For young Jordanians, many factors motivate choice of dialect

[05-10-2010 12:00 AM]

Ammon News - By Hady Hamdan/ The Jordan TImes

AMMAN - In Jordan's universities, where young people of various backgrounds and hometowns meet and mingle, students say it is common for them to switch between different dialects of Arabic when communicating with their peers.

In a behaviour known to sociolinguists as code switching, Jordanian university students usually alternate between the fallahi (rural) and madani (urban) varieties of what linguists call South Levantine Arabic.

The majority of Jordanians (3.5 million in a 1996 study) speak South Levantine Arabic, varieties of which are also spoken in Palestine, while substantial minorities speak other dialects including Levantine Bedouin (700,000) and Najdi Arabic (50,000), according to, a web-based linguistic research project concerned with world languages. Egyptian and Mesopotamian dialects are also spoken in the Kingdom.

A main difference between the fallahi and madani varieties is the pronunciation of the letter "qaf", pronounced variably like a "k" or a hard "g" by fallahi speakers, but replaced in madani with a silent glottal stop, according to linguists.

Many students told The Jordan Times that they frequently switch between the two dialects, but differed in their explanations as to why they do so.

Experts point out social reasons behind the phenomenon.

Hussein Khozai, associate professor of sociology at Balqa Applied University, attributed the tendency of students to shift to the open atmosphere of universities.

"The social atmosphere in our universities is more open and free from any linguistic biases, as students come from different cultures, social statuses and sometimes nationalities," the sociologist said.

Majd Shereedah, a 21-year-old student at the University of Jordan (UJ) who speaks fallahi at home, explained that she sometimes switches to madani at university as a “of solidarity” with her peers.

“I think it’s fun if you shift to your friend’s dialect sometimes. It makes us sound similar and removes social or cultural differences,” she said.

Khozai noted that females tend to switch dialects more than males, as they are less likely than males to receive criticism for doing so, especially by their families.

“I believe that students, who shift dialects within their universities, do not shift when they go back home, because the university atmosphere is more open than their traditional home atmosphere,” he explained.

Shatha Alawneh, another UJ student, said that in addition to changes in pronunciation, she modifies her accent and uses some different words when switching between the two dialects - which, she said, she now does unconsciously.

“I used to think that speaking fallahi would diminish my femininity,” Alawneh said, “but I realised that it doesn’t and I like it more now as it shows my identity”.

Context matters when deciding which dialect to use, students pointed out.

“I think that it all depends on where you are talking and to whom,” Haneen Abu Hmeidan said, quoting the saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Shahin Shaheen, a student at the Petra University, agreed with Abu Hmeidan.

“I speak madani all the time, but I don’t mind using [fallahi] here and there when I feel the situation requires changing the way I talk,” Shaheen said.

Amjad Abu Nijem, a recent graduate of the Hashemite University, illustrated Shaheen’s point with an example.

“I tend to shift from my dialect to the dialect of the person I’m talking to if they are of a superior social status,” he said, adding, however, that he does not do the same when speaking to people of his own class.

Student Haneen Orabi attributed the tendency of girls, in particular, to switch from fallahi to madani to social pressures.

“It happens a lot that a guy sees a girl, thinks she is pretty, but when he hears that she speaks fallahi, he backs off,” she said, suggesting that such experiences might have led some females to shift.

Such language shifts occur everywhere and in many different languages, according to Professor Fawwaz Al Abed Al Haq, dean of the Faculty of Arts at Al al Bayt University.

“The shifts between dialects can be attributed to speakers’ different linguistic environment, linguistic accommodation and social intelligence, social status, and finally superiority and imitation, such as imitating the dialect of a superior person,” Al Haq said.

“Most of those who shift from the fallahi dialect to madani think that the madani dialect is more prestigious and thus that it will provide them with more respect, make them look more educated,” the professor pointed out.

“However, this belief is not right and does not reflect reality.”

Conversations with members of the opposite sex are also a common situation in which code switching occurs, Abu Nijem explained.

“I shift with girls that I do not know so as to remove any social differences,” he noted, stating that he tends to be “more spontaneous” and speak his own dialect if he is talking to a girl that he knows well.

While some tend to shift temporarily in limited contexts, others said they have shifted completely away from the dialect they were brought up speaking.

Nida Ammar, who grew up in Jordan but whose parents speak a Palestinian dialect, said she now speaks madani most of the time.

“I think using madani was a way of socialisation for me or a kind of peer pressure that developed into a habit because I have been exposed to it all my life, in university and in school,” Ammar explained, adding that she still speaks her parents’ dialect, but only at home.

Not all young people approve of switching between dialects, however. Aseel Ahmad, a 20-year-old student at UJ, said she considers it “unhealthy”.

“It is better to be more natural and stick to your dialect,” she said.

Whatever the reason that motivates them to switch dialects, those who do said they still cherish the dialect they grew up speaking.

“I like to shift,” Shereedah said, “but in the end, I think that my original dialect is more expressive”.

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