Lebanese on the Air

These days it’s hard to find a radio station in Jordan that does not present its programmes in colloquial Arabic. But it was not always so. The liberalization of the broadcasting field only dates back to the early 2000s, when new audiovisual laws allowed radio stations to be established in Jordan outside the purview of the state broadcasting corporation – which had vastly preferred MSA and only allowed colloquial Arabic in a few cordoned-off programmes.

The linguistic situation, nowadays, seems relatively stable: most broadcasters use a speech style based on the colloquial Arabic of Amman, a kind of ‘soft standard’ with distinct features that mark it out as distinctly ‘Jordanian’ within the broader context of Arabic dialects in the Levantine region. Still, Ammani is not the only accent one can hear when flipping through Jordan’s radio channels. Regional stations and programmes dedicated to local genre traditions – such as broadcasts of Bedouin poetry – both exhibit dialectal variety, as do stations directed at Jordan’s immigrant communities (such as the Iraqi radio station al-Rasheed). As far as channels aiming for a broader audience are concerned, though, the dialect one is most likely to come across is Lebanese.

Lebanese colloquial in Jordan is represented, these days, most prominently by the radio station Sawt al-Ghad (“The Voice of Tomorrow”) – and, in particular, its morning show host, Jessy Abu Faisal. In what follows, I’ll examine Abu Faisal’s programme in more detail, and look at what speaking – and indeed being – Lebanese on Jordan’s airwaves today might mean.

Jessy Live

There are very few female radio hosts working in Jordan’s prime time morning slot. This alone makes Jessy a bit exceptional, along with her linguistic distinctiveness. Her programme, called Jessy Live, ticks off most of the morning show genre boxes – speaking over music, reading messages sent in by listeners, commenting on recent events – though she also offers some sections (such as horoscopes and a few minutes set aside for “meditation”) that might not fit too well in the decidedly masculine frame of self-presentation of other hosts. There is also a short section set aside for “sports” – for which, as usual in Jordan, read “football”; presented, notably, not by Jessy herself, but rather  by a male journalist through a phone call.

(Jessy Abu Faisal, talking to a young guest in her studio – a girl suffering from bleeding in her left eyelid – before she comes on air during her programme. Note especially the ‘framing’ of the clip with canned recorded phrases in English)

The call-ins, too, have a decidedly ‘lighter’ feel. Many involve (mostly male) listeners with music requests; others might be on topics that Abu Faisal happens to be discussing. There are no heavy problem-solving ‘dramas’ here, though; no requests for mediating with authorities. There might be limits, then, to the kinds of roles allowed to this particular female host within the boundaries of her broadcast genre.

A Lebanese Host

Abu Faisal’s radio career began in her home country, as a presenter on Mirage, a radio station that belonged – as she states in one interview – to “a friend of her father’s” (and defunct since 1997). She has stated that she faced “difficulties” at the beginning of her career in Jordan – going on a decade, now – but also that she and her listeners had “adapted quickly” to each other.

What’s interesting here is that, despite her lack of familiarity with Jordanian dialect, there was never any question that Abu Faisal would be presenting her programme in anything other than colloquial Arabic. Here, at least, speaking “the people’s language” – rather than a stilted, formal Arabic style – was far more crucial than the details of what this language actually was. It is much easier, in other words, for the presumed gap between presenter and audience to be bridged by ‘training one’s ear’ each to the other’s dialect – rather than adopting a presumably shared standard. (It helps, of course, that many Jordanians are familiar with Lebanese speech; in terms of their presence in (pan-)Arab media, Lebanese speech styles are second only to Egyptian – and all the more so in the Levant, where Lebanon is the country likely boasting the greatest media diversity.)

Abu Faisal’s accent includes all the features one would expect from a Lebanese radio host. Among the traits distinctive of Lebanese, there is vowel-raising – from a to e, in particular, so nees rather than naas “people” – as well as the use of -kun and -(h)un as 2nd- and 3rd-person plural pronouns (“you” and “them”), respectively (the Ammani / Jordanian standard has -kum (sometimes -ku) and -(h)um here).

