Quoting God and the Prophet

I’ve recently been hacking at the final chapter of my PhD, which will (hopefully) be an analysis of the use of religious language on what I like to call “Islamic advice programmes” on Jordanian radio. These programmes involve a host, typically a scholar well-educated in the principles of religion and Islamic law, taking calls from listeners on a variety of questions – whether a certain course of action is religiously appropriate, for example, or how to interpret some obscure part in an Islamic religious text. (With the recent rise of the so-called Islamic State, for example, a few listeners called in as to whether their appearance may have been “predicted” by the Prophet Muhammad in one of his sayings (hadith). Judgments on this vary.)

What’s particularly striking to me is how the host-scholars talk about and quote the religious texts in which they’re supposed to be experts. Whenever the Qur’an or a hadith of the Prophet is quoted, it impeccably resembles the written form in terms of grammar and pronunciation – a standard which is rarely kept up in “fresh talk” on Arabic-language radio, even for hosts that do tend more towards the “formal” (or Classical/Modern Standard) pole of the Arabic linguistic spectrum (as opposed to being purely colloquial). Every Islamic scholar worth their salt should, of course, know such lines by heart – or at least be able to pretend well enough that they do. But quotations are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, usually pronounced in a different way than the talk which surrounds them. They are not merely said – not even read in the kind of droning, measured style typical of modern formal Arabic reading (see e.g. here). Rather, they are – more often than not – recited, in a way that sets them clearly apart from ordinary speech. Vowels are elongated, pitch is heightened, and there are relatively long pauses after each line (often lasting half a second or more).

So I rummaged a bit through literature in linguistics to see whether anything much has been written on this issue – that is, the distinct prosody of Standard or Classical Arabic phrases when recited or inserted into mostly colloquial talk. I turned up some quite interesting bits of research, including experiments claiming that native speakers of Arabic are able to distinguish between ‘Western’ (i.e. North African) and ‘Eastern’ (i.e. everything east of Egypt) dialects on the basis of accent and intonation alone, and explorations of patterns of poetic recitation on the Arabian peninsula shared beyond linguistic boundaries. There seems to be quite some work on prosody in Arabic going on, sometimes in quite interesting directions, such as the extent to which phenomena like contrastive emphasis (as in “wrote this article, not him”) might affect (or not) the way Arabic words are pronounced.

There are two issues, though, with this kind of research generally speaking. First, most look at ‘dialectal’ Arabic only. This makes sense for linguistics research that looks to examine ‘natural’ languages – that is, replicating conditions of normal communicative interaction, where formal/Classical Arabic is virtually never used wholesale – but doesn’t provide much to go on for the kind of context on which I’m currently working, where Classical and colloquial language is often used interchangeably. And second, they all tend to see prosody as a feature of linguistic production. That is, they approach dialects as ‘having’ (or maybe ‘exhibiting’) a certain kind of prosodic pattern under certain conditions. Again, this makes sense if you’re trying to describe language as a communicative system. But it tells us very little about how prosody may be manipulated, strategically, for specific ends – such as, for example, setting religious quotations apart from ‘normal’ talk.

It’s not a difficult thing to notice. In the recording below, for example, between 1:46 and 1:54, the Islamic advice host Ibrahim al-Jarmi (on his Fatawa programme, broadcast by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hayat FM) gives a religious quotation which involves a marked change in pace of speech (mostly, longer vowels) and intonation (heightened pitch) towards the end:

Researching the details of this phenomenon, though, may prove to be slightly more difficult. For one, the classical schemes of research in linguistics don’t do a very good job of capturing these kind of contrasts. Even sociolinguists, when talking about Arabic, tend to focus to a large extent on distinctions between “codes” – formal / Standard / Classical versus colloquial Arabic, for example, or different ‘dialects’ defined as distinct linguistic systems. But for al-Jarmi in the recording above, the “code” remains more or less the same throughout – i.e., ‘formal’ or ‘Classical’ (even as the standards are more strictly applied to actual quotations than to talk that accompanies them). The distinctions, rather, hinge on sociocultural factors in a much broader sense – including the way in which religious texts, in particular, are understood as ‘quotable’ or ‘recitable’ in ways that ‘normal’ speech may not be. (This is not just an Islamic religious issue either; it is also true to an extent of poetry, which in mediated communication in modern Arabic usage is often involved in many of the same prosodic strategies; see e.g. the recitation at the beginning of the programme here, from about 0:38.)

