Great reads re: Arabic, Icelandic

Of course this blog is about Spanish, but I couldn’t resist sharing with you two recent articles about Arabic and Icelandic. Any linguistically-minded reader will find them fascinating.

The first article, from the New Yorker, is simultaneously a tale of language learning, a profile of an inspired (but anguished) language teacher, and a source of information about the current state of Egyptian Arabic. I already knew that there was a split between written, “Modern Standard” Arabic, which is homogeneous across the Arabic-speaking region, and the spoken Arabic of the different countries in the region. (For this reason, Arabic students in the United States typically start with Modern Standard Arabic, then spend some time in the country of their choice to learn the relevant spoken version.) But I didn’t know it had come to the point where educated Egyptians now use English or French as a written language instead of Arabic. It’s as if Spanish speakers had continued to write in Latin, but now, given widespread knowledge of English, found it easier to use English as a written language while maintaining Spanish as a means of oral communication. Mind-blowing.

The second article, from the Associated Press, describes the perilous state of Icelandic. The enemy here is English, spoken as a second language throughout Iceland, and used extensively in tourism and business. Apparently young people are speaking English among themselves, a dangerous sign. English is also required for anyone who interacts with technology, since modern devices don’t ‘speak’ Icelandic. Languages die out all the time, unfortunately, but these are mostly minority languages, like Native American languages with only a few hundred speakers. It’s startling to see such concerns raised about a language with hundreds of thousands of speakers, Nobel Prize-winning literature, and official support and recognition: “an army and a navy,” to use Max Weinreich’s classic formulation.


2 thoughts on “Great reads re: Arabic, Icelandic

  1. Alice

    Both Articles are so interesting and thought provoking! They set up a real conflict for me. I am 100% for the preservation of the world’s languages. I do not like the idea of languages dying out. But, I also am a strong proponent of globalism, in the sense of bringing peoples across the world into closer relationships of understanding, which to me is hindered by language differences. Becoming multilingual isn’t the best answer…The first article, especially, points out the problem of trying to function on several different language levels, even within the same country. Hmmm, I have to find a way to reconcile these things.

  2. jhochberg Post author

    I think this inherent conflict — diversity vs. globalism — is the same for anything that determines identity. Take religion: on the one hand, it’s great that people practice different religions, but on the other hand, this diversity has often been entangled with discrimination, war, and other evils. Multilingualism and religious plurality work when the relevant cultures practice as well as preach tolerance and equal opportunity. Otherwise, language conflicts, like religious conflicts, can flare up as they have periodically in Canada and Spain, to name just two examples.


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