“Immigrants to a new country bring their language into contact with each other and with those of existing population” (Edwards 1994, 33)


There has been a long history of interaction and trade between Britain and the Arab world which can be traced back to the medieval time. During the nineteenth century, Yemeni sailors lived around the docks. Arab migrations to the UK substantially started in the 1930s and 1940s. The 2001 census found that over 106,000 Arabs lived in London. Arabic speakers from different Arabic countries live, study and work in London. The largest Arab communities in London come from Somalia, Iraq, Egypt and Morocco. There is a large Arab population in Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. (Museum of London, 2009)

Ethnic neighbourhoods provide social and cultural support for the new comers. In these neighbourhoods, immigrants get the chance to buy their food so and goods, and speak their languages which help them maintain some aspects of the life they were used in their countries and ease their transfer into the new country.   As Horvath (1998) states ethnic neighbourhoods help immigrants in finding a “place to speak” their languages within the host speech community (p.90). In London, Arabic is a minority language in contact with English, a dominant language, and other languages. When languages come into contact, they influence and change each other.

In this paper, I am focusing on Arabic speakers in London as a speech community. I will start by a brief description of the Arabic language and examine the question of Arabic diglossia. Then, I will study the language contact that happens among different dialects of Arabic which might require language accommodations.  In addition, I will study language contact between English and Arabic, examine bilingualism, and address the issue of language choice of bilinguals. I will address language maintenance factors and the question of Arabic as an identity.  Finally, a closer consideration is given to Arabic as a holy language and to the Islamic influence on Arabic. Given the limited length of my paper, I will not consider Arabic influence on English.

The Arabic Language:

Arabic is a Semitic language. In 22 Arabic countries in the Middle Eastern and North African, Arabic is an official language.  Some Arabic countries have a second official language such as French in Tunisia. Classical Arabic dates from the 6th century A.D., and maybe earlier (Haywood and Nahad, 2003). Classical Arabic is the language of classical poetry and the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. It is considered by Muslims to be God’s revelation to prophet Mohammed. Therefore, Classical Arabic holds a prestige high position in Arabic and Muslim countries.  However, Classical Arabic is considered a dead language because there are no speakers who have Classical Arabic as their First language. (Wardaugh 2006)

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is derived from classical Arabic and it is the official language of writing in the Arabic world. For the regular Arabic speaker, Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are the same; both called ‘Fusha’.

In addition to Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic, there is a wide range of regional dialects across the Arab world.  Dialects vary a lot within each country and from one Arabic country to another. At some extent, they become mutually unintelligible among people from geographically far areas. These dialects are the varieties of language which all Arabic speakers learn as their first language before they start their education at school or their Islamic education. All school materials, in all subjects, are written in MSA. Also, news broadcasts, religious programmes, documentaries and historical dramas are all conducted in MSA. Therefore, Arabic speakers have long exposure to MSA through school and media. (Holes 1995)

Despite the various different dialects in the Arab world, Classical Arabic provides a unifying force that creates a feeling of “common Linguistics ancestry” among Arabic speakers. (Wardaugh 2006, 38).  In general, there are no grammatical differences between Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic, only style and vocabulary. However, both classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are different from the regional dialects spoken by Arabs. For example, Moroccan Arabic differs from MSA in many aspects, as Bentahila (1983) argues,

The considerable difference between Moroccan and Classical Arabic, at the levels of phonology, grammar and vocabulary, should not be underestimated.  For instance, some of the phonemes of classical Arabic have no counterparts in Moroccan Arabic, which also lacks many of the inflections of classical Arabic, but exhibits more freedom in word order. Many lexical items existing in both varieties have different meanings in each, while Moroccan Arabic’s vocabulary also differs from that of Classical Arabic in the large number of words which have been borrowed into it from French and Spanish.(p.4)

Diglossia and Prestige of Arabic Varieties

According to Ferguson (1959) Arabic is a diglossic language. He states that Classical Arabic is the ‘High’ variety which is used in formal and written context, while spoken Arabic is the ‘Low’ variety.  His idea about language diglossia has been quoted in numerous sociolinguistics studies.