Classical linguistic categories have their place, of course, and can be a powerful tool when trying to analyse the intricacies of human communication. But occasionally, the lens does need to be broadened a bit; otherwise, certain potentially interesting and important phenomena – like the way radio personalities treat Islamic texts – might recede from view.

Quoting God and the Prophet

The Blessings of Rain

Rain, storms, flooding. The images coming in from Amman over the past couple of days have been nothing short of apocalyptic. (Naseem Tarawneh at the Black Iris has a nice collection of illustrative videos here.) Amman’s city centre and a huge number of tunnels, roads, and underpasses have been flooded under metre-deep rainwater, causing building collapses and drownings along with unimaginable traffic chaos. Better infrastructure would likely have worked miracles to prevent such catastrophes, and many Jordanians posting comments on the Internet have not been too kind about the authorities’ preparation to deal with the winter season.

Even though such disasters are a regular occurrence in Jordan, local media tend to frame  rainfall (and snowfall) in a very specific way. Precipitation is typically characterised as a “blessing” (ni‘ma, baraka, or ḳayr) from God – which makes sense for what’s been claimed to be the second poorest country in the world in terms of water resources. Rain fills dams and cisterns; it’s an essential part of the cycle which provides water used by Jordanian consumers – citizens, businesses, industry, and agriculture. Radio hosts always accompany forecasts of rain with hopes that it will mean all the best for Jordan, that they will be amṭār ḳayr wa-baraka – “rains of good and blessing” – and only be beneficial to the country as a whole.

So on Thursday, 5 November, when the worst parts of the most recent weather depression began to batter the skies over Amman, the radio host Muhammad al-Wakeel – in a “live” video posted on his Facebook page – filled his talk with references to blessings and God, and asked his 5.5 million Facebook followers to send in contributions from all of Jordan – “so we can be reassured regarding people in all governorates,” and be certain that the rain truly is a blessing and a “mercy” (raḥma) from God:

 

To be fair, there is always a grimmer underside to such pronouncements: the unstated fear that the rain will not just be “good and blessed,” that the water (or snow, or ice) will cause problems and accidents and further damage Jordan’s already overstrained infrastructure. But at the same time, a focus on God as the ultimate agent of rain also allows authorities to resolve responsibility for any catastrophes that do eventually happen. This is also, I think, the gist of a Facebook post written by Naseem Tarawneh as a reaction to the video of an Egyptian man whose children had drowned in a flash flood. Worth quoting from at length:

Rain is an uncontrollable act of God; everything else is on our hands. If you’ve been outside and witnessed the damage, most of it is manmade. It doesn’t take an engineer to arrive at the conclusion that there is something seriously wrong with our infrastructure and our policies. Tunnels and streets that easily flood with only a few hours of consistent rain. Construction sites are a lawless zone, with materials ranging from stone to cement and wood that are typically piled up on adjacent lands or organized in mountains on curbsides – these materials are carried out with the waters. Drivers with absolutely no patience or etiquette help cause as much of the traffic accidents as the rain, if not more.

On and on and on. This is become a tradition. Every year there’s a new weather catastrophe, and every year we see the same images. […]

It’s infuriating, for sure. But the anger and frustration comes from knowing that to policymakers, this is all just passing weather. […]

This man lost his children, not to an act of God, but an act of mismanagement that borders on the criminal. He deserved better. As do we all.

