to him, Ferguson missed an important point, which he thinks to be the key to the handling of the problem. He says that his assumption of an H variety (classical Arabic) and the L variety (colloquial Arabic) seems ‘most certainly to be a false one’ (Kaye, 1972:35).

Kaye introduces the hypothesis in which C (colloquial Arabic) is always a well-defined system of language, whereas classical Arabic is ill-defined. In other words, all colloquial forms of Arabic are learned natively and must, according to Kaye, be well-defined systems. On the other hand, the non-colloquial forms of Arabic, by which he means any type or variety of Arabic learned non-natively, as those learned in school, for example, classical/modern standard Arabic are ill-defined systems.

Kaye (1972:47) claims that the Arabic diglossia involves ‘the interaction of two systems, one well-defined, the other ill-defined’. In other words, neither ill-defined system, nor the interaction between MSA and C are stable. Both are subject to rapid change. This, therefore, contrasts with Ferguson’s first definition which says that diglossia is ‘a relatively stable situation…..’ (Ferguson, 1959:245).

In addition, Kaye adds that most linguists agree that modern standard Arabic is the marked system of Arabic, whereas the colloquial is unmarked, i.e. modern Arabic marks many more categories of grammar than does any colloquial Arabic. Colloquial, however, has both marked and unmarked grammatical features, which sometimes are in line with classical and sometimes not, and it is, therefore, deemed to be grammatically simpler than classical Arabic. For example, modern/ classical standard Arabic is distinguished from colloquial Arabic according to case ( irrab as it is called in Arabic) and according to duality in the adjective and verb, whereas colloquial Arabic does not contain these grammatical features, i.e. it is sometimes in line with modern Arabic and sometimes not (Kaye, 1972:41).

Read also  Dimensions of Word Meaning

Consider the following sentences which are written both in Libyan colloquial and Modern standard Arabic.

Modern standard Arabic Colloquial Libyan Arabic

(1) kataba Mohamedun a-drssa Mohammed ketteb a-daress (Mohamed wrote the lesson.)

(2) adwlatani alatheematani adoltain lekbaar (the two big super power countries)

The examples presented above, show that there is a considerable difference between the colloquia Libyan (and any other colloquial Arabic) Arabic and the modern standard Arabic in terms of grammatical features and phonology, i.e. colloquial Libyan Arabic has simplified the standard Arabic rules. For example, in (1), the verb kataba is at the beginning of the modern standard sentence, whereas in the colloquial Libyan Arabic, it is in the middle and the case endings (nominative, accusative and genitive) iiraab, has been lost and the objective a- daress has lost its case too. Moreover, in (2), the modern standard Arabic sentence follows the Arabic grammatical rule that says the adjective agrees with the noun, in number, gender, and case, whereas, in colloquial the situation is different, adoltain is a dual- noun, whereas lekbaar is a plural-adjective.

8.0 Variation of Arabic dialects as problematic

Modern standard Arabic is more or less the same throughout the Arab world. For colloquial language, the situation is different, i.e. there are wide differences between the various colloquial Arabic languages of the Arabic communities.

Many Arabic dialects are unintelligible to other speakers of other Arabic dialects. The Algerian or Moroccan dialects, for example, are almost intelligible to Kuwaiti or Bahraini dialect speakers, and this might be as a result of the different colonial histories. The Egyptian colloquial dialect, on the other hand, is intelligible and universally known throughout most of the Arab world. This might be because of the enormous Egyptian movies and soap operas that are exported to all Arab countries, or it might be because of the large number of Egyptian teachers who worked in different countries after independence, especially in North Africa and the Gulf states. This, of course, led to a situation where most of the Arabs can understand the Egyptian dialects without any difficulty.

Freeman (1996:2) speculates that ‘lexical variation [between different Arab dialects] can be problematic’. In other words, a lot of lexis in one Arabic dialect gives different meaning in other Arabic dialects. Shabbkain Egyptian colloquial means ‘ring’, but in the Libyan dialect and Modern standard Arabic means ‘net’, arabiyya in the Egyptian dialect means ‘car’, and in Libyan and standard Arabic means ‘Arabian’ (feminine) and innowa in the Tunisian dialect means ‘rain’, but in the Libyan means ‘hot’. In Egypt and the Levant ‘ maashi means ‘all right’ but in Yemen and Morocco it means ‘no’ (Freeman, 1996:2).

In my own experience, not only lexical variation between colloquial Arabic can be problematic, the grammatical variation can be problematic, too. In the Tunisian dialect, for instance, the pronoun anti, female ‘you’is used for calling the male and vice versa. This is of course, completely different from the Standard Arabic rule and other Arabic dialects and this may cause problems during interaction with speakers of other Arabic dialects. In Libya, for example, if you call somebody (male) anti or vice versa, youmight be abused or badly treated unless the speaker is known as a Tunisian.

Diglossia in Libyan context

As mentioned in the introduction of this paper, due to lack of resources on the Libyan context in terms of diglossia, I will highlight two varieties of Arabic used in Libya, standard Arabic and colloquial Arabic.

