Morphological Variation in Regional Modern Standard Arabic


Marshall Building, Room 490
845 N. Park Ave.
85719 Tucson


Fri, 08/31/2018 - 3:00pm to Thu, 01/27/2022 - 1:38pm


Part of the Fall 2018 Middle Eastern and North African Studies Colloquium Series


Mahmoud Azaz, Assistant Professor, School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Arizona 

Essa Alfaifi, Ph.D. Candidate, School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Arizona 


Work in Arabic linguistic variation has focused on dialect typological variations (Abd-El-Jawad, 1987; Farwaneh, 2009; Holes, 2004; Kiparsky, 2003; Watson, 2002, among others). Not only does this line of research usually assume that a considerable amount of variation exists among Arabic spoken dialects, but it also posits that Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is a single variety in Arabic regions (Versteegh, 2014). The idea that MSA may not necessarily be a uniform variety has not been addressed to a great extent in previous research. In this talk, we examine a single aspect of variation in MSA, which is morphological variation which describes two (or more) surface forms that were constructed from a single underlying root without apparent difference in meaning (bunuuk and ʔabnaak ‘banks’). We undertake the question whether native speakers are aware of the morphological variants in regional MSA and whether this awareness influences their preferences of regional morphological variants.  A total of thirty-three Saudi speakers–– including males and females, all at a similar educational level–– were asked to show their preference for thirty Saudi and Egyptian morphological variants (of three different word classes) in a contextualized acceptability judgment and forced-choice tasks in the written mode. The contextualized acceptability judgment task requested the participants to evaluate their acceptability of the Egyptian morphological candidates on a six-point scale. The contextualized forced-choice task requested the participants to choose between the Saudi and the Egyptian morphological variants. The results showed a complex pattern. In the contextualized acceptability judgment task, although the Saudi speakers generally disfavored the Egyptian variants, their dispreference varied according to the lexical item at hand. Certain variants showed less acceptability than others. Interestingly, few forms exhibited an opposite pattern of preference; receiving more acceptance than rejection. Results of the forced-choice task clearly confirmed the main pattern of findings in the acceptability task; Saudi educated natives decisively leaned toward the Saudi variants and were less tolerant of the Egyptian candidates. We conclude that morphological variation in regional MSA is real. However, the distribution of morphological variation is better understood of as a continuum in which degrees of acceptability vary from one variant to another. Although morphological variation is not easy to identify by educated Arabic native speakers (in comparison to other types of variation), morphological variants may move up or down on the continuum due to factors such as frequency, extension of its prestige or stigmatization. Further implications in language variation are discussed.