(Source: The Black Iris, “Of all the content being shared…”, Facebook post, 5 November 2015 – link)

So what might at first look like a fairly innocent aspect of using language – mentioning, as if by rote, that God is behind everything, rainfall is a divine blessing and so on – becomes a practice with deep consequences for how we imagine public accountability and responsibility. Every time a Jordanian broadcaster mentions rain as a blessing from God, they aren’t just making a theological claim, but also upholding a way of phrasing that allows the re-framing of what are ultimately infrastructural shortfalls as being something that human beings are powerless to face. Language plays a powerful framing role here; and exposing this role should, at least, inspire debates as to the limits of responsibility claimed by systems of government and administration when their citizens are hurt by climate-linked catastrophes such as this.

The Blessings of Rain

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic

There are very few people looking at language on radio in Arabic-speaking contexts, so in attempting to find scholarly parallels I’ve necessarily had to look further afield. Linguistic anthropology, especially, provides a lot of comparative fodder, and one intriguing piece of work in this tradition I’ve come across recently is this article by Paul Garrett, on the use of the local creole language Kwéyòl (or “Antillean Creole French”) on radio in St. Lucia.

In brief, Garrett argues that the use of Kwéyòl as opposed to the official language of St. Lucia, English, provides for a more accessible, colloquial style, as well as being suggestive of a particularly St. Lucian identity. He links the on-air use of conversational Kwéyòl, further, to what he calls strategies of “reappropriation” of language: a basically traditionalist nationalist orientation in which “local” forms of culture, communication, etc. are celebrated. This is contrasted to strategies of “instrumentalisation,” in which Kwéyòl is performed – for instance, in news bulletins – in a way reminiscent of (formal) English.

The goal of instrumentalisation is national uplift via linguistic ‘development,’ in which the intelligentsia takes on the role of educators by providing a full spectrum of communicative roles for the vernacular – including formal contexts such as news broadcasts. By contrast, reappropriation – and the use of Kwéyòl in ‘conversational’ radio talk shows falls into this category – is in part a reaction to such formal uplifting of language. Rather than formalise Kwéyòl, it seeks to preserve an impression of the ‘original,’ everyday, face-to-face contexts in which it would be used, such as discussions at home or in “rumshops.”

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“Slow down, children at play.” A sign in Guadeloupean Creole, a Caribbean creole variety related to St. Lucian Kwéyòl. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The concern here is that Kwéyòl, if formalised, would become too alienated from everyday life – too like the official, colonial language (for St. Lucia, English; note that the parent language for Kwéyòl is French), and hence too associated with social contexts in which inauthenticity, mistrust, and dissimulation prevail. As Garrett explains it (p. 150; emphasis mine):

[This] reflect[s] an ideologically-based sentiment that is prevalent and widely noted in creolophone Caribbean societies and has strong affinities to reappropriation approaches: the notion that the creole language is intrinsically more honest, direct, and straightforward than the official-standard language... The creole is thought of as being qualitatively and essentially different from the official-standard language in that it does not dissemble, does not obscure the speaker’s meanings and intentions. The creole, and by extension, he or she who speaks it, simply “tells it like it is.” In contrast, anyone speaking the official-standard language – particularly a speaker who could be using the creole but has chosen not to do so – is never entirely to be trusted. His or her words instantiate and uphold the persistent hierarchies, based in no small part on sociolinguistic stratification and “gatekeeping,” that pervade creole societies. Such a speaker’s words always have the potential to carry hidden meanings, to conceal hidden motives, and ultimately to disrupt (or at least taint) local solidarities…

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Reading all this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Charles Ferguson’s classic article on diglossia. Ferguson’s reflections on the Arabic language situation – that is, a system where a language is believed to be divided into two related yet distinct codes, ‘High’ and ‘Low,’ or ‘Standard’ and ‘Colloquial,’ appropriate to particular communicative contexts – put it in parallel with a number of other comparative cases – including Haiti, where Haitian Creole is spoken (according to Ferguson) as a vernacular code alongside standard French. Haitians, or at least those who can in fact speak and write French, are thus diglossic.

