x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

New lingo sets tongues wagging

Defenders of the hybrid dialect, encompassing three languages, say it allows people from different cultural backgrounds to communicate.

Mohammed Hanif, an RAK taxi driver from Pakistan, speaks Gulf Pidgin Arabic. He says the hybrid dialect allows him to communicate with a wider range of passengers.
Mohammed Hanif, an RAK taxi driver from Pakistan, speaks Gulf Pidgin Arabic. He says the hybrid dialect allows him to communicate with a wider range of passengers.

The émigré taxi driver uses three languages in a sentence in an effort to make himself understood as he navigates traffic. While he may not realise it, he is contributing to the development of an emerging form of local communication.

"Acha, acha, acha, ana Waziristan lakin ana no danger man," he says to a passenger. "Pakistan danger ziyada. Roh sida?" The translation: "Good, good, good, I am from Waziristan but I'm not dangerous. In Pakistan there's a lot of danger. Straight ahead?" The message is typical enough, as is the driver's way of expressing it, in a blend of Arabic, English and Urdu. Spoken in taxis, restaurants, souqs and homes across the Gulf, this emerging patois has remained unacknowledged and even been mocked by many Arabic speakers as crass or comical.

That, however, is beginning to change. Gulf Pidgin Arabic (GPA) has caught the ear of language experts who recognise that broken Arabic and the new dialect are not same-same. "Arabs who study Arabic mostly study classical Arabic and I think that it's only recently that even Arabic dialects have been considered worthy topics of research," said the Norwegian linguist Unn Gyda Naess. "It has to do with academic tradition because Fusha, the classical Arabic, is so highly linked to higher education."

Ms Naess found herself captivated by the conversations of migrant workers while working at the Norwegian embassy in Saudi Arabia. Intrigued, she made it the topic of her master's thesis. She found that the pidgin had specific rules for grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, which she believes are still changing and evolving. Not everyone in the academic community is as receptive to GPA. To some, it is a threat to the integrity and beauty of Arabic.

The limited vocabulary of pidgin prevented people from forging the deeper cultural and social bonds they might build by speaking the classical language of the region, said Dr Ahmad al Zubi, the chairman of the Arabic language and literature faculty at UAE University. "I don't want to see that our cultures are not connected to each other," he said. "The only solution is [Arabic] classes. The Government should teach these courses if they want people to communicate well."

Pidgin, usually a mixture of three or more languages, is a simple dialect used by people who do not share a common tongue. Found the world over, they have no native speakers and are used by groups that have limited contact with each other but need to communicate for a specific reason, such as trade or military purposes. JR Smart coined the term GPA in his 1990 paper Pidginization in Gulf Arabic, which examined its use in newspaper comics. It was almost 20 years, however, before GPA attracted the interest of other academics.

It had existed in some form for a long time because of the Gulf's history as a trade hub, said Dr Fatima Badry, a professor of linguistics at the American University of Sharjah. "Speakers from different linguistic backgrounds try to help each other to communicate," she said. "So, at the beginning, you try to speak the others' language, but when you don't have the vocabulary to do that you go to the vocabulary of your first language. Once the words are being used frequently they become part of the conversational exchange."

If pidgin is passed to a second generation, it can become known as creole, a more stable linguistic entity. Academics will be watching to see if GPA makes the leap. For now, Gulf Pidgin Arabic has helped people from diverse backgrounds to communicate. Mohammed Hanif, 46, a taxi driver from Pakistan, said his experience in dealing with passengers had taught him to appreciate a simpler mode of communication. "I've lived in the Gulf for over 20 years," he said. "When I was new [in the region] I wasn't good at Arabic. In Oman, many people were talking in Arabic and Urdu. Here it's more English. So I had to learn to talk to everybody, so everybody understands." While GPA is earning recognition in academic circles, those who speak it may still find themselves chided by purists for talking like a taxi driver. Given the world of social possibilities it opens up, that may become a compliment.

Gulf Pidgin Arabic (GPA) uses a simplified form of Gulf Arabic both grammatically and phonetically, research by the Norwegian linguist Unn Gyda Naess has shown. For example, standard Gulf Arabic has three classes of negation, while pidgin uses only two - "ma" and the ubiquitous "mafi", which has yielded the well-worn phrase "mafi mushkala", universal Gulfspeak for "no problem". Likewise, the nine vowels and 29 consonants used in Gulf Arabic have been reduced to just five vowels and 18 consonants in GPA. While hard-to-pronounce sounds including the guttural "kh" and "gh" have been dropped, new ones such as "p" have slipped in. GPA uses Arabic as a base and borrows specific words, usually nouns, from other languages. Examples include "chico" for child and the Urdu word "sida" for straight. azacharias@thenational.ae