However, there have been so many arguments against his simplified, or oversimplified, description of Arabic.   For example, Edwards (1994) state that Arabic varieties range as a spectrum rather than the High and Low dichotomy described by Ferguson.  Both Edwards (1994, 86) and Holes (1995) agree with Badawi’s (1973) descriptions of the five levels of Arabic:

  1. Fusha al-turath: Classical Arabic, Ferguson’s H variety
  2. Fusha al-casr: Modern Standard Arabic, the current literary medium, only written
  3. Cammiyyat al-muthaqqafin: High Standard Colloquial, the usual spoken variety of educated people dealing with serious topics – part of Ferguson’s L
  4. Cammiyyat al mutanawwirin: Middle Standard Colloquial, the everyday language of the literate – part of Ferguson’s L
  5. Cammiyyat al-ummiyyin: Low Colloquial, the everyday language of the illiterate – part of Ferguson’s L. Edwards (1994, 86).

Furthermore, Eisele (2002) agrees with the argument of dividing the linguistic continuum up into various levels, rather than two only.  In addition, in his sociology of language, Fishman (1972) states that in general Classical Arabic is used for traditional Islamic studies, while a vernacular is used for informal conversations, and sometimes a Western language is used for “intragroup scientific or technological communication” (p.96). Fishman indicates that the verities used are more flexible and changeable than Ferguson Definition.

Moreover, in terms of perceived prestige and intelligibility, it is interesting to notice that some dialects, usually those of large metropolises such as Cairo and Damascus “are more widely understood than others and have acquired the status of prestige national or even international spoken standards.” (Holes 1995, p. 5) Personally, I come from a small town called Al-Nabik in the suburbs of Damascus. People there speak a local dialect that is unique to Nabik and it is even different from dialects in neighbouring towns and villages.  Speakers of the Nabki dialect switch to Damascus dialect when they talk to non-Nabki people.  However, when I meet a few Nabkis in London, there were other Arabic speakers around, and the Nabki people talked to me in Damascus dialect because it is considered a prestige dialect.

In order to observe the various levels of Arabic in London, I went to London Central Mosque where I could find a majority of Muslim Arabs, and where I could find the ‘High’ level of Arabic in the religious context. All prayers are held in Arabic, and the Friday ceremonies, khotbuah, are presented in Arabic then in English. The speech of an Egyptian imam was a good illustration of Arabic various levels. For example, he used ‘Fusha al-turath’ when reciting for Qur’an, ‘Fusha al-casr’ when leading a Friday ceremony, ‘Cammiyyat al-muthaqqafin’ when talking with other Imams, and ‘Cammiyyat al mutanawwirin’ when speaking with his young son. However, during one of his ceremonies, he switched from ‘Fusha al-casr’ to ‘Cammiyyat al mutanawwirin’ when he was talking about the importance of Islamic education for the younger generations. Level switching is a common phenomenon in Arabic when speakers modify the level of the speech to adapt to their interlocutor, or to show a situational change. A famous example of level switching is Gamal Abdul Nasser, a charismatic Egyptian president, who was “particularly adept at exploiting the connotative and social meanings of different language levels in order to achieve his rhetorical, and indirectly, his political purposes.” (Holes 1995, 283)

In sum, the idea of Arabic being a diglossic language might sound correct at first glance. However a deeper consideration of the various uses of Arabic shows more complicated hierarchy of Arabic varieties than Ferguson’s dichotomy. The suggestions of continuum, range, or spectrum are more effective descriptions. Therefore, the main five levels presented by Badawi offer a more reasonable classification.  In addition, Dialects in the capitals of Arabic countries are usually perceived with more prestige.

Arabic speakers coming in contact

The Arabic speech community in London constitutes of speakers of various dialects. English can function as a lingua franca among them because of their dialectical differences.  However, most Arabs prefer speaking Arabic because it creates a community sense and serves as an evidence of a shared Arabic identity. When they communicate together, some language accommodations take place to ensure mutual intelligibility.

