Arabic Sociolinguistics: Book Review

arabic-sociolinguisticsArabic Sociolinguistics: Topics in Diglossia, Gender, Identity and Politics. By Reem Bassiouney. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2009. Pp. xvii, 311. ISBN: 9781589015739.

In her informative, thoughtful volume, Dr. Reem Bassiouney has thoroughly researched important topics relevant to the sociolinguistics, the way people use language, of Arabic in the Arab world. An Egyptian catchphrase, “The earth speaks Arabic,” with which she begins her work, has always captivated the author and in her conclusion she notes two facts that inform Arabic as inclusive. First, is the “non-distinction between Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic and the colloquials by the mass of native speakers; an aggregate picture of Arabic is prevalent.” Second, the scholarship she has pursued in this book has strived to illustrate the diversity of the Arab world, “whether religious, historical, political, ethnic, social or economic.” All of these factors are reflected, directly or not, through language.

The text is prefaced with a listing of abbreviations and explanation of conventions essential for comprehending the narrative. For example, the twelve primary languages and language varieties investigated are all abbreviated in the text, and a number of other abbreviations and symbols are employed in the transcriptions of linguistic data. The transcriptions use a schema not unlike the Library of Congress transliteration system, here applied to names and titles. It is not essential to know Arabic to read the text, though it is obviously an advantage to have some familiarity with the language.

In her introduction, Bassiouney first discusses sociolinguistics as a discipline, and more specifically Arabic sociolinguistics, and then the book’s aim and organization. Bassiouney has purposefully organized her work, deliberately describing the focus and approach to the content of each chapter at its outset. The main text begins with a chapter on the important concept “diglossia,” first articulated by Ferguson in 1959, and an overview of dialects found in the Arab world. After providing an overview of the study of diglossia, the theories that explain it, and the notion of Educated Spoken Arabic, the author introduces the idea of a prestige versus standard variety of Arabic dialect. The differences and similarities between dialects are displayed with an example of how an English three-sentence paragraph is then rendered into transcribed Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and then colloquially in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The following chapters use the same thorough approach to address the topics of code-switching; language variation and change; Arabic and gender; and language policy and politics.

One of the book’s great strengths is Bassiouney’s careful review of the significant sociolinguistic theory and research impacting the development of each chapter’s themes. As well, the chapters conclude with summary remarks and notes that along with an excellent bibliography and index result in a text that will no doubt remain the chief resource on Arabic sociolinguistics for some time to come.

Kristen Kern
Portland State University