Posted by on July 19, 2013 in Blog

By Bentley Brown

Bentley Brown is an Arabic researcher at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. Brown is the cofounder of Aboudigin Films and the director of the 2012 short film, Faisal Goes West. This summer, Brown is offering the course “Arabic Dialects through Film” in Washington, D.C. The course, which starts July 27 and meets weekly through August 17, will introduce participants to comparative dialectology as well as dialects from the Arabic-speaking world through an in-depth look into several modern films. The course is free and open to the public. More information and the registration form can be found here.  

Filmmaking and dialect study are both very special to me--I was born in the US but grew up in rural Chad, speaking Chadian Arabic and shooting my first films, with childhood friend Abakar Chene Massar and a troupe of theatre actors, when I was 17. 

Chadian Arabic is what I call a "fringe dialect" of Arabic. Chad's relative geographic isolation, combined with its absence from the international Arabic-language political/cultural scenes, means that speakers of other Arabic dialects rarely interact with speakers of Chadian Arabic. In fact, in most places I've lived in the Arabic-speaking world, including Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, and Tunisia, people are largely unaware that Arabic is spoken at all in Chad--I'm sure a similar lack of awareness exists for the other "fringe dialects," as well.

As a speaker of Chadian Arabic, which is arguably mutually unintelligible from the vast majority of Arabic dialects, I've always had to adjust the way I speak so that speakers of other Arabic dialects can understand me. And in learning other dialects, I've discovered that Chadian Arabic isn't alone in this--that there is a fascinating amount of diversity in speech patterns, lexicons, and grammar structures across all Arabic dialects. This occurs to the extent that even speakers of the more "accessible" dialects often must adjust their ear and tongue in order to communicate with speakers of other dialects. 

And then there was a fascinating phenomenon: even when dialects sounded dramatically different, they often shared incredible similarities that do not exist in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the Arabic of the Qur'an, or any other standardized version of the language.

There has historically been a sort of stigma against studying and speaking Arabic dialects, which many speakers would tell you are "less pure" or "broken" versions of MSA or the Arabic of the Qur'an. I would know--I was one of these people, who as a teenager in Chad was so insistent on the "Arab identity" of the area I grew up that I thought a "return" to MSA would help build bridges on a pan-Arab scale and garner recognition and appreciation for Chad's people. I should have just stuck to soccer.

Linguists will tell you that there is no such thing as a "pure" or "less pure" language. Languages, after all, are just a means of communication and are dynamic, always evolving. Furthermore, this idea that some Arabic dialects are "purer" than others traces its roots to fallible concepts, including beliefs in racial or national superiority as well as the notion that all Arabic dialects today evolved from the Arabic of the Qur'an.

This course seeks to point out that not only is the diversity and uniqueness of Arabic dialects something worthy of our attention, but that the dialects exhibit several trends that pre-exist the writing of the Qur'an. These trends hint that modern dialects are a continued evolution of the spoken--not just the written--Arabic dialects of the years in which the Qur'an first appeared. In fact, the diglossia of the Arabic language--in this case, speakers' habit of drawing from both the spoken dialect and written, standardized form of the language--is a phenomenon that continues today, across all dialects.

Another fundamental element of speech across Arabic dialects today is the incredible ethnic and cultural diversity in places where Arabic is spoken. To speak Arabic by no means signals that one has "Arab" ethnic roots, and to have Arab ethnic roots by no means implies that one speaks Arabic. Likewise, all dialects have adopted characteristics from other languages. In some cases, this includes the languages of colonial forces such as French and Turkish, in other cases from languages that have existed in proximity to the Arabic dialects for centuries, and in yet other cases--and this is something we'll explore through film--from languages and "post-language" trends that have only emerged recently in the digital age of global interconnectivity.

I want participants to leave with an awareness and appreciation for Arabic-language filmmaking, especially in parts of northern Africa and the Middle East where being a filmmaker carries special risk and responsibility. This sort of film awareness and "cultural integrity" is something I've sought to highlight with Aboudigin Films and Artistic Director Justin Banta, with whom I'm co-writing my next screenplays (a short film and its feature film prequel) to be shot in Chad.

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