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Social Media and Language Democratization in Egypt

The following is a Guest Post from my good friend and a great scholar, Janine Jones, a doctoral student in modern Middle East intellectual history at The University of Texas at Austin. It stems from conversations we have had sharing the interests that cross our disciplines—language, literacies, equity, education.

Among linguists, Arabic is commonly classified as a diglossic language*. In other words, written Arabic, the language of novels and newspapers, is distinct from the dialects spoken on the streets. The formalized, proper Arabic that constitutes the official language of print throughout the Arabic-speaking world is only spoken aloud in certain contexts: by news anchors like the hosts of Al Jazeera; by politicians giving formal speeches; by lecturers in university; and in other formal contexts.

This formal Arabic, called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or fuṣḥā, is rooted in the grammar and vocabulary of the Qur’an, and, like many written languages, is standardized through orthographic and grammatical conventions. MSA is taught in schools and requires a certain amount of training since it is spoken so little and differs so much from the language of everyday conversation. In fact, MSA is so distinct from Arabic dialects that some researchers have even suggested Arabic speakers process it in the brain as a second language.

To put this into perspective, a rough analogy would be if American English speakers only read books and heard the news in a Chaucerian-style Middle English, while still speaking current American English in our homes and day-to-day interactions. Imagine this as your nightly news:

Arabic dialects—of which Egyptian Arabic or Masry is the most widely spoken–are quite different from MSA as languages. They are fluid and changing, and have lacked orthographic, lexical, and grammatical standardization because they are quite literally never written down. That is, with the exception of a handful of avant-garde novels published at the end of the twentieth century, they have not been written down with any degree of consistency until now with the rise of social media platforms.

As Facebook, text messages, IMing and blogs have proliferated throughout the Arabic-speaking world, colloquial Arabic has begun a rapid transition to a written language. In 2008, a new Wikipedia was launched in Masry. The 2011 Egyptian uprisings, called in some corners the “Facebook Revolution” were facilitated through the use of social media and written and organized in Egyptian Arabic, as much as in MSA.

screen shot of Wikipedia in Masry

And, as more and more people gain access to the Internet, social media platforms are shifting communication across political and social barriers. Many Palestinian families, who have been unable to visit ancestral homes or see relatives because of the political imbroglio with Israel, are finally able to communicate regularly. Unmarried young men and women who previously would not be able to communicate outside of properly chaperoned outings are chatting online, leading to new questions about the parameters and extent of religious and cultural sanction for various uses of social media.

These types of political and social democratization receive a lot of press. Rarely, though, do we have such stark, clear examples of social media as democratizing mechanism at the level of language. And it is the language democratization that is further collapsing class-based barriers to communication that come part and parcel with diglossic languages*.

Janine is happy to entertain your questions or comments below. And as always, I’d love to have you join us in this conversation.

 
* Diglossic languages like Arabic are typically maintained through social hierarchies; usually there’s a “high” language (in this case MSA) that is culturally prestigious, and a “low” language of the common people. In Arabic, MSA is held in high esteem specifically because it is held to be modeled on Qur’anic grammar, though it is worth noting here that MSA is grammatically simpler than the language of the Qur’an, called Classical Arabic. Since Muslims believe that the Qur’an contains the literal words of God—that He actually spoke the Arabic language—there are many cultural and religious reasons to wish to keep the language static. But, of course, as any linguist would tell you, languages do change by nature. Still, there is nothing like L’Académie française or the Real Academía Española for Arabic. It’s the limited, educated, and upper crust nature of MSA, and its relationship to religious textual tradition, that keeps its progression relatively stagnant.
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5 thoughts on “Social Media and Language Democratization in Egypt”

    1. Yes, fascinating to consider the linguistic history here. The establishment of Masri in such a collective, public way sounds like the next chapter to the findings of your study 10 years ago (at which time English was found as the primary language in Internet usage, and a Romanized version of Egyptian Arabic in one-on-one digital exchanges). I wonder about the usage of Masri through the differing venues now. Do you know or know who is studying that, Janine?

  1. Good questions. The Arabic alphabet is now used in social media far more than it was ten years ago. Wikipedia Masry includes the option of writing in Romanized script, but a significant majority of the articles are written in Arabic script. Facebook pages like “We are all Khaled Said” are available in both Arabic and English, and the Arabic page is written in Arabic script. (It’s a great example of code-switching, if you’re interested; commenters will often post in MSA or Masry or some combination of both.)

    A scholar at Oxford, Ivan Panovic, is doing work on this. I recommend his 2010 article “The Beginnings of Wikipedia Masry” Al-Logha 8: 94-124.

    His doctoral thesis is an ethnography of writing practices in contemporary Egypt, and should be coming out in monograph form soon.

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