See below for an excerpt from my latest piece for The New Yorker, on Disney’s translation of its hit musical Frozen into Modern Standard Arabic. We’ve discussed this subject before on this blog. If you’re interested in reading earlier discussions, check out the following comment sections:
After reading the New Yorker piece, be sure to come back here to comment.
Translating “Frozen” into Arabic
For the past few months, I’ve lived my life to the soundtrack of Disney’s mega-hit musical “Frozen.” I wake up to the sound of my two daughters singing the Oscar-winning power anthem “Let It Go” at the top of their lungs as they get dressed for school. By breakfast, we’re on to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” followed by the peppy duet “Love Is an Open Door.” Between bites of oatmeal, my four-year-old chimes in with well-rehearsed counterpoint as her older sister closes her eyes and solemnly belts out the reprise to “For the First Time in Forever.”
On a scale of infectiousness, these songs are pestilential. This is a good thing; “Frozen” recently became the fifth-highest-grossing film of all time. The story of two orphaned princesses—Elsa (aloof, traumatized, cryokinetic) and Anna (headstrong, starved for companionship)—in the fjord-riven realm of Arendelle, the film spent many years in development, as one producer after another tried to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tale “The Snow Queen” into something Disneyesque. The result looks almost nothing like the original story, thanks in part to “Let It Go,” which prompted a re-write of Elsa’s character and turned her from a frigid hermit into a spunky feminist. (keep reading)
Very beautifully written and touching. I loved this sentence especially: “On a scale of infectiousness, these songs are pestilential”.
I think many Arabs will interpret this as you taking part in the “Zionist Plot” to divide the Arab world and diminish MSA, so I think you are quite brave publishing it.
I believe threesa must find the legendary iceman and they both should sit down to figure out a way out of the Arabic diglossia based on the song of the snowman. While you and I should sit down and find out a way on how to reconcile the two living semitic languages, Arabic and Hebrew. After all, on his recent visit to Israel, the Pope of Rome and Bibi engaged in a heated debate on what language Jesus spoke, with Netenyahoo insisting it was Hebrew while the Pope was adamant it was Aramaic. To me, they were all Semitic languages and that’s how they should be looked at.
I still don’t understand why non-Semites are so eager to sow dvisions among Semites even in the name of who they consider their own god.
Why the first two comments are the typical zionist rubbish tainted with bogus humour and poor irony ? Especially for a topic dealing with the arabic language.
What you get first is a former IDF occupation agent trying to be funny and a frustrated non Saudi Lebanese typical racist spitting non sense about Semites.
For you Kingdom, what about Salman al Farsi ? Abu Hanifah ? Imam Muslim? Imam Al Bukhari ? … are these non-semites trying to do God knows what ?
Thank you for your kind words. You are one of the few arabs I’ve spoken to who doesn’t get angry and full of rage the minute the word “Israel” is mentioned. The Pope and BB both represent a large religious constituency. And they need to show their relevance.
“Disney” is a Zionist created religion. My kids were brought up on VHS tapes of “The Sword and the Stone”, “Finding Nemo”, “Toy Story”, “Peter Pan”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “101 Dalmatians”, etc. These movies recruit the young to Secular Humanism, certainly not Islam or orthodox Judaism.
Hassan Nasrallah would not approved of you family’s indiscretions.
Thank you for the anecdote and of course the new vocabulary words.
AIG, stick around! We (I) miss your POT on the ME beace brocess.
Also thanks to you. I really don’t understand all this fuss about mentioning vs. not mentioning Israel.
Israel exists whether you mention it or not and whether you like it or not.
But, it is obvious you can never hope to satisfy the ‘resistance’ gang, even when you propose such noble courses of action as resolving language problems.
It seems QN is part of this universal Zionist ‘plot against the human kind’ and its ‘ultimate’ evolution into the ‘ideals of resisting species’.
Love this article, Elias! Mabrook.
A nice article. It actually sent me to the link where I watched the 25 languages version of the song. As for the Arabic diglossia issue — hasn’t 24-hour pan-Arabic satellite news created a more accessible version of MSA, without every tanwin and case ending having to be obsessively invoked? At least that’s how it seems to me. Maybe the Disney people were being overly literary.
Thanks to all. Jim, I agree with you. What we’re seeing is a parallel movement: the Al Jazeera effect is making MSA more accessible while the Facebook effect is making the vernaculars more literary, standardized, etc.
I will never understand why people want to use dialect instead of MSA?
You can see this only in the arab world.
I think some people are ashamed of speaking it.
