Diglossia and literacy: Arabic as example

In its most simple articulation, diglossia refers to using two languages for everyday matters. (For foundational studies on diglossia, see Ferguson 1959 and Fishman 1967.) It occurs in a language community whose core members speak two languages (or language varieties) to one another.

The reasons for diglossia vary. In India, for example, many people use both Hindi and English as the result of a prolonged domination by the British. But in the Arab world, speakers use two varieties of Arabic, that serve as assertions of authority and familiarity.

This article will focus on the latter situation where speakers use two forms of the same language. But it will first address concepts such as “Low varieties” (L-varieties) and “High varieties” (H-varieties) and the related topic of overt prestige vs. covert prestige. We will then discuss the implications for literary culture, especially as it pertains to education, literacy, and access to information.

In closing, we will illustrate with examples taken from the children’s book series, Harry Potter, which is written in the High variety of Arabic despite children’s low proficiency in that variety.

Low variety vs High variety

Low variety or L-variety: a language or language variety used in informal settings. It’s likely to be acquired at home and enjoy some level of covert prestige (see below).

High variety or H-variety: a language or language variety used in formal settings. It’s likely to be acquired through education than in the home and enjoys some level of overt prestige.

Switching between the L-variety and the H-variety does not depend solely on whom you’re talking to. There may be people you speak to exclusively in the H-variety, but it’s rare that you’d speak to anyone solely in the L-variety. In many cases, switching between varieties can happen in the same conversation depending on domain (i.e., topic) you’re discussing. An Arabic speaker, for instance, might use the L-variety with a friend when talking about their families, but then switch to the H-variety a few minutes later when discussing politics or business with that same friend.

Overt prestige vs. covert prestige

(For foundational studies on overt prestige and covert prestige, see Labov 1966 and Trudgill 1972.)

Overt prestige: positive attitude toward the use of language in ways that conform to standard norms.

Overt prestige tends to be associated with education, class, or high status. In diglossic situations, the H-variety usually has overt prestige within the language community.

Covert prestige: positive attitude toward the use of language in ways that are associated with certain values, status, or relationships, against the more widely accepted social norms.

This is perhaps most evident in the use of slang, especially by speakers who are proficient in the standard language. The preference for slang in such cases reflects, in part, the attitude that the use of standard language is haughty or pretentious in that particular sitaution.

Overt prestige and covert prestige in Arabic diglossia

Now we’ll continue with an example of how the distinction between overt prestige and covert prestige can guide the choice of speakers in diglossic communities.

I once observed a well-educated Arabic speaker use a wide range of H-variety Arabic and L-variety Arabic within a short span of time. At work—a prestigious job—he used the H-variety. It signaled authority, education, and the ability to “level” with all segments of society, including the upper class: overt prestige. The word aqūl, “I say,” was pronounced with the q as a uvular stop.

At home he spoke the L-variety, an urban dialect that came very naturally and reflected the speech his parents used when he grew up. The q in the word aqūl was pronounced just like “k” instead of the distinct uvular stop, making it homophonous with akūl, “I eat.” But with his close friends (whom he worked with) he spoke an even Lower variety, a rural dialect that was considered very harsh and unsophisticated. The word akūl (“I eat”) was pronounce achūl, with the k pronounced as “ch” in English—distinguishing it from aqūl (“I say”) pronounced as akūl.

Pronunciation of “I say”Pronunciation of “I eat”
H-variety (formal)aqūlakūl
L-variety (familiar)akūlakūl
L-variety (vulgar)akūlachūl
Distinction of “I say” v. “I eat” in the H- and L-varieties of an Arabic speaker. Note that this data has been simplified to benefit the reader’s comprehension.

Even his family would have found this L-variety vulgar and inappropriate. But he and his friends used it with each other because it signaled openness and comfort. Among his friends, this vulgar L-variety had covert prestige.

Education and literacy in diglossic communities

It’s often the case in diglossic communities that the H-variety serves as the language of instruction in schools. It becomes the most accessible language for reading and the source of information, even though children might not have as much proficiency as they would with the L-variety.

