Arabic as a Minority Language

Arabic as a Minority Language

Arabic as a Minority Language

Arabic as a Minority Language


The present book will be the first to center on the status of Arabic as a minority language. In the first instance it will focus attention on the existence of many varieties of Arabic outside of the Arabic world. It will further contribute to the growing literature on minority languages, placing a special emphasis on the relationship between minority status and language form.


Jonathan Owens

1. Minority and dominant languages*

The notion of a minority language, like all social constructs, is built of several and varying constituent elements. In this section I consider some of the primary components in general terms, with only occasional reference to Arabic, which I will elaborate on in the following five sections.

A basic consideration in the definition of minority language is demography. Minority languages are those whose speakers are fewer than those of another group(s), within a defined area. On the basis of size alone de Vries (1990: 58) briefly points out that in Cameroon the largest language, Fang, is itself a minority (19% of the population) in the country.

Demography alone, however, is rarely a sufficient reason for classifying a language as a minority one. For some writers the socio-political component is ultimately the criterial one: minority languages are those which a given population perceives to be minority ones. An extreme view is found in Wardhaugh (1987: 29), who accords the rubric “minority language” only to those languages whose speakers, the linguistic minority, feel their language as threatened. This view reflects a discourse, established about 25 years ago, built around the linguistic minorities of Europe. Speakers of languages such as Welsh and Breton, seeing their numbers declining, reacted to the threat of extinction with political and social countermeasures. The danger of linking definitions of minority language too strongly to political parameters is that it tends to mask a Euro- or western-centrism. Languages are viewed in terms of the overarching institutions in which they are embedded and the laws which recognize, or fail to recognize them. By these measures many languages in the world, arguably many in Africa for example, but also some varieties of Arabic (see 2.2), fall outside the traditional discourse on minority languages, if only because the political and legal institutions of the states within which they exist are themselves too weak to be a significant factor in defining languages.

Allardt (1984: 201) provides a different frame of reference in proposing four characteristics of minority language groups in terms of ethno-social parameters:

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