I agree that Al-Jazeera is making MSA more accessible, but I am skeptical that social media (like Facebook) are making the vernaculars more standardized, at least in terms of spelling conventions. One need not look far to see varying versions of common dialect words like ده / دا and إنه / إنو.
The accessible version of MSA that you mention is largely confined to spontaneous speech in formal contexts (like talk shows about politics or other serious topics). As far as I know, no cartoons in MSA regularly drop case endings (except at the end of a sentence, which is normal).
A lot of the users in the comments section are debating whether or not MSA (or Egyptian) is understood. I think there is a more important question: is the MSA dub funny? Do your children run around the house quoting it? It is very hard to make humor (and connect on an emotional level) without making references to this thing called culture.
I love MSA, but what separates it from other standardized versions of languages (e.g. Parisian French, High German) is that it lacks a body of speakers who use the language in their daily lives. Egyptian Arabic passes this test. Egyptian Arabic is used on a daily basis by millions of people, loading its words, phrases, and structures with an emotional weight that MSA cannot match.
The author is correct to point out “localizing” as the correct term for the process of bringing a film from one language into another. Dubbing a movie does not mean translating the meaning of the words for a foreign audience. It means connecting with that audience by recreating the feeling that the English speakers have when they watch the original. I am doubtful that MSA is capable of this type of connection and creation.
I don’t see it as “shame” so much, as a wish for the more natural communication that ‘ammiyya allows. Who wants to feel and sound stilted when shooting the breeze or having a chat? The more abstract the subject matter becomes, then the more MSA enters the conversation. These are matters of ease and practicality more than of shame. If Disney’s dubbed language and lyrics sound stilted and unnatural, then maybe the Disney people should have tried harder to use today’s more accessible and contemporary MSA registers as reflected on satellite TV and in Facebook. (On the latter point I must take QF’s word!)
Thanks Eric. I agree with everything you say.
I would say that there’s also a sort of “mesolect” that can be heard on channels like LBC. Many consider this to just be “bad Arabic,” but I think there’s a place for it. Otherwise, there is a richness and inventiveness seen in colloquial Arabic that is a wonderful thing, and not just in terms of expressions and vocabulary. The present continuous that Levantine Arabic has is a great example of grammatical dynamism that makes Arabic richer, not poorer.
Let’s all give a big round of applause to Dr. Bashar Assad for his glowing win* in yesterday’s election. This will bode well for Syrians and those interesting in the well-being of the Syrian state.
If you know the result ahead of time, you are voting for the real powerbroker. If you don’t know the result in advance, then you are voting for a position that hardly matters.
Get a life…
Oh a life you mean like the millions of Arabs killed by the Lion of the resistance that you worship..too busy hating the only democracy around where Arabs are treated like princes like bla bla bla. ..
Again… get a life.
A lot of opinions on here are being expressed in favor of “colloquial” (or “vernacular”, or “spoken”, or “localized”, or however you want to describe it) Arabic that I feel I need to come out in favor of MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) to balance things out a little and restore some perspective.
I’ll grant Elias that his New Yorker essay was beautifully written, well argued and highly entertaining. I’ll also grant its critics that MSA is indeed quite archaic and hardly appropriate for “shooting the breeze” or everyday use. However, the solution to this problem in my mind is not to dismiss MSA in favor of the colloquial or vernacular or spoken, but to modernize MSA so that it can work better as a daily, spoken language.
MSA has its virtues that cannot be ignored. It is standardized, hence universally understood. More importantly, it valiantly attempts to bridge the chasm between the written and the spoken word, in the process correctly endorsing the written word as the only reliable recorder/transmitter of knowledge and facilitator of learning.
In contrast, colloquial Arabic, however fun and “dynamic” it might be, is a disaster. It is ambiguous and ephemeral, in that it only exists in people’s minds and voices. There is no way to learn it other than to immerse oneself for protracted lengths of time in the midst of crowds dabbling in it, which is an inefficient activity with a prohibitive opportunity cost. Even then, the fact that there is no written, central repository to refer back to in times of confusion or disagreement means that sometimes trying to correctly attribute specific words to specific origins or meanings is a veritable “mission impossible”.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in situations with colloquial Arabic speakers where I enquired about a word they uttered and the best they could come up with was, “This is a word that we used in my household while I was growing up”. This line frankly exasperates me and raises all sorts of alarm bells in my mind as to the provincial, desperate, anti-intellectual and extremely low-quality conversation that I am having.
It almost seems that anyone can branch off colloquial Arabic by contriving a word, speaking it in the hope that it sticks in the minds of others, and then arbitrarily attributing it over time to the regional vernacular. Naturalists might refer to this as “speciation”. Technologists might refer to it as “fragmentation”. But without a reliable, erudite mechanism in place whereby these linguistic innovations, assuming of course that they are worthwhile, are filtered down to their best and most substantive which are then updated into written MSA, one must wonder if the benefits of this ad-hoc, improvised, unconstrained method of colloquial language “evolution” are worth its costs.