Among the Myths Ferguson mentions about Arabic in his article “Myths about Arabic,” is that whenever an Arabic speaker is asked which dialect is the closest to classical Arabic, the speaker’s answer is most likely to be his own dialect. This is a common view, and from my own experience living with Arabs in American and European diaspora, I have witnessed endless arguments among Arabic speakers from different countries each trying to prove that their own dialect is the closest to Classical Arabic. In addition, Wardhaugh (2006) argues that it is hard to find a standard spoken Arabic because “almost certainly, any Arab will tell you that the variety he or she speaks is the best”(p. 39).

The only exception is that some people from the west of the Arabic world, such as Morocco, Libya, and Algeria, acknowledge that they language has been influenced by the indigenous Berber languages, and by French because of the French colonization. However, Egyptian Arabic and Levantine Arabic are widely understood because of the massive exposure to them through the media and the arts.  Therefore, they do not usually tend to modify their language when speaking with people from other countries.

Abu Melhim (1991) argues that Arabs converse in MSA when they meet, as a linguistic accommodation.  He considers speaking in MSA and bilingual code switching as interdialectal accommodation strategies. However, Holes (1995) states that MSA serves as a “communally-owned linguistic reservoir” where speakers can borrow a word or a phrase to ensure mutual intelligibility. But, in face to face conversation, “a blanket switch to pure MSA is rare indeed” (p.39). Also, Sonia S’hiri (2002) strongly disagrees with Abu Melhim’s argument of using Modern Standard Arabic in interdialectal conversation.

S’hiri conducts a study of the language spoken by some Tunisian journalists and broadcasters living in London when they come in contact with their Arabic speaking Middle Eastern colleagues. They all work at agencies where Arabic is the medium of broadcasting.  The finding of her study is that Tunisians tend to linguistically converge toward their interlocutors.  As a language accommodation, Tunisians modify their language to adapt to their interlocutors and to achieve easier more efficient communications. Moreover, they insist of speaking Arabic to identify with other Arabic speakers and to show friendly attitude. Also, they sometimes switch to English to maintain intelligibility, but eliminate code switching between French and Arabic when talking to people from the Middle East.

All in All, Arabic speakers in London are a speech community that has many sub-communities of spoken dialects. Some Arabic varieties, such Egyptian Arabic, tend to be more easily understood than others. To insure a community sense and a highlight language bond, Arabic speaker is Diaspora speak Arabic with some language accommodations.  However, they rarely speak Modern Standard Arabic in conversations.


In her study of bilingualism among Iraqis in London, Farida Abu Haidar (2002) finds “the bilingualism varies from complete mastery to minimal competence” (p.289). This finding is applicable to the general Arabic community in London. For example, some of the elderly have little interaction with the English speaking community and have all their needs satisfied in their Arabic neighbourhoods.  Therefore, they maintained their Arabic language skills and gained very limited competency of English in limited domains only. However, younger generations, in particular, those born in the UK and educated in English, are competent speakers of English, and they use Arabic in limited domains, at home or at the mosque. Some of them might only know little Arabic vocabulary such as food items or ‘Habibi’, a common Arabic word for “sweetheart”. In between these two extreme levels are Arabic speakers who have competency in both Arabic and English.

Fishman (1972) differentiates between stable and unstable multilingualism. He mentions the example about immigrants in the United States.  They had unstable bilingualism because “English was the only language of values outside of the home” (p.52). Similar scenario applies to many Arabic speakers in London where children become increasingly monolingual in English because of their English education, their interaction with the English speech community, and as they grow older and become more involved with their English social life and English careers. A similar view held by Edwards (1994) in his statement that “the classical pattern for new comers to the United States, for example, was bilingualism (mother tongue and English) by the second generation and English mono lingual by the third” (p.83). Even though this might be the case for some second and third generations Arab in London, there are effective various factors and language maintained efforts, such as constant reinforcement, Arabic media, Arabic schools, and language loyalty as a part of culture loyalty. Islam in particular has an important role in maintaining the Arabic language. I am discussing these factors in the coming parts.