On the one hand, education in the H-variety has many benefits. Generally speaking, the H-variety tends to be more widely known outside of the language community. Common H-varieties like English, French, or Standard Arabic are each spoken in dozens of countries, for example. The H-variety also tends to have a greater amount of literature, educational material, and legal and business applications. So education in the H-variety often provides students with better opportunity and potential for growth.

Attempts to promote education in Arabic L-varieties have historically been met with backlash for this reason. Such attempts were perceived as cutting off children from the rest of the Arab world and centuries’ worth of literature.

On the other hand, education in the L-variety makes knowledge more readily accessible. Because students have greater proficiency in the language they speak at home, the information is easier to understand in the L-variety than if it were presented in the H-variety.

Indeed, despite the great body of literature available in the H-variety of Arabic, few Arabs ever read books outside of school precisely because it’s not an enjoyable experience for them. The decline in Arab readership—especially out of preference for English and French among much of the educated—has led to concerns that Standard Arabic may actually die out in just a few generations. So there’s growing debate today about whether it’s even worth it to educate children in the H-variety of Arabic.

Examples from Arabic: Harry Potter

Let’s illustrate how things play out in Arabic’s diglossia, using examples from children’s literature translated from English.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a good example in part because, if you’re reading this article, then you probably already know the story of Harry Potter. It’s also useful because it’s written in an informal style in English but translated into a somewhat erudite variety of Arabic.

Below, I’ll provide the passage in the English original, then in the Arabic translation, and then I’ll render the Arabic into English in a way intended to highlight the difference from the English original. We’ll see that a lot of the playfulness and colloquialism of the original has been lost in translation, making it a bit more boring in Arabic.

English (original)“Oh, are you a prefect, Percy?” said one of the twins, with an air of great surprise. You should have said something, we had no idea.”
Arabic قال أحد التوءمين وكأنه فوجئ: آه، هل أنت من رواد الفصول يا (بيرسي)؟! كان يجب أن تقول لنا. ليست لدينا أي فكرة
English rendering of the ArabicOne of the twins said, as if he were surprised: “Oh, are you among the class mentors, Percy? Would that you had told us. We had not had the slightest of ideas.”

This passage mocking Percy reminds me a bit of when I read Shakespeare as a kid. There were a lot of cutting insults, but they didn’t really register with me: they were just too wordy and too formal and my attention was set on figuring out the meaning of the words.

English (original)“He’s just made that rule up,” Harry muttered angrily as Snape limped away. “Wonder what’s wrong with his leg?”
“Dunno, but I hope it’s really hurting him,” said Ron bitterly.
Arabic تمتم (هاري) بغضب بينما (سنايب) يبتعد وهو يعرج: “لقد اخترع هذه القاعدة الآن.. ترى، ماذا حدث لقدمه؟
قال (رون) بمرارة: “لا أعرف.. وإن كنت أتمنى أن تؤلمه حتى الموت
English rendering of the ArabicHarry muttered with anger while Snape went away, limping: “He indeed has contrived this rule just now.. Oh wonder, what has come upon his foot?”
Ron said with bitterness: “I do not know.. I hope that it be hurting him to death.”

Hopefully the English rendering here gives you an idea of how silly the dialogue in Harry Potter would sound if children actually spoke this way.

English (original)“Never,” said Hagrid irritably, “try an’ get a straight answer out of a centaur. Ruddy stargazers. Not interested in anythin’ closer’n the moon.”
Arabicعلق (هاجريد) غاضباً: “لا يمكن أن تحصل على إجابة صريحة من هذه المخلوقات.. إنها لا تفكر إلا في القمر وما حوله
English rendering of the ArabicHagrid commented angrily, “It is not possible to obtain an honest answer from these creatures. For they ponder not except on the moon and what surrounds it.”

Lastly, in this example, Hagrid has lost all traces of a dialect. In fact, he speaks somewhat poetically!

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