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Arabic Language Variations—Why It Happened

Language variation is a fact that proves a certain language’s vitality. It occurs as its users distance themselves from the other for a regional, linguistic or social reason.

Moustafa Saleh
Moustafa Saleh
Book lesson

Language variation is a fact that proves a certain language’s vitality. It occurs as its users distance themselves from the other for a regional, linguistic or social reason. Over space and time, the Latin language became French in France, Spanish in Spain, English in England, and so on. It is rather simple to relate any variation existing in a language to the factors of time and distance. The regional variation mostly occurs in localized regions/groups, which produces dialect mixture. The linguistic variation is an identifiable item that has alternate realizations. A speaker of a certain language realizes that he/she can say one thing in a certain situation and still say the same thing but in a different way in another situation. Social variation is the most prominent one. Differences in social class, educational background, gender, age, or ethnicity create strata among the speakers of the same community upon their variation of language use. Variation in a language might take any of some different forms. It may be in syntax, semantics, phonology... etc. In this paper, I am going to cover different aspects and examples of language variation in order to contemplate this subject.

JONATHAN A.C. BROWN has introduced a study, “NEW DATA ON THE DELATERALIZATION OF Dad AND ITS MERGER WITH Za IN CLASSICAL ARABIC: CONTRIBUTIONS FROM OLD SOUTH ARABIC AND THE EARLIEST ISLAMIC TEXTS ON D / Z MINIMAL PAIRS” (P.335). This study has presented data from the pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabic speech communities about the historical root of the phonological variation of Dad and Za. This study exhibits thirteen Dad / Za minimal pairs from the tenth-century CE. These examples existed in the past literature and some of which are still in use to date:

  1. /BAYΔ/: egg → [bay∂ / bayÂ]: mid 900s CE terminus ante quem.
  2. /ΔAFR/: a broad-based and tall sand dune → [∂afr /Âafr]: early 900s CE terminus ante quem.
  3. /Å – H – R/: outer, manifest → [Â – h – r] / [∂ahr]: late 700s CE terminus ante quem.
  4. /Δ – R – R/: harmful, dangerous → [∂ – r – r] / [Â – r – r]: early 800s CE terminus ante quem.
  5. /F – Y – Δ/: to flood out, pour out → [faÂ]: early 700s CE terminus ante quem.
  6. / ¨ – Δ – Δ/: to bite → [∞¨ –  – Â]: late 700s CE terminus ante quem.
  7. /[Q – R –Δ/: poetry recitation → [q – rr – Â]: late 700s CE terminus ante quem.
  8. /∞∞¨ – Å – M/: bone, greatness → [∞∞¨i∂am]: late 700s CE terminus ante quem.
  9. /M – Δ – Δ/: to cause pain, to whip → [maÂÂ / miÂaÂ]: early 900s CE terminus ante quem.
  10. /NAΔΔ – NAÅÅ/: to insist on, to strum the strings of a musical instrument: early 900s CE terminus ante quem.
  11. /F – Å– ¨ /: to be great, terrible, dreadful, abominable or foul → [f – ∂ – ¨ ] late 700s CE terminus ante quem.
  12. /Å – L – F/: difficult, rocky terrain → [uÂlufa / u∂lufa, Âalif / ∂alif∞∞]: early 900s CE terminus ante quem.
  13. /KHAÅRIF/: an old and infirm woman → [khaÂrif / kha∂rif∞∞]: early 900s CE terminus ante quem.

Old Arab scientists considered this process as a replacement or Ibdal, which as a widely known phenomenon in the Arabic language since the Caliph Omar Ibn El Khattab. The Arabs had no problem accepting this phenomenon because it is a direct result of having many roots among themselves and basically this is their true identity, not just one kind but different sorts of Arab. This is why they are called Arabs in the first place. The Arabs have found this phenomenon handy in their telling their famous poetry through “El Iqrad,” which is about changing the wording of the poetry in order to serve the poetry’s meaning or rhythm. And finally, in an attempt to explain why this phenomenon of variation had occurred, some scientists argue that it is easier, given the places of articulation, to produce the D sound rather than the Z, i.e., “fa’d” is easier to say than “fa’z.”

ALMOG KASHER has argued in another study that the term “ISM” should be a hyponym of itself, not related to the other meanings related to its grammatical attributes (P.459). This argument in itself is a strong case of semantic language variation where a basic term of grammar, “ISM,” the noun, serves more than one distinct meaning. The speech term “ism” contains the main meaning and some secondary ones. The main meaning is the one indicating the noun and its relevant functions. The secondary meanings are the ones including the peripheral subclasses, such as Al-Sifa, El masdar, etc.

Nikolas Coupland, a leading sociolinguist, lays out a new dimension to language variation. Since he is correlating variation and identity, he looks at variation as a social meaning to its speakers, not a description of what they do. Coupland wants to endorse the idea of a variation as a primary given (P.145).

William T. Littlewood has a different perspective on language variation. He studied it along with the second language acquisition. In his study, he examined language variation among L1 and L2 learners (P.153). For L1 learners, variation in their language use is all about their sociolinguistics awareness. It reflects the specific community he would like to belong to or is actually from. This community might carry some sort of prestige, ethnic or educational background. As for L2 learners, variation might come from social reasons for L1 learners or from pedagogic reasons. The rules of grammar and phonology an L2 learner would acquire in classrooms have a great effect on the way they talk in communities outside the classroom later on. Another sort of deviation might arise from the L2 learners when they mistakenly apply their classroom norms.

In a thorough discussion of language variation, one can find its existence in every aspect of the language. It is an aging concept of live languages, as Brown and Kasher showed us. But the most important aspect of language variation is the social effect which does not only lead to the variation or definition but, in fact, characterizes the people of the same society one from the other just by this identity. In fact, language variation is a true identity of the social class. And the interesting part is that the small variation leads to a change in a dialect and, later on, languages. So, if one can follow up on this variation in a given society, one can even roughly tell where the language goes in a certain period of time. The Littlewood study confirms the social effect and also enlightens the second language learners who come up with changes to the target language. Remembering the historical fact of what the newcomers to Islam have added to the Arabic language, teachers need to ponder about what they offer to their students and what pedagogic norms we like students to acquire and retain.

Finally, the awareness of language variation reflects how close the social effects are to the language. This might lead to further research opportunities.

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Moustafa Saleh

I have many years of experience teaching in centers, university and online. I create tailored courses as see fit, requested. I don't mind which level we are talking about as I can cover any of them.

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