There’s also the way certain words are pronounced, especially those with q – a phoneme pronounced unambiguously as a uvular stop in Classical / Standard Arabic but a favored phonetic shibboleth for contemporary Arabic dialects (and academic studies of them). There is a kind of “formality bar” in conversational Arabic as to which words retain the Classical pronunciation of this phoneme, and which use a colloquial version (something which Hassan Abd el-Jawad has termed lexical conditioning). In normative Ammani, the colloquial variant is split by gender: men use g instead of q, while women use the glottal stop. By contrast, in Lebanon – as in Syria, and the more prestigious Palestinian dialects – it’s the glottal stop throughout.

Since Abu Faisal is female, this might not make much of a difference – but in fact, along with the lack of gender split, other Levantine dialects also tend to set the “formality bar” much higher than Ammani / Jordanian does. That is, words that in Jordan would still be pronounced in the ‘formal’ manner use the ‘colloquial’ version in Lebanese. So one hears Abu Faisal say Taa’a for “energy” and Ta’s for “weather” – both of which are much more likely to be pronounced Taaqa and Taqs, respectively, retaining the formal q, if the dialect being aimed for is ‘Jordanian.’


(“Jessy Abu Faisal.” Source: Sawt el-Ghad Jordan’s Twitter page – LINK)

Marks of Abu Faisal’s Lebanese identity are also evident in the content of her programme. She might affirm her origin by playing a song describing her home country – commenting, to her listeners, that this is “so you hear something about Lebanon.” Listeners also take it up themselves: by sending in messages, for example, saying “good morning” to “Jessy,” and an added greeting to كل الوطن العربي : “the entire Arab homeland”, or “all Arabs / Arab lands” – with the implication that any common ground between the presenter and the Jordanians who listen to her can only be one that goes beyond national borders. Clearly, both host and audience are well aware of her Lebanese-ness – in language and beyond.

Speaking Spontaneously

There are many meanings one could draw from Abu Faisal’s on-air performances. The classic stereotype, in Jordan, is that Lebanese speech styles – and, indeed, Lebanese identity itself – have feminine or feminized associations. In this context, it’s perhaps not strange that the most prominent Lebanese voice on Jordanian radio is also female. As we’ve seen, this has implications for the morning show built around “Jessy” as a presenter-character: allowing certain topics and styles of interaction (horoscopes), while foreclosing others (sports, bureaucratic mediation). Ideas about gender implied by the genre might, then, be just as conservative as its formal limitations – reflected in aspects such as music choices, and interactional style, as I’ve argued on this blog previously.

There’s another dimension to all this, though, that may be just as important. Pretty much all radio professionals I’ve spoken to during my time in Jordan have emphasized the value of spontaneity among radio presenters. Using colloquial Arabic on air is valued as long as the language you use is your ‘natural’ way of speaking: not formal, not stilted, not sourced from previously prepared ornamented texts, but rather focused on the interaction itself, addressing listeners and interlocutors like one would (presumably) normally do in a conversation.

Especially deserving of criticism, here, are those who betray this spontaneity by adopting a style of speech that is not their ‘native’ one: in particular, Jordanian presenters that – and this was always presented to me as a thing of the past, an obsession that Jordan’s airwaves have by now been purified from – tried to adopt Lebanese colloquial features in order to emulate Lebanese media personalities, and by association appear more ‘hip’ or ‘modern.’ Lebanese, in the mouths of Jordanian presenters, feels “fake”; worse, even, than formal Arabic, since it cheats its addressees by pretending to be spontaneous even though it really isn’t. (Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the fact that, for a Jordanian presenter not brought up in Amman, adopting a normative ‘Jordanian’ – i.e., Ammani – accent might be just as “fake” as trying to speak Lebanese.)

Jessy, on the other hand, can at least be presumed to be “spontaneous” in speaking Lebanese. After all, it is “her” colloquial, the dialect she – as a woman with Lebanese origins – is supposed to claim and revel in as her own. (Leaving aside, as well, the fact that “Lebanese” here is of course also only a label given to a very particular speech style prestigious in Lebanon, rather than something that all Lebanese would speak normally.) Still, we can wonder whether the association of “Lebanese” with “fakery” might not be strong enough to overcome this particular biographic detail.

