Arabic Explosion

The next great quantum leap in translation will most surely take place in the Arabic-speaking world. Throughout history religious upheaval, military conquest and foreign domination have often had immense implications on the linguistic point world.

When the nations of Europe began to feel the need to express themselves, it was only when the Christian religion caved in and allowed the use of the vernacular that these national identities (together with their languages) really took off allowing for a veritable blossoming of literature written in the vernacular as well as a new flourishing of translation.

The liberalisation of religious shackles in Judaism had an analogous effect on Ashkenazi Jewry allowing for the flowering of Yiddish, in much the same way that Luther and the Reformation affected the languages of Christendom.

Similarly, the future of translation in North Africa and the Near East and many other countries (that use Arabic) may be dependent on a similar liberalising movement. It is difficult envisaging such a movement in Islam due to the important position Arabic holds in the religion of Muḥammad, but should such a change occur, the repurcussions will be huge.

If and when the nations under Islam get the urge to begin translating the Qur’ān into their own varieties of Arabic (be they dialects or languages) we will most certainly see a linguistic explosion the like of which we have not seen for a long time.

There are over twenty known, widely spoken varieties of Arabic including Maghrebi, Egyptian, Sudanese, Iraqi, Hijazi, Chadian, Nigerian and Judeo-Arabic to name just a few. The question really is not if but more when, how and where the language explosion will take place. The effects of this Arabic linguistic renaissance will most certainly rock the world.‎‎


12 thoughts on “Arabic Explosion

  1. If and when the nations under Islam get the urge to begin translating the Qur’ān into their own varieties of Arabic (be they dialects or languages) we will most certainly see a linguistic explosion the like of which we have not seen for a long time.

    This is a big “if and when.”

    When Arabs conquered Syria around 650 AD, we know they began to translate many of the Greek texts there into Arabic. Will texts (especially sacred texts) be much translated by Muslims from Arabic?

  2. History loves to repeat itself and it is likely that an evolution of Islam will cause believers to want to read the Qur’ān in their own dialect/variety. Let us remember that ‘Arabic’ or rather classical Arabic functions as a religious lingua franca but is in fact spoken by very few people on a daily basis (if at all). The question is when will these varieties be empowered?

  3. The problem is that the Koran is intrinsically linked with Classical Arabic; it is deemed to be the word of God, and replacing it with any other language is deemed sacrilegious. (Check out the front pages of translations of the Koran; they specifically refer to it as ‘a version’ or ‘a rendition’ or a translation of the Koran, _not_ the thing itself. You’ll never see a vernacular edition of the Bible called that, will you? Reminds me of the US senator who’s alleged to have said, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!”)

    I suspect that any such revolution in Moslem literature will arise from the non-Arabic peripheries of the faith – consider that the most populous Moslem countries are Indonesia, Malaysia (whose near-identical Bahasa Melayu/Indonesia language is a) simple to learn and b) regionally important as a wider lingua franca – ask the Moslem Thais and Mindanao Filipinos), India & Pakistan (ditto Hindi/Urdu), and Nigeria – which apart from the major local languages, of course, is mainly culturally unified by… English. How wd that be for an idea? The language (ultimately) of Shakespeare, Dickens and Ronald Reagan becoming the Word of the Prophet. 😀

    On the same lines, as European Christianity either fissures into Protestant sub-sects or disappears altogether (what price Polish Catholicism after 100 years of freedom & open borders?), and the Third World’s Christian populations gain in importance, what about Spanish and Portuguese (and African varieties of French) becoming the next link in the relay race from Hebrew and Greek, through Latin, old Slavonic, German and English? Que le bon Dieu vous bendice. 😉

  4. There was a time when the Latinate version of the Christian Bible was considered the only true Bible until the vernaculars of Europe made a stir. If any translations are to become official it will of course be in countries like Malaysia and Nigeria which are culturally distinct from the middle East.

  5. “If and when the nations under Islam get the urge to begin translating the Qur’ān into their own varieties of Arabic (be they dialects or languages) we will most certainly see a linguistic explosion the like of which we have not seen for a long time.”

    I can assure you that this will never happen, not because it’s deemed “sacrilegious”, but simply because it’s in Arabic which is comprehensible to all arab and islamic countries. it is true that very few people use the “classical” arabic as a means of daily communication but don’t forget that it is the language of education, newspapers, press, official communication. having dialects in arabic is as simple as having english dialects or versions..(welsh..scottish..or indian Eng..French Eng..)
    so having the Quran in different dialects will be just a funny idea!!

  6. Yes, I too find it hard to believe that the transmogrification of the Koran into different dialects will ever happen. However, the concept of ‘dialect’ itself is controversial as some of these dialects are not even mutually intelligible. What is more, people said the same thing about Latin and now we have French, Italian, Spanish, etc. etc.

  7. in other words…Dialects are no more than the spoken form of arabic which is “informal”…classical arabic is the written form..which is “formal”

  8. Not altogether. Dialects are defined as language use by a specific group of people. We might even go so far as to say that this is a form of diglossia where two different varieties are used depending on their function. The issue, however, probably boils down to a discussion of whether the different varieties of Arabic are dialects or languages, rather than the more neutral ‘variety’.

  9. IIRC the current theory in Arabic studies is that diglossia has always existed for Arabic. That is two versions simultaneously were spread, the formal (fusha) and a very, different colloquial spoken version from which the modern colloquials arose (the biggest evidence for this is circumstantial and based on features that all the colloquials share with each other but not fusha).

    I think this might also tie in with another theory I’ve come across (but can’t cite very well) that real hardcore fusha has never been spoken as such but was sort of a conlang.

    Back to translation, I would assume that Quranic translation will develop in non-Arabic speaking contexts. It’s all well and good to tell Turkish or Indonesian speakers that the version of the Quaran they can understand isn’t real but the version that will be psychologically real to them is the version in their own language.

    As for colloquial Arabic translations. I’d assume that would start more with translations of popular literature.
    I mean, how interesting can Harry Potter or the latest anime be in fusha? I bet Egyptian or Algerian kids would get much more into localized versions. And once people develop a taste for public language that they can easily use and understand, then all bets are off.

  10. Fascinating comments, Michael. The translation of lay texts into the localised versions may well take place first of all, but how long before more ‘ambitious’ and important are translated?

  11. I don’t know. If my plan was to try to create a market for ‘dialect’ Arabic translations (which it isn’t). Then I do know three things that I’d do.

    1. Focus on stuff for kids. Write off the adults, they’re too set in their ways. Prepare materials for about the first five years before publishing much and then try to keep up as a generation used to reading things in the language they speak grows up.

    2. Focus on getting them to write in the local language. A big factor in emerging literacy is the presence of authors. You get a half dozen people writing books in a language and they’ll make the effort to get people to read them. In terms of kids, lots and lots of writing contests with attractive prizes.

    3. Focus on modern things. Too often emerging literacy gets bogged down in folklore and recording traditions the young may not be interested in. Those are important but the primary focus should be in creating a medium for learning what they want about the world and not just things they already know (or don’t want to know)

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