What are the costs? Here are a few that immediately come to mind: It disadvantages anyone who is not continuously immersed in all that vernacular and colloquial speaking. Like, for example, the children of expatriate parents, who eventually get tormented by everyone, from their grandmothers who taunt them that they “speak Arabic like Armenians” to the petty, native folk who wonder aloud things like, “You don’t speak Arabic like a Lebanese” or worse, “You don’t speak Lebanese”.
It also disadvantages anyone who might be speech-impaired, hard-of-hearing or simply introverted, preferring to stay at home and read or write a book instead of going out to the neighborhood café and sparring with the masses in the richness of the spoken tongue. To hear the critics of MSA argue it, these “non-speakers” possess no enriching language at all, which is obviously absurd. On the contrary, it could be argued that, following the time-worn and valid aphorism that “talk is cheap”, what non-speakers do with a language they are presumably reading and writing instead is far more valuable and enduring than what speakers do with it. To reason otherwise is to relegate intellectual authority over Arabic to, for lack of a better description, the babblers, under the mistaken, capitulating, unsubstantiated and too convenient notion that they know better, when in all likelihood they don’t! To endorse this policy all the while genuinely believing that writers are a sclerotic bunch incapable of either innovation, modernization or relevance is in my mind a colossal blunder.
Finally, let’s recognize that there are contemporary use cases where both MSA and colloquial Arabic fail miserably. For example, I work in IT (Information Technology) in the US and I average several hours a week of watching online training videos on fast-moving, highly-technical IT content. I can tell you that Arabic, whether MSA or colloquial, “archaic” or “dynamic”, has lost all relevance in this area. Occasionally, I’ll stumble onto a YouTube video where someone in Egypt or Saudi Arabia is giving a tech talk in Arabic, and it simply doesn’t work. The core technical concepts, like “megabyte”, “gigahertz”, “flash memory”, “multi-core”, “virtualization”, “Spanning Tree Protocol”, “Wave Division Multiplexing”, etc. can only be communicated in English. So giving a tech talk in Arabic ends up being this horrible, pastiche presentation where Arabic is relegated to merely providing the utilitarian “glue” that stitches the crucial English together. This problematic pastiche is exacerbated to the point of ridiculousness if the Arabic “glue” that’s deployed is of a colloquial variety that the Arabic listener barely understands. It’s so bad that I am convinced it’s hopeless. Basically, I am of the opinion that, forget MSA versus colloquial, Levantine versus Maghrebi, Arabs should just throw in the towel and give tech talks 100% in English.
Arabic broadcast television also has this problem. For a while, MSA tried referring to the computer as the “7asoob” [from the same Arabic root for “tally” or “calculate” that derives other Arabic nouns for “account”, “accountant” and “calculator”] and it never stuck. The colloquials didn’t have a viable, native offering either. So now everybody just uses “computer”, and spells it out in Arabic. “Computer” is basically leading the charge of technical Arabic loan words that are increasingly being borrowed from English. More recently, MSA is now trying to refer to the drone as the “6a2ira bidoon 6ayyar” [airplane without a pilot]. I think they’ll realize soon enough that this doesn’t work either, and as with the computer will revert to using “drone” and merely spelling it out in Arabic.
And yet, I am willing to bet that mischievous Arabic speakers and commentators will still proceed to creatively and dubiously argue that “drone” is pronounced differently in one Arabic dialect versus another. I’m being sarcastic of course, but this kind of assertion is irritating precisely because short of blindly relying on a cottage industry of embedded and immersed “experts”, it can only be independently, momentarily validated by moving to the different countries involved and speaking to all the inhabitants who live there, which is expensive, time-consuming and frankly preposterous. To the cautious cynic, it comes across as a fruitless exercise in pointless, bunk, “folk wisdom”.
It also fails to answer the most pragmatic of all questions: Why should anyone care about this stuff? More critically and perhaps relevantly, why should even Disney care, one of only three animation studios (the other two being Dreamworks and Pixar), all based in the US, capable of producing world-class feature films, and even then each only having the resources to release one, maybe two, titles a year?! I have yet to see “Frozen” in either its English let alone its Arabic variants, but I’d hazard that even with its perhaps botched, MSA-driven localization, this Disney production more than fulfills its end of the bargain to the Arabs, and more than meets them half-way.
Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I’ll put together a response tonight, addressing your many points.
