First languages – part II

Read Part I

I imagine that Lebanese expats across the world are often driven to exasperation by others persistently trying to nail down what their first language really is. Amin Maalouf, in Les Identités meurtrières, soundly skewers the urge we have as humans to reduce others to a single national identity, rather than recognising that an identity is made up of many elements which shift and change with time and experience.

Likewise those of us brought up with a single language often insist on trying to strip the bilingual or trilingual of their ‘surplus’ languages by spearing them with questions such as But what do you think in? What do you dream in?  We feel obliged to sort out this linguistic muddle of having two or three languages on the go. There must be one core language, one mother tongue we can limit it to. 

But why? Lebanon lives very well in its tangle of tongues, like many other countries for that matter. Even excepting outside influences, all Arabs grow up somewhere between two languages, the classical written Arabic of school, the television and radio, and their spoken dialect used for all but the most formal types of oral communication. So while such questions can be of linguistic interest, they do not always achieve their reductive aim.

Lebanon is highly susceptible to outside influences because of its outward looking attitude and opportunism which together spawned a long history of international trade. Its language is even more impressionable because it has no written form to act as a brake and hinder linguistic influence, just as Old English was at the time of the Norman invasion, making it so susceptible to French influence.

Maltese has similarities with Lebanese. As a mixture of Arabic, Italian and English, it has a Semetic base with the addition of strong cultural and linguistic influences. However, each of these three ingredients are now relatively stable and Maltese is not considered a dialect of Arabic, but a language in its own right. The same cannot be said of Lebanese (or many other Arabic dialects), despite it having evolved so far from classical Arabic.

Read Part I of First languages. Part III will be published on Monday 23 August.

5 Responses to “First languages – part II”

  1. For every Lebanese, the hodge-podge in our head is just a big thesaurus, which we play with as we like mixing words and grammar rules from different languages playfully. Not all bi or tri lingual people can do that.

    • Chrissy says:

      Darine, that is exactly what my Lebanese boyfriend says when he tries to explain what it’s like to speak a mix of Arabic, French and English :) Don’t tell him I said this but I believe you explained it more eloquently!

  2. Joe says:

    Just a small correction, Lebanese did not evolve from Arabic, it assimilated Arabic, the same as it assimilated other languages, but because Arabic is also a semitic language, the relationship becomes very confusing to many, even to Lebanese themselves.

    • Interesting. Do you mean that Lebanese is the result of Aramaic or the ancient Phoenician assimilating Arabic? After all, the Lebanese dialect did not exist as such before the Arab invasions. Would you hold that the modern Lebanese dialect is more similar to any other language than to Standard Arabic?

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