Language choice of Bilinguals

In Fishman terms (1972), the Arabic and English bilingualism in London is better described as bilingualism without diglossia, like the common pattern of bilingualism among immigrants to a new country.  Furthermore, an important element in studying language contact and conflict between Arabic and English is examining language choice and change among Arabic and English bilinguals. Edwards (1994) states that “language choice is non random, and heavily influenced by external constraints” (p.72).

Edwards (1994) and Rouchdy (2002), indicate that three phenomena happen in language contact: borrowing, interference and code switching. To start with code switching, it is very common among competent Arabic and English bilinguals.  As explained by Rouchdy (2002). Code switching happens when both speaker and listener know the two languages involved well enough and they both can differentiate from which language each part of the conversation is. Unlike code switching, borrowing “involves the transfer of lexical items from one language to another” (Rouchdy 2002, p. 163) Also, borrowing is different from interference which is “deviation from the norms of wither languages” Edwards (1994, p. 72).

A common example of interference is a person saying “fanashna” to indicate “we finished” This person maintained the Arabic structure but used the English word “finish”. Another common example of interference is the use of the Arabic definite article (al) with English words, “rayeh ‘ala al-university” to indicate “going to the University.” Unlike interference, when borrowing, a speaker might use an English word within the Arabic sentence without changing it. For example, the Words “fax” or “computer” are borrowed from English into Arabic. In general, borrowing between Arabic and English has a long standing history that is beyond the scope of this paper.

All these three levels of language change are very common and used for different reasons such as change of emphasis, change of the speech situation, changes in content or degree of intimacy.

Language Maintenance and constant reinforcement:

The Arabic speech community in London might not be very different from other immigrants communities, whether in the United Kingdom, or the United States where English is the dominant Language.  Similar to the situation with other minority speech communities, there have been considerable efforts of language maintenance. The main factor is constant reinforcement, either through marriage with people who are Arabic native speakers, or through contact with new comers. Fishman (1991) states that newcomers often “serve as a language learning resource for youngsters”(p. 216).  Furthermore, Arabic cultural establishments and organizations, such as Arab cultural centre and the Arab Club of Great Britain, play an essential role in maintaining the cultural and social activities in London.  These cultural evens and activities contribute to educating people and reconnecting them with their homeland and the homeland of their parents.

Arabic media in London:

A unique thing about London is that it is a centre for Arabic Media. Many Arabic papers and magazines are produced in London, and several TV stations are based in London. Furthermore, the BBC has been broadcasting in Arabic since 1930s.  Hafez (2002) talks about London’s pre-eminence as an Arab Media Centre.  He states that “London is a centre to which Arab journalist, opposition groups and media players have flocked in order to produce newspaper copy, to issue political publications, and to make television programmes and, more recently, to set up internet information services that communicate to the vast Arab Diaspora around the world, as well as to the Arab living in their homeland” (p. 25).

Arabic at schools and universities:

In addition to the previous factors, Arabic schools play an important role in learning and maintaining the Arabic language among Arabs in London. There are about twenty five Arabic schools in London. Also, many universities offer Arabic courses for various levels.

From my experience teaching Arabic at schools and universities both in the United States and the United Kingdom, and from my discussion with other Arabic teachers, there is nowadays an increasing interest in learning Arabic.  It might be due to changing political and economical situations in the world and the increasing importance of the Middle East.  However, many of the students enrolled in Arabic courses at universities are heritage students who want to learn the language of their ancestors and reconnect with their cultural and ethnic identity.

In her studies of seventy nine Arab-American students studying Arabic at Wayne State University, Rouchdy (2002) finds that the reason for studying Arabic for 38% was ethnic identity, and 34% were religious affiliation, and 24% were importance of Arabic from a global perspective.  I believe similar patter can be found among Arabic students in London, but further empirical studies are essential to confirm it.

Arabic as Identity

Maintaining the Arabic language can be a sign of desire to maintain the Arabic identity among Arabs in London. Wardhaugh (2006) states that Language can be a “profound indicator of identity” (p. 6).  As I discussed earlier, for speakers of the different varieties of colloquial Arabic, their Arabic is a common Linguistic ancestry. It creates a sense of ethnic identity among Arab.  Furthermore, the desire to speak and learn Arabic by second and third generations of British Arab can be part of cultural loyalty, not merely language loyalty, in order to re reconnect with their roots, as argued by Edward (1994).