However, the solution to this problem in my mind is not to dismiss MSA in favor of the colloquial or vernacular or spoken, but to modernize MSA so that it can work better as a daily, spoken language.
To be fair, I never advocated dismissing MSA in favor of the colloquial per se; I simply feel that the latter is more appropriate for many forms of cultural expression, like children’s cartoons, for example.
As for modernizing MSA, that’s something that one often hears touted as a “solution” to the diglossic situation in the region, but it’s easier said than done. Structurally speaking, there’s nothing wrong with MSA or anything preventing it from being a spoken language. It’s just that people speak other languages, or what we refer to as “the dialects” (more on that later).
How would one modernize MSA so that it “works better”? One thing that is often suggested is incorporating more words from the colloquial lexicons into the MSA curricula. For example, why teach children that the correct way to say “to go” in “real Arabic” is dhahaba, rather than the verb raa7a, which is a perfectly good Arabic verb? We could also simplify some of the grammatical rules that no longer play a significant semantic role (e.g. subjunctive accusative markers, the impossibly complicated numeral rules, etc.)
I think that a lot of these ideas make sense, and they amount to what Sean calls above a “mesolect”, or what Arabic teaching professionals refer to as “Educated Spoken Arabic”. The problem is that there are several varieties of this mesolect, depending on what country one is in.
Samer said: “In contrast [to MSA], colloquial Arabic, however fun and “dynamic” it might be, is a disaster. It is ambiguous and ephemeral, in that it only exists in people’s minds and voices. There is no way to learn it other than to immerse oneself for protracted lengths of time in the midst of crowds dabbling in it, which is an inefficient activity with a prohibitive opportunity cost.”
All language is ambiguous and ephemeral. All language requires immersing oneself among other speakers in order to become fluent. A language that has no native speakers is a dead language; this is not a pejorative, but rather a technical definition of a dead language. Even languages that are grapholects (i.e. that have a massive written archive, a “central repository” as you nicely put it) are ambiguous and ephemeral. English is constantly mutating. There are words and expressions that I hear older English speakers use all the time that are mysterious to me, and I consider myself a native speaker of English.
“It almost seems that anyone can branch off colloquial Arabic by contriving a word, speaking it in the hope that it sticks in the minds of others, and then arbitrarily attributing it over time to the regional vernacular. Naturalists might refer to this as “speciation”. Technologists might refer to it as “fragmentation”. But without a reliable, erudite mechanism in place whereby these linguistic innovations, assuming of course that they are worthwhile, are filtered down to their best and most substantive which are then updated into written MSA, one must wonder if the benefits of this ad-hoc, improvised, unconstrained method of colloquial language “evolution” are worth its costs.
What you are describing is the natural state of any living language. This is not a feature of vernacular languages alone. Any language that is used for written and oral expression by people who are natively fluent in it is constantly changing. In languages that have academies that protect its borders and jealously prevent neologisms from springing up left and right, there is still a basic level of linguistic drift and change.
“What are the costs? Here are a few that immediately come to mind: It disadvantages anyone who is not continuously immersed in all that vernacular and colloquial speaking. Like, for example, the children of expatriate parents, who eventually get tormented by everyone, from their grandmothers who taunt them that they “speak Arabic like Armenians” to the petty, native folk who wonder aloud things like, “You don’t speak Arabic like a Lebanese” or worse, “You don’t speak Lebanese”.
I feel your pain. But how is this situation so different from the person who learns English as a second language and recognized as a non-native speaker? The children of expatriate parents cannot be called native speakers of vernacular Arabic, just as they are not native speakers of MSA. The difference is that they can more readily gain access to MSA because they can buy a copy of al-Kitaab on Amazon and take college courses in MSA, whereas the state of colloquial pedagogy is not quite as advanced. But it’s not a qualitatively different situation.
It also disadvantages anyone who might be speech-impaired, hard-of-hearing or simply introverted, preferring to stay at home and read or write a book instead of going out to the neighborhood café and sparring with the masses in the richness of the spoken tongue. To hear the critics of MSA argue it, these “non-speakers” possess no enriching language at all, which is obviously absurd.
No argument from me here, but why not encourage literary production in both MSA and the vernaculars?
I’ll address the rest of your comment later. Thanks again.
What do you think of Sgt. Bergdahl’s fiasco?
Correct. Fiasco. This is another act by the president of the US that defines him and his world-view to a “T”.
I was listening to my local, conservative talk radio station. They mentioned that this soldier was not only “AWOL”, but he sternly denounced the military and the USA and put his comrades in mortal danger. If that wasn’t enough, the US government PROMOTED this soldier twice while in captivity. I haven’t verified this, but I’ll assume it’s true.
