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.”

Guadeloupe creole 2010-03-30

“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.

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Creoles, National Vernaculars, and Colloquial Arabic