When considering Arabic language in the American Diaspora, Rouchdy (2002) concludes that “it might be affected linguistically by English to the point where it ceases to be used among some Arab American, but it will never die.” (p.143). According to Rouchdy (2002), speaking Arabic is an expression of identity. Standard Arabic is a common denominator that is bringing Arab speakers together, whether in the Arab world or among ethnic group in Diaspora.  Similar views are expressed by Boumans and Ruiter (2002) who study aspects of Moroccan Arabic in European Diaspora: They conclude that code switching between Arabic, Berber and the dominant language, will remain a “feature of the Moroccan communities in Europe.” An important aspect is “the use of Moroccan discourse markers and formulaic expressions as a means of expressing ethnic identity and solidarity.” (p. 282)

The discussion of Arabic language and Arabic identity in London is highly connected to the issue of pluralism and assimilation. When immigrants live in a new country they are encouraged to fully participate in the national life, which might be considered as invitation for assimilation. On the other hand, considering Multiculturalism and plurality requires supporting the immigrants’ communities in maintaining their languages and cultures. London is considered by many as a multicultural diverse city and therefore Arabs are more likely to maintain their Arabic identity, I believe.

Arabic and Islam:

For the majority of Muslims, Arabic is part of their religious identity. It is the language of Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.  Muslims believe that the Quran is God’s words revealed to prophet Mohammad. Therefore, Arabic has a high status among Muslims since it is ‘the divine’ language of heaven. Also, the Qur’an is believed to be the ‘the miracle of Muhammad’ and the only evidence he had to convince people that he is the messenger of God.

In addition, all Muslims are encouraged to learned Arabic in order to read Qur’an to fulfill their religious duties.  Even though, there are many interpretations and translations of the Qur’an into various languages, it is a common view that these interpretations are not accurate and can’t convey the exact meaning of Qur’an.  As Abdul-Raof (2004) states in his article “an English Quran is a translational impossibility”(p. 106).  Furthermore, there is a consensus among Muslim scholars that the Qur’an must be read in Arabic during prayers by Arab and Non-Arab Muslims.

In London, there are over 603,000 Muslims.  The majority of London’s Muslims comes from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. (Museum of London, 2009).  In addition, there are more than 150 Mosques in London. These mosques are places for the prayers and worship, in addition to being community centres. Most mosques offer Islamic studies and Arabic classes. Therefore, there is a community encouragement and a religious motivation to learning Arabic for all Muslims since it is part of their religious practice.  (Gailani 2000)

Furthermore, since Arabic is considered a holy language that God choose to reveal his massage to mankind, there has been almost no change to Arabic grammar since 6th century A.D.  and it still applies to present Modern Standard Arabic. (Haywood and Nahad, 2003). A similar view presented by Fishman (2002) in his discussion of holy languages:

On the whole, however, secular vernaculars have come and gone throughout human history, whereas religious classical and the vernaculars that they influenced most thoroughly (e.g., the “Luther Bible” of trilingual Old Order Amish) seem to dig-in and hang-on almost ‘eternally’(p. 23).


The Arab Immigrants to London brought their language into contact with each other and with other languages. Within the Arabic speech community various levels of Language contact take place between different dialects.  Also Language choice can vary according to the context and the interlocutors. The Ferguson’s idea of diglossia can perfectly describe the uses of Arabic language if it is extended to distinguishing various hierarchal levels, instead of a simple high and low dichotomy.

Furthermore, different levels of bilingualism exist among Arabs in London, and the use of both English and Arabic is determined by sociological factors. Even though, English is a dominant language and Arabic is a minority language, Arabic speakers maintained their language for many reason and with the help of various factors, in particular because Arabic is viewed as part of their identity. In addition, Arabic is considered a holy language for both Arab and non Arab Muslims.


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Note: This research was submitted as an assignment for the MA Module “Patterns in Global Sociolinguistics” 






























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