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 style. 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 city. "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 Egypt.
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