This is another case where President Obama rewards anti-government actions by people in responsible positions. Obama favors dissent. He was a community organizer who always could be trusted to support the weak no matter what. And I mean no matter what. As he wife whined during his election campaign, “This is the first time I’ve been proud to be an American” (paraphrasing). His dubious friends and colleagues notwithstanding.
Obama’s agenda of weakening the US economically, internationally and militarily is going exactly as planned. His interest in making Americans more dependent is going as planned. And I still have brain-dead jewish acquaintances who still revere this man.
When new words are introduced into Arabic languages (say a word like “internet” or “radio”) are they the same word in the MSA and the dialects? Is the word the same across the different dialects?
While waiting for a serious answer to AIG’s language question, I’m reminded of how in the early going many years ago I memorized the MSA word for train. In speech everyone refers to it as a “train,” but the MSA word fit neatly into the memory-phrase “while my qitar gently weeps.” It was all downhill from there, though….
It’s usually not, which is what one often finds in other languages as well. The word for “computer” in MSA was initially ḥāsūb (حاسوب), but people just said “computer”, so MSA has sort of absorbed that word as well.
When the different dialects use a different new words, what gets absorbed into MSA? For example, the word “newspaper” is only a couple of hundred years old. Or how about the word “automobile”? How is it different across the dialects and MSA? I am trying to find words that are relatively new and used daily but were not copied almost in full from other languages (like the word “television” which has basically been taken as is into Arabic).
The reason I am asking is because how changes are absorbed can give a hint whether MSA and the dialects will converge or diverge in the future.
For those discussing MSA and colloquialism, I just heard a new colloquial.
It comes from hack as in hacking a computer or an online account.
Should it be absorbed to MSA?
A lot of neologisms were derived from already existing words, like elections coming from the verb “to select.” Other times, older words were repurposed for things like newspaper from the word for a list or register, or even further back, a palm leaf stalk. The word for car is interesting, since it varies by dialect. In Levantine dialects, it is derived from the verb “to walk,” whereas in Egypt, ‘arabiya is used for a car and also for a cart or wagon (in Lebanon, we use the same root, ‘arabaya for stroller or shopping cart as well). To the best of my knowledge, ‘araba is the most common MSA term for car and shares its root with the Egyptian word. Elias will correct me, but as far as I know, it originally comes from a fast-moving river. (I’d be curious as to why it shares a root with “Arab.”) In places like Algeria, however, the common term is an arabized version of the French “automobile.” Here, the folk etymology sounds reasonably legit: “al-Tomobil” deriving from a confusion of the French “auto-” for “al-To-” in Arabic.
If this recent review of the opus of Ahmed Faris Al-Shidyāq’s Leg over Leg is correct (again Elias can correct me), Al-Shidyāq, as a leader of the modernization of Arabic during al-Nahda made a lot of decisions about which derivations and neologisms for new words were to be adopted by MSA. I have no idea who makes similar decisions today, but I suspect there’s a bias toward Egyptian and/or Levantine usage.
does arabic have a central languge authority like the hebrew acadmy in israel or does each state regulets its own dilect and the arab league regulate ” official ” arabic
Brilliant article! Totally agree and really enjoyed reading it.
There have been some creative additions to standard Arabic that make it more capable of representing non-Arabic words, although these changes have hardly become standard. Consider the example of “computer”, which is written
An Arab may pronounce this as “combuter” because ‘p’ does not exist in MSA (which explains why many Arabs struggle to learn certain words in English)
However, there are “new” letters being used which address this fact (adopted from Persian, Kurdish, and other languages). Some of the most significant I have seen are:
Arabic letter ‘p’ – پ (Pakistan)
Arabic letter ‘v’ – ڨ (Venus)
Arabic letter ‘g’ – گ (Gamal)
(May be hard render the letters, depending on browser character-set encoding)
There would be much controversy officially appending these to MSA, but I wonder what entity would have the authority to do so?
Do you know what is the best thing about this article? Perspective.
Wherever you go, everyone is talking about the Arabic language and how we are using it less everyday. This article, on the other hand, presents a refreshing point of view.
Classic Arabic is a beautiful language, but I agree that Disney shouldn’t have used it for translating Frozen. Using the Egyptian dialect would have been much closer to the actual script…much less frigid.
In short, I do believe that we should preserve our Classic Arabic language, but I think that we need to think and decide if it will serve the purpose or not before we use it.
Found your article and this response while doing some research on this topic. It’s been quite a while now, but I am not sure if this ever reached you, so posting it in case you wish to comment on yet another accusation that you are conspiring against MSA.