Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 6, 1995

New Book Explores Way Women of Cairo Utilize Language

By Lisa Mastny

     The Middle East is a complex region. For centuries,
historians, politicians, archaeologists and energy analysts have
sought to unlock its mystery and charm as well as to understand
the underlying tensions dividing its vast territories.

     But amid conflicts over land, oil and religion, which may
seem distant and confusing to the average American, lies another,
more familiar, dispute--the tension between men and women.  

     Only this time the clash isn't about fidelity, children or
alimony payments.  It's about language.

     For years, sociolinguists have concluded that women, in the
Middle East and around the world, frequently change their
language to more "appropriate" forms in certain situations,
suggesting that the female gender may be more prestige-conscious
than the male. Past studies of urban language use in New York,
Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., have indicated that,
on the whole, women use proper speech, or "standard" English,
more often than their male counterparts.     

     But in a new book, Hopkins linguistic anthropologist
Niloofar Haeri argues that the choices men and women make in
speech cannot be generalized to all cultures, and especially to
those in the Middle East.  

     Dr. Haeri's study focuses on language use in Egypt, a nation
where she finds not one, but two standard languages are used--the
primarily written classical Arabic, as well as the spoken, less
official Egyptian Arabic. In over 87 interviews in Cairo, she
observed that Cairean women use classical language forms less
frequently in conversation and prefer the more familiar Egyptian

     The more frequent use of non-classical, and hence
"non-standard," forms by Cairean women may reflect gender
differences in the way men and women perceive the classical
language, Dr. Haeri said. Women may avoid using classical Arabic
because the official language reinforces traditional sex
stereotypes and a world that does not approve of their education,
rights or full participation in public life.

     "The use of more classical language may have negative
associations for women but positive associations for men," Dr.
Haeri said.  "For many men, the use of classical Arabic is a
confirmation of their own role in all aspects of society,
particularly in public life. Classical Arabic is not a form of
language that seeks to undermine the status quo."    

       Women may also avoid use of the classical tongue because
men associate the language with masculinity and tend to
stereotype feminine pronunciation of the pharyngeals, or guttural
sounds, which are prevalent throughout the language.

     "Some Cairean men claim that women speak classical Arabic
with a weak sound when it should be hard and masculine," Dr.
Haeri said.

     But in many situations, knowledge of classical Arabic may
not even be important, she said. In much of Cairo's professional
world, for example, being conversant in a foreign language can
often get you further than speaking even the purest form of your
own language.

     "In the U.S., if you want a good job, you need to know how
to speak properly, to speak in the 'standard' English of those in
power," Dr. Haeri said.  "But in Egypt and similar countries,
knowledge of classical Arabic is irrelevant for the social
mobility of some people. Many of those in powerful positions
never even learn classical Arabic."

     What they do learn, primarily at the prestigious Catholic
missionary schools, is the French, English, Spanish or German
necessary for an international career in an increasingly global

     "Cairo is the capital of a country which will only integrate
more and more into the capitalist world economy," Dr. Haeri said.
"For any job in research, medicine or banking, knowing a foreign
language is going to be more crucial than being able to recite
classical verse."

     While classical Arabic appears to be losing its significance
among the professionally minded of Egypt, it is, and will
continue to be, one of the primary focuses of Dr. Haeri's work.  

     In addition to discussing the relationship between gender
and language choice, her new book addresses a variety of other
linguistic issues arising in societies where both classical and
non-classical languages co-exist.  

     Above all, Dr. Haeri hopes that her research in Cairo will
highlight many of the specificities in sociolinguistics, her
primary field of study.

     "Historically, there has always been a very powerful
ideology that represents the classical language as the 'real' and
'true' language, while simultaneously denigrating and
stigmatizing any non-classical variety of Arabic," she said.
"Through my research, I wanted to illustrate that other
linguistic varieties, such as Egyptian Arabic, are also
full-fledged languages and can be used for the same purposes as
the classical language."

     "The Sociolinguistic Market of Cairo," Dr. Haeri's first
book, is due out next month. She recently received a National
Science Foundation grant to return to Cairo on a yearlong
research project for her second book, an ethnography of language
use. In the upcoming work, she will continue to discuss the
relations between linguistic practice, ideology and identity in

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