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Media: Arabic, Vernaculars & Elites

Submitter: Michael Erard

Submitter Email:
Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable

Media Body: On Feb. 22, 2005, Joseph Braude published 'Language Barriers' in the New
Republic, about how the US should do its media outreach in Arabic
vernaculars, not the standardized Arabic of the elite.

He gets to the nut of the problem in this paragraph:

'The challenge of winning hearts and minds among populations with high
illiteracy rates is doubly complex in the case of the Arab world. Not only
are 70 million Arabs unable to read or write; a much larger number of the
region's 280 million people do not fully speak or understand the
standardized Arabic language (known as 'Fus'ha') that is used in broadcast
news as well as official discourse and the academy. Fus'ha was introduced
in schools across the region beginning about 90 years ago as a component of
pan-Arab nationalism. It is a formal construct, gleaned from classical
Arabic grammar and wholly consistent with Koranic syntax, designed to unite
the 20-odd Arab countries culturally and politically. But nine decades
later it unites, in effect, only the region's elites.'

But I bring this article to your attention not only because it's about
language, but because it's a good article about language. I'll have to
trust Braude on the facts, but this way of seeing current events through
the lens of language is one that's sorely needed, in large part because it
treats language diversity not as a problem to be solved but as an
opportunity -- an opportunity for US national interests, however you feel
about that, but notable for its choice not to assume that the entire world
speaks English.

Michael Erard

As a postscript to my earlier note, I might add that there was a good
exchange in the Letters section of The New Republic about Braude's Arabic
Issue Number: 16.633
Date Posted: March 03, 2005