The Unwritten Standard

Before I began my field research in Jordan, my greatest concern was how to deal with what I anticipated to be the variability of language spoken on radio. Unlike MSA, colloquial Arabic – spoken in every  human interaction – does not have the force of codified grammars and centuries of written precedents behind it. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s not rule-bound, just like any other language system.) There might, then, be a bit more flexibility in how Jordanian dialect is used on the air: creative ways in which people use dialect forms, perhaps, for people to mark their (actual or desired) social origin, or make claims to represent certain groups or stand for particular political positions.

Or so I had imagined.

Over the past few months, as I’ve engaged in more and more depth with the Jordanian radio field, I’ve realized that, with regard to the language you can hear spoken across the spectrum of Jordan’s Arabic-language radio stations – from the community-oriented ones, to the ‘hip contemporary’ ones, to those who aim at more conservatively nationalist audiences, to those that promote an Islamic (and Islamist) social (and political) orientation – there’s not really that much of a difference.

When talking to radio professionals, I most commonly heard that there was a time – in the murky past of the first years of the 21st century – when this was not yet so. A time when, in a media field newly opened to broadcasting beyond that of the government’s official voice, radio presenters were not yet quite sure how to engage their audiences. Many turned to Lebanon as a model; exposure to Lebanese dialect was common through satellite television, and its Levantine roots made it closer to Jordanian speech styles than (for example) Egyptian.

But such voices  sounded foreign – at the very least; if not outright fake – in the mouths of Jordanians. Through the years, “Jordanian” accents gained more prominence; now you hardly hear Lebanese-speaking presenters anymore (except on that admirable holdout that is Sawt al-Ghad). Still, it was a very specific kind of “Jordanian” that came to be considered the norm: namely, that based on the dialect of Amman.


(A vista from Tlaa’ al-Ali, West Amman)

This is a familiar pattern from developments in other Arabic-speaking countries with media that use colloquial language (most famously, Egypt). The dialect spoken in the capital comes to be considered as a kind of “non-standard standard,” or “prestige” dialect (these are all terms from Arabists that have written about the issue) – presumably because, by speaking like a capital dweller, you’re that bit closer to becoming one. Being a capital dweller, in a highly centralized country, brings all sorts of social and economic perks (or at least it is assumed that it does). More, given a general flow of people into the capital, people from outside it are much more likely to speak in the way that’s spoken in the capital than vice versa; and so a critical mass develops which gives the dialect features of the capital that extra edge over those that might be encountered outside it.

What kind of language, then, is this radio Ammani? What features are there to distinguish it and place it among dialects in Jordan and the kinds of Arabic spoken in Levantine countries more generally?

In this regard I’m going to consider in particular the work of Enam al-Wer on the “dialect of Amman,” and then move on to look at what the implications of using this particular style of speech on Jordanian radio might be. Even the strongest norms are, after all, associated with particular preconceptions and ideologies. And this is precisely the part where they become  interesting.

The Capital’s Dialect

Amman’s dialect has been examined in the most detail by the Essex linguist Enam al-Wer. Her writings include studies both on Ammani’s history – its emergence as a koine, or a language variety that comes out of contact between several different varieties or dialects – and its present status and features.

Amman’s position as an economic and administrative center is relatively new; it dates only to the partitioning of Jordanian territory into its own state entity in the beginning of the 20th century, and the city can hardly boast of a history as illustrious as other urban centers in the area – such as Jerusalem, Beirut, or Damascus. In line with this, the development of Amman’s own prestigious dialect has also been on a much shorter timescale than in these other cities; and it is closely intertwined with Jordan’s recent socio-economic history.

al-Wer brings together the factors involved in a recent book contribution (available online as a draft: LINK); I will only summarize them here. The first social stratum to function as an elite in Amman were members of prominent Levantine families that gravitated to the town from the 1920s onwards (after it became the capital of the Emirate of Transjordan, newly established under British tutelage after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire). The population later swelled with immigrants from elsewhere in (Trans)Jordanian territory, as well as Palestinians (especially following the wars in 1948 and 1967). From the 1970s onwards, policies were in place aimed explicitly at the “Jordanization” of public sector posts. These gave many “Transjordanians” – ie., members of families who could claim origins from localities somewhere from within Transjordanian territory – chances for social and economic advancement. As a consequence, some dialect features associated with speech styles of “Transjordanian” origin also gained more prestigious associations.


Amman’s “koine,” though, didn’t develop from local dialects alone. As al-Wer shows, the social standing of families that brought their own styles of speech from other urban centers in the region gave the developing “Ammani dialect” a decidedly urban Levantine flavor. (In the Levant, as in many other regions where Arabic is spoken, the firmest dialect distinctions are between language spoken in cities versus language spoken outside of cities; often dialects spoken in two cities a hundred kilometers apart will have more features in common than dialects spoken in a rural (or, even more so, a nomadic-Bedouin-tribe-inhabited) area just outside one of these cities.) This, in contact with dialects spoken by ‘native Transjordanians,’ produced a blend of features quite unlike any other in the region – a dialect that can safely be termed as specific to Amman, and the generations of people that by now had been born and raised in the city.

One distinct quirk of Ammani is that the language one hears is split according to the gender of the person speaking it. The sound /q/ – pronounced as an uvular stop in Classical and Standard Arabic, but with a range of pronunciations in equivalent words in different Arabic dialects – is especially telling. In words that count as ‘colloquial’ or ‘dialect’ words – ie., those that Ammanis consider everyday or informal enough not to require a Standard Arabic pronunciation – a female speaker would pronounce this sound as a glottal stop: [ʔ], in the International Phonetic Alphabet. This is also how one would expect to hear /q/ pronounced in Jerusalem (or Beirut, or Damascus). Male speakers, by contrast, usually prefer to use [g] (voiced velar stop; much the same as the ‘hard g’ in English) – which is a common pronunciation in many Bedouin dialects, but also in dialects native to Transjordan.

So, for example, the word قهوة qahwa “coffee” would be pronounced ‘ahwe – with a glottal stop at the beginning – by an Ammani woman, and gahwe by an Ammani man. (Final a often changes to e in Levantine Arabic dialects, something Arabists call imaala (literally “slanting”).) And a word such as أقول aquul “I say” becomes b-‘uul (with a glottal stop, and the colloquial present indicative marker b- at the beginning) for women, and b-guul for men.

(As a quick aside, a short personal anecdote to demonstrate how strongly this gender patterning is considered to be the hallmark of Jordanian / Ammani. When I was still at the beginning of my fieldwork, I tended to use [ʔ] when I spoke Arabic, modelling myself on Palestinian and Egyptian pronunciations of the kind I’ve been most exposed to through my years of studying the language. The automatic reaction of many people, when they heard me speak this way, was that I’d learned Arabic in Lebanon – which I’d never visited in my life (though I had lived in Amman for two months a few years back). In other words, it was simply unimaginable for the people I’d spoken to for me to have picked up the [ʔ] pronunciation in Jordan, where obviously as a male I should have been using [g].)

Pronunciation of /q/ might be the characteristic that is most often (and most easily) picked upon when talking about differences among Arabic dialects. But there are also other features that make Ammani distinctive. Another sound with a similar kind of gender split is j (the sound in e.g. al-Jazeera): Ammani men often pronounce this as an affricate, [dʒ] – precisely as in English – while Ammani women invariably use a fricative, [ʒ] (a ‘softer’ sound, like in English measure). There are also specific ways in which vowels are pronounced; al-Wer goes on at some length about the details of this (if by some outlandish chance you’re a phonology enthusiast you can go check out her paper for the particulars; see pages 10-13 in the online draft PDF). Grammar, also, has features that can be heard in other dialects in the region (such as the very Palestinian use of final alone for negation) combined with others coming from different dialect areas, or even features that seem to be novel inventions for Amman alone: like using, for example, -kum for the second person plural bound pronoun, which fits with the Standard Arabic version but contrasts with most neighboring dialects (which would prefer either -ku or -kun).

All these features come together to create a form of Arabic with clear roots in existing Levantine dialects, but which is also distinctive to Amman. No surprise, then, given the status and prestige of the capital, that it would also become the language used in new  media enterprises that have emerged in Jordan over the past few decades.

Ammani Norms

Media, of course, never just presuppose a given linguistic reality from which they draw their communicative resources. They also help construct language: their texts circulate broadly, and provide models for speech and interaction which media audiences relate to in various ways.

It’s probably a stretch to claim that commercial radio stations played a role in ‘normatizing’ Ammani. Local understandings of a set Ammani dialect likely had force long before the liberalization of Jordan’s media field in the early 2000s. (al-Wer, again, indicates this, in her generational analysis of how distinctly Ammani features came together.) Still, once an Ammani speech style turned up on the airwaves, it’s easy to see how it might have spread, as a kind of informal standard: a way for presenters to interact with audience in a way that (they consider) will make them commonly understood, as well as project a sense of “Jordanian-ness” that sounds more authentic – or, to use a word favored by my contacts, “spontaneous” – than using a dialect that could clearly be associated with some other country-level variety of Arabic.

Presenters might draw, then, on language they know – natively, if they’re Ammanis; otherwise, as the ‘standard’ medium of communication used in interactions in the capital, or more accurately the kind of language used in such interactions by people who provide desirable social models. But simply by using it in the context of radio, they’re also transforming it, by making it acceptable as a media norm. Radio performances (and they are, always, performances) thus construct language – not necessarily by inventing a style outright, but by placing some locally relevant style into a particular context, and producing at least at least a tacit sense that it is appropriate for this context.


Always, though, it’s Ammani that we hear. All of Jordan’s radio stations aiming for more than just a local audience are based in Amman; and the linguistic asymmetry here mirrors quite perfectly the social, economic, and political asymmetries that bedevil Jordan. Even if speaking, or at least understanding (if only by necessity), Ammani is common to most Jordanians, the differences remain. There’s still the sense that those brought up with the dialect natively are relatively closer to the Norm – and with it, the kind of speaker, the kind of person, that one might want to be – than others.

An article by Myriam Achour Kallel – available online here; in French only – describes the situation on a Tunisian radio station that uses “colloquial Arabic” in pretty much identical terms. The dialect of the capital – Tunis – is privileged over all others, even in situations when using regional speech might perhaps attract more listeners (the radio station Kallel examines has a significant number of listeners hailing from one particular region outside the capital). The station’s producers give various, mostly linguistic, justifications for this practice, but they tend to avoid the most fundamental issue: namely, the political and socio-economic asymmetry between a Capital and its Regions that made the Tunis dialect preferred and desirable in the first place.

As in Tunisia, so in Jordan. Radio, as a media form, focuses on simulating interaction: between presenters and their guests, presenters and audiences, either directly through call-ins or indirectly through addressing them by speaking ‘into the ether.’ (Or something in between, when patching together different media in order to keep the channels of communication open – for example, when reading out and responding to text messages or online comments.) When speaking Arabic, for this not to sound fatally stilted, a colloquial variety is really the only choice. At that level, though, there is no longer any kind of codified or written standard. So people’s decisions are driven by other kinds of evaluations: based, ultimately, in social convictions and ideologies, and highly revealing of local hierarchies of value – between kinds of language, and the kinds of people believed to speak it.

The Unwritten Standard

4 thoughts on “The Unwritten Standard

  1. Fadi Zaghmout says:

    Hey Jona, this is a nice comprehensive research/article.. I could see that you have observer the gender specific split that has grown in the past few years and in which I find quite baffling. As if jordanian young men have an issue of proving their masculinity and emphasising the stronger dialect of using the (g) to prove their manhood! I find that silly because that split of dialect was between people coming from different backgrounds, like as you said beduins vs urban habitants, I don’t understand how it evolved to become a gender specific!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jonafras says:

      Thank you Fadi! Glad you liked it. Yes the masculinity association is interesting – what al-Wer argues (if I remember correctly) is that since the public sector jobs in which people of Transjordanian origin came to be over-represented were mostly the kind of jobs where men were present almost exclusively (ministry officials, etc.) and therefore public exposure of their native dialect was automatically associated with ‘men (should) be speaking like this.’

      Not to deny socioeconomic factors but I would agree with you that the complex of ideas linking certain kinds of language and masculinity is at least equally important…


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