Libya is one of the Arab countries where all but a small minority of the Libyan people are native Arabic speakers and thus they consider themselves to be Arabs. Furthermore, apart from Arabic language, there are two different languages used by minorities in Libya, which are not within the scope of this paper. They are the Amazikh and the Tamahaq languages. A minority called Berber who lives in northwest of Libya, and scattered along the western coast of Libya and a few desert oases, speaks the Amazikh. It is distantly related to Arabic, but unlike Arabic it has not developed a written form and as a consequence has no written literature. A minority called the Tuareg, on the other hand, speaks the Tamahaq and lives in the southwest of Libya, in particular, in the oasis towns of Ghat and Ghadamis. They claim close relationship with the much larger population in neighbouring Algeria and with other Tuareg elsewhere in the Sahara.

9.1 Varieties of Arabic

In Libya, classical Arabic is considered to be the language of the Qur’an and it is always used by Imams of mosques and as a means of learning and reciting the Koran. Many people learn Qur’ranic quotations without being able to speak the classical Arabic. Colloquial Libyan Arabic (CLA), on the other hand is very much used in Libya and like other Arab countries, it is the informal language of people.

According to Versteegh (2001), the CLA derives from the Bedouin dialects of North Africa. In the eleventh century, however, tribes of the Bedouin Hilal and Bani Salim, who came from the Peninsula, invaded first Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) and later Tripolitania (western Libyan), and were generally effective in imposing their Islamic faith and nomadic way of life.

Libya is largely Bedouin speaking, not only people who live in villages or the desert speak Bedouin dialects, but also the sedentary dialects of the urban centers such as Tripoli and Benghazi have been influenced by the Bedouin speech.

CLA, therefore, could be divided into two main colloquial languages; the eastern colloquial al- lahjja al shergawiyya which is spoken in the northeast of Libya and the western colloquial al- lahjja al gharbawiyyawhich is spoken in the northwestof Libya.

Although both colloquial languages are considered to be the informal language of almost all Libyan people, there is a considerable difference between them. Those differences could be represented in lexis and phonology. Lexically, there are a lot of words which are different in both dialects. In the eastern CLA, the word moshgaaedmeans ‘not available’, whereas, the western CLA speakers use the word gaaed ma jaashinstead. Eastern CLA speakers use wajed or yasser for ‘much’, but the western CLA speakers say helbba. Moreover, the eastern colloquial speakers say hamu for ‘hot, but the western speakers say innou.

In addition, CLA in both regions is also phonologically different. The western CLA speakers find it difficult to pronounce the consonant /θ/, instead they pronounce it as /t/, and pronounce /j / as /d/, whereas the eastern CLA speakers do not, i.e. they pronounce them as they are pronounced in the classical standard Arabic. For example, thalatha‘three’ and thahab ‘gold, they are pronounced talata and dahabinstead.

Nevertheless, there are some lexical terms in one of the two regions CLA that give different meanings in the other region CLA, and this might be problematic, too. For example, taawa means ‘frying pot’ in the eastern CLA, but means ‘special bucket used for washing hands before and after eating’ in the western CLA, and iyyali means ‘my children’ in the eastern colloquial, but ‘my wife’ in the western colloquial and so on.

9.2 The influence of Italian on Libyan Colloquial language

During the first half of the twentieth century, the Italians ruled Libya. Italian was the language of instruction in schools during that time, but only a scattering of Libyan children and adults have attended schools. As a consequence, formally, the Italian language did not take root in Libya to the extent that French, for example, did in the neighbouring countries of North Africa such as Algeria and Morocco. However, informally, the Libyan dialect preserves a lot of words that are borrowed from the Italian. Those words are usually used in daily casual interaction of Libyan people.

Table 1 shows some of the Italian lexical terms which are used in the Libyan CLA. The old generation who lived in the period of the Italian colonization, of course, knows that these terms are Italian. However, the young generation does not know that they are Italian in origin and use them as if they are CLA. Some of these terms do not even have an equivalent in CLA; in other words, they are new to the Libyan colloquial, for example, all vehicle parts, fernello ‘hot plate’, and marshabedi ‘pavement’.

Italian word

Colloquial Libyan Arabic







hot plate









cash box/safe




Table 1‘Italian words used in the Colloquial Libyan Arabic’

10.0 Conclusion

Having described the diglossic situation in Arabic, it seems clear that Arabic mainly has two different forms used in different domains, classical/modern standard and colloquial Arabic. However, colloquial Arabic is very much spread in various contexts within the Arab region, and Arabs are deemed to be native speakers of non- standard Arabic, whereas standard Arabic is formally and prestigiously used in some restricted domains like media and religion.

In addition, the Arabic region is a very big area with hundreds of different dialects, which I think have not yet been studied from the point of view of diglossia by researchers and scholars. Moreover, Arabic dialects sometimes are completely different and therefore difficult to understand, especially those, which are very far from each other. In other words, the more distance between them, the more different they are.

However, I think standard Arabic will remain forever, and will not be changed since it is the language of the Qur’an, which is used daily by Arab people in their daily prayers and religious sermons. Moreover, the five levels of language determined by Badawi in his study will continue to be considered a valid explanation of the language situation in Arabic, since it is, I think, the most proper study on the key issue so far.

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