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AURAK Research Colloquium: My Arabic is Not Broken: It is a Pidgin!

December 8, 2019,

Dr. Imed Louhichi did a presentation at the American University of Ras Al Khaimah (AURAK) on his research into Gulf Pidgin Arabic (GPA) titled “My Arabic is Not Broken: It is a Pidgin!” He investigated the functional Arabic spoken in RAK, which is spoken around the Gulf, a subject first investigated by an academic in 1990.

Dr. Imed is an assistant professor at AURAK with a Ph.D. in linguistics from Sussex University in the United Kingdom.

He began by posing the question of what a pidgin is. He said that pidgins are hybrid languages that evolve under contact conditions around the world. Pidgins are characterized by developing under similar socio-economic conditions. They share similar structural designs – reduced or simplified forms of the target language. GPA originated during the oil boom of the 1970s when there was a high proportion of unskilled migrants and relatively few locals. The social distance between local Emiratis, Arab expats and Asian migrants was also a factor in the evolution of the GPA pidgin.

As part of his research, Dr. Imed carried out a sociolinguistic survey aimed at identifying what UAE residents think about Gulf Pidgin Arabic. The 14 questions targeted determining the profile of participants, their awareness of the status of GPA, and their attitudes and opinions about GPA.

The survey revealed generally negative attitudes towards GPA. Some 47% of respondents labelled GPA as “broken Arabic”, 17% as “terrible Arabic”, 13% as “bad Arabic” and 11% as “funny Arabic”. Just 5% said it was Arabic, but another 7% were not sure what it was. When asked what a good name for this language was, 30% said “Hindi Arabic”, 23% said “broken Arabic”, 12% said “Gulf Pidgin Arabic”, 9% said “Asian Arabic” and 8% said “expat Arabic”.

The language is spoken by Asian expats, 76% of respondents said, and is mainly useful for communicating with maids and non-educated workers, according to 70% of those questioned. Despite its usefulness, 68% of respondents said they would not like to learn GPA in a school.

“We should teach good Arabic not broken. We should protect our language from change and interference from other languages. Teaching languages means teaching proper dialect, not a broken one,” one participant said. Another was even more uncompromising, declining to study GPA simply “because it is not a language.”

Those in favor of GPA argue that it is more flexible, with one saying “It is easier and saves time. As long as the information I want to say is accurate, I see no harm.” One other said “Learning proper Arabic is tough”, a comment backed up by Dr. Imed whose illustration of the conjugation of an Arabic verb filled the whiteboard with intimidating complexity.

The presenter said that pidgins share several universal features such as a small lexicon, a lack of inflections and a lack of extensive morphology. The analysis of the data collected from 10 speakers of GPA through story-telling reveals that the same is true of GPA, hence his argument that  “GPA is not simply a broken form of Arabic” but is a “pidgin-in-the-making.”