We’re firmly in the realm of meanings and ideas here; “metapragmatics,” following Michael Silverstein, ideas about language use that take on a life all of their own quite apart from the actual linguistic reality (though they may then come back to exert influence on this reality merely by virtue of their force as ideas). It would make sense, though, considering the complex of values revolving around distinct kinds of colloquial Arabic in Jordan, and the particular situations in which Lebanese and its speakers tend to occur. It may well be difficult to claim your dialect is ‘spontaneous’ or ‘authentic’ when the context where it’s heard most often is that of flamboyant media stars and foreign television dramas.

Lebanese on the Air

2 thoughts on “Lebanese on the Air

  1. Fascinating!

    Regarding the musings at the end, I wonder whether some sort of ‘licensing’ may be relevant here? What I mean is that often there are behaviours that are simultaneously liked in some respect but also disliked for a particular reason, and these behaviours may be disliked so much that they are effectively prohibited – everybody is totally against them. Except when they aren’t. Sometimes you find these behaviours and they’re not just permitted, they’re really popular. And this seems counterintuitive – how can it be so disliked in this setting and liked in another, with no intermediary values? What happens – I think – is that because there are both positive and negative views of the thing, if you can somehow sidestep the negative views, you’re not left with neutrality, you’re left with positivity.
    Which was a terrible way of explaining it, but let’s go to your example.
    Let’s say people in Jordan actually positively like Lebanese speech styles. But then let’s say that they strongly dislike fake accents. Thus, in total they prohibit fake Lebanese accents. If somebody can produce Lebanese speech WITHOUT seeming fake, that objection is bypassed — their ‘unique’ circumstances license them to sound Lebanese, and license the audience to express their existing pleasure at this speech without having to condemn it for fakery.
    Likewise with femininity. The objection “this guy sounds feminised and that’s weird” may prohibit people from liking that way of speech – but if the ‘guy’ is a woman anyway, suddenly that’s not an objection anymore and the audience is licensed to approve.

    I think similar things happen in English in the UK, actually. Our attitudes toward RP accents are very mixed. Generally, we hate them – people with traditional RP accents are often automatically denigrated as pretentious toffs (unless they can play the role of ‘lovable buffoon’, the only form of aristocracy we still allow). But when people hear a foreigner speaking RP, they gush over how beautiful their accent is, how they speak ‘proper English’ not like the lazy English people we have today, how respectful they are and how well-educated (‘if only our schools produced people who spoke like that!’). I think this is because we do love the RP accent… but aren’t able to show it because that gets us into awkward class territory. If somebody comes from outside the class system, they are licensed to speak RP, and we are licensed to approve of them without having to approve of the class system in the process. To a lesser extent the same happens with old people, who, as it were, don’t know any better – we let them speak RP, and often we say we like it, because that’s just the way they are and they can’t help it, whereas we expect younger people to conform to the new standards.

    Of course, it’s not just speech styles. Just look at how people react to shows like Mad Men or Downton Abby, how they adore things from former eras that would be utterly unacceptable socially today. But there is some part of ‘us’ that likes, say, the flamboyant understatement of the british upper classes, or rampantly sexist degrading jokes… and by framing this material within an overtly historical context, making it ‘safe’, divorcing it from contemporary context, we are licensed to admit our enjoyment.


    Anyway, your thoughts on different speech styles are fascinating. I wonder whether the seemingly surprising preference for inter-dialect (inter-language?) communication rather than a standard is a temporary thing from the rejection of an existing standard (will a new koine develop?) or whether it’s a feature of the new, modern world (perhaps because exposure to people outside your small locality is much easier and so it is harder to develop a ‘universal’ koine).

    I’m also tantalised by the potential comparison with romance languages. To the best of my knowledge, this sort of phenomenon doesn’t really happen in the romance languages, at least across borders – a Catalan speaking in Catalan to a French audience, for instance, expecting the French to tune their ear in. I wonder whether it might sometimes happen in Italy, though, where the ‘dialects’ are stronger. But if this doesn’t happen, is it just due to nationalism? Centralised standards have been powerfully imposed in these countries – they say that in 1850 you could walk from paris to lisbon and never notice the dialects around you change definitively, but of course that is no longer true these days. Or is the earlier decline of Latin an issue? I wonder whether, even where MSA is not regularly used, passive knowledge of MSA might still act as, as it were, a codebook to help interpret other arabic dialects? (the way that people sometimes say that learning Latin helps with understanding all romance languages). It’s been a long time since ordinary Europeans have had even a passive understanding of Latin.


    1. jonafras says:

      Hey! Thanks for this! Yes – your comments on licensing make perfect sense. I think it’s not very likely that a male (of whatever origin) speaking Lebanese would appear on Jordanian radio, and be in any way popular. Condemning fakery, for one, but on the other hand what I’ve noticed with Abu Faisal is that her audience (or at least those of them that call in) are vastly, predominantly male. This is to an extent true of all call-in shows, but I think it’s also related to some of the extra-linguistic semiotic baggage that accompanies the (sonic) image of the “Lebanese woman” – in short that if this particular female voice is Lebanese, rather than Jordanian, it’s more “available” for public interaction. Not saying the guys are creeps (well, many of them probably are, but that’s beside the point), just that it might be felt as less inappropriate.

      I don’t want to get into the whole dialects vs. standard issue here – it would take too much time to do all the details justice – but I think nationalism (or, more generally, ideology and language policy) is definitely relevant in making standards drift apart. Arabic is weird (or maybe typical; can we even know given that any data on e.g. Romance speech styles through the centuries is only historical?) in that the “dialects” themselves have multiple, and very asymmetrical, levels. There’s standard, then a bit of a gap, then a “high-level dialect” with some grammatical bases that are shared across **all** Arabic dialects… and others which might be limited only to the so-called (I hate the word) “white dialects” of Egypt and the Levant (which are more similar to each other than the dialects elsewhere). Then there are “national standards” – usually the dialect standards spoken in the capital city. Regional ones. And so on and so on.

      Where I think ideology comes into play here is that Arabic speakers have a very strong belief that they speak a single language across all these levels. So put two people together, in a situation where they need to have a conversation, and what happens is that they’ll communicate in Arabic as much as they can – and, usually, succeed, if only through necessity. They might need to “level” a bit towards the higher-level dialects; here people from the Maghreb may be inclined to move towards MSA (if they know it), people from the Arabian Peninsula or Iraq more towards the Levantine standard (given that there it’s more of a proper continuum than with the somewhat-isolated and French-borrowings-laden Maghrebi dialects). Basically people will use all linguistic resources they have in order to make it work – and in most cases, it does so on a level that’s far enough from the standard that it still can be called some sort of “dialect.” What kind, though, will probably vary from person to person, and from interaction to interaction – including experiences you’ve had with dealing with this (kind of) person in the past, etc.

      In short – what I think happens is that people think it will work; they act “as if”; some things stick, others don’t, but in the end they muddle through using **mostly** dialect, and come away from the interaction feeling they’ve had a shared conversation in Arabic with this person even though they’re from Kuwait or Yemen or Algeria or whatever – by using mostly colloquial forms. So there’s a feeling that dialect is likely to work; better than MSA, which is often considered stilted or formal (associated with speeches by politicians, or lectures read out by lecturers, or religious figures more than any kind of normal conversation).

      There’s significant asymmetry as well in terms of which dialects (or dialect standards) are more widely understood than others. Egyptian and Lebanese have massive media presence; Syrian as well, though maybe less in the past few years (could be there’s less Ramadan serial production coming from there though they might still be dubbing Turkish soap operas in Syrian for Arab markets… I’m not sure). So people coming from these areas would have less cause to ‘level away’ even from their ‘home’ accents. (I’ve heard Iraqis especially complaining about this – people from the Levant being able to speak their own dialects while they “have to” level towards Levantine in order to feel like they’re going to be understood.)

      Historically, I’d guess this kind of thing has always happened – I’ve read more than a few Arabists saying that some form of broad dialect standard preceded the spread of MSA through Islam – but it’s probably become much more widespread throughout the 20th/21st centuries, in terms of the proportion of people of various social classes that are exposed to various non-native Arabic accents (through working outside of their place of birth / city / country, etc.)

      As for the use MSA as codebook: it works – there are a lot of words with varying dialectal forms which can all be traced back to classical Arabic – but you would have to know MSA really, really well. And, in fact, very few people do. Producing continuous spoken discourse in MSA is very very difficult; I’d guess most people have passive knowledge at least to the level they’re able to listen and read contemporary writing, but anything past that really depends. In general I’d say it’s more effort than it’s worth to learn MSA **in order to** help you with speaking other Arabic dialects. If you already know it, sure… but that’s itself a bit of a lifetime project.


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