Tunisian Arabic as a Written Language: Vernacularization and Identity
McNeil, Karen Lynn
Social and technological changes over the past several decades have led to widespread writing of “spoken” Arabic dialects. However, there is little quantitative research on this phenomenon and most existing research is limited to Egypt and Morocco. In addition, little is known about the characteristics of these newly written vernaculars, even though encoding an unwritten language in writing is not merely a technical assignment of sound to letter. Rather, it is a complex process that must balance practical considerations with ideological stances, such as autonomy from the standard language (Mühleisen 2005). The spread of vernacular into writing and the accompanying tension over its form constitutes the process of vernacularization.This dissertation documents and analyzes this vernacularization as it is occurring in Tunisia, examining how Tunisians writing in dɛrja collectively position themselves in relation to Standard Arabic, French, and other Arabic vernaculars. Using a 32-million-word online corpus and an innovative method for quantifying language choice, I found that the proportion of Tunisian Arabic on the online forum studied increased from 19.7% in 2010 to 69.9% in 2021. Vernacular writing likewise flourished in print during this period: though the first Tunisian Arabic novel did not appear until 2013, there are now nine vernacular novels, in addition to several translations, memoirs, and children’s books. I examined the characteristics of these Tunisian Arabic writings both online and print and found that writers who promote Tunisian Arabic as an independent “language” were more likely to use phonemic, rather than etymological spellings: anti-dɛrja forum users used phonemic spellings less than half of the time (48.3%) while 66.9% of pro-dɛrja writers’ spellings were phonemic. I argue that these writers are asserting a Tunisian national identity – in contrast or even opposition to an Islamic pan-Arab identity – both through their use of vernacular in writing and the textual choices they make. I also show that even anti-dɛrja writers usually express their arguments in vernacular, underlining the extent to which Tunisian Arabic has become normalized as