The “Jabali” Language in the Coastal Region of Syria: An Ongoing Struggle between Boundedness and Unboundedness?

Author:Tamam Mohamad (Jawaharlal Nehru University, India)
Speaker: Tamam Mohamad
Topic: Language Minorities and Majorities
COMELA 2021 General Session


It is not unusual in the Arabic region for features of dialects, dialects, and languages to become sectarian/religious varieties (Blanc, 1964; Holes, 1987l; Al Wer et al. 2015). These can become symbolic for the community in question and possibly a means of identity struggle; of solidarity and resistance within the local and bigger social culture (Lanehart, 1996).

This paper is part of a larger project on language change and variation. It investigates the socio-historical dynamics of language and identity of the Alawites in the city of Tartous, Syria. It adopts a bottom-up approach to language which relates the linguistic and non-linguistic variables to the local community’s history and evolution (Al Wer, 2013). Interviews were conducted with different communities in the city during August and September 2019. The focus has been on the Qaf variable as a representative of this struggle (Habib, 2005; Al Wer & Herin, 2011; Al Wer et al., 2013).

The paper reveals the socio-historical shift from unboundedness (before the Ottoman Rule, i.e. before 1615 when Alawites were in the plain) to boundedness (during the Ottoman Rule, i.e. 1615-1918, when Alawites were pushed to mountains) until the 1960s which has resulted in a constructed identity of the community and its language. The challenging of this compound boundedness became apparent with Al-Asaad coming from this community to take on power in the 1970s. This led to a continuous flux of migration of these people to the city to form the majority after being the minority, which resulted in a struggle from below and from above. A state of ongoing drive towards unboundedness can be seen in the young generation born in the city until the beginning of the Syrian war, which has shaken this ongoing drive. We believe that “genealogical origins”, “geographical provenance” and “social barriers” have contributed to this struggle (Al Wer, et al. 2015). However, we also see politics, power and language as major players in this struggle which is realized in the socio-political competition between the variants of Qaf, i.e. [q] and [Ɂ]. The [q] has become socially stigmatized though it is similar to the prestigious Standard Arabic. It has become associated with this community though others speak it. It is still the subject of mockery in soap drama. However, and ironically, it represents an association with power that natives and non-natives to it would use or avoid at special contexts.

Keywords: Syrian Arabic, Change, Religion, Identity, Alawites, Stigmatization, Power