In St. Lucia, the situation is probably more accurately described as bilingual, rather than diglossic, since the French basis of Kwéyòl doesn’t exactly make it possible to (ideologically) argue that Kwéyòl and the ‘High’ official code (in St. Lucia, English) are varieties of the same language. But even in Haiti, the diglossia claim has been contested – primarily because such a high proportion of the population is effectively monolingual in Creole. Whatever the case may be, the attitudes Garrett describes towards the ‘High’ code seem to be broadly shared. In order to speak in a ‘true,’ ‘genuine’ manner to one’s co-locals, one should speak the creole language; the ‘High’ idiom is always potentially tainted as a compromised code of hierarchy and collaboration. Hence why, in St. Lucian radio broadcasting, Kwéyòl is the natural choice for the kind of simulation of spontaneous everyday conversation that talk radio programmes aim for.

Creoles are, in the Caribbean, also national vernaculars; markers of a distinct national identity – Haitian, St. Lucian, Guadeloupean – that further enhance their meanings of solidarity. Contrast this with the Arabic-speaking context, where calls for using the ‘Low’ form in mediatised settings have traditionally been associated with precisely the opposite sort of ideals: collaboration, colonialist conspiracies, the undermining of shared ageless Arab values, and so on. But reading somebody like Niloofar Haeri, with her descriptions of the alienation her Egyptian informants felt towards Standard Arabic, the parallels between the Arabic-speaking and Caribbean creole-speaking contexts become quite striking. There are certain hierarchies – social, educational, regional, political, religious – that use of Standard Arabic inevitably implies, and which makes it highly inappropriate for use in the informality-simulating context of talk radio broadcasts.

“The romance of first winter rain.” Transcription of song lyrics (actual or imaginary / satirical) is one limited, though ubiquitously necessary, context of use of colloquial Arabic in writing, as the above caricature demonstrates. Image via Roya TV’s Twitter account

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The situation is of course a lot more complex than that. The comparison effectively falls apart when we begin to consider the cultural, social, and historical background in more detail. Standard Arabic is not the native language of any social group – unlike colonial languages in creole-speaking societies, which can be traced to very particular social groups, ones whose historical roles have typically been violent and repressive. There are also the religious connotations of formal Arabic as the originary language of Islam, which introduces a whole new set of values into the equation.

Finally, we must beware of – and this is a point I always like to stress – black-boxing the contrasting codes of diglossic language situations into neat frames of ‘Standard’ and ‘Colloquial,’ without actually examining what these labels mean. There is variability at both poles – but especially so the ‘Colloquial,’ given the existence of various dialectal varieties and linguistic forms with different levels of prestige, and different kinds of links with social identities and norms of use. Classifying a stretch of talk, or even a word or sound, as ‘Colloquial’ doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that it’s ‘not Standard’ – whereas its actual cultural associations could run from ‘prestigious urban,’ to ‘stigmatised rural,’ to ‘prestigious Bedouin,’ to ‘stigmatised Bedouin,’ to ‘devalued refugee,’ to ‘feminine,’ to ‘masculine,’ to ‘female performing forcefulness via use of a masculine-associated token,’ to ‘female performing socio-geographic origin via use of a regionally marked token which just so happens to also have masculinity associations in this particular context’… and so on. If all we can say about a bit of talk is “this is in [Jordanian, Lebanese, Egyptian, whatever] Colloquial,” all such nuances are lost.

Garrett, writing on Kwéyòl, seems much more aware of such issues than most writers on Arabic media I’ve encountered. (There are exceptions: see e.g. Atiqa Hachimi’s work on Maghrebi dialect feature stigmatisation on pan-Arab reality TV programmes, or Alexander Magidow’s highly intriguing presentation on dialect mocking in a Jordanian comedy series.) He actually directly engages with local debates on what Kwéyòl – the ‘Colloquial’ pole – should be: a language transplantable into formal contexts, or an exclusively conversational code. And not taking for granted what a particular linguistic variety is also allows for us to look in much greater nuance at the social and cultural meanings that might lurk in the folds of its variation. This, in particular, is an issue that studies of language in Arabic-speaking media all too often seem to forget.

Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic

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.

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(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.

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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.

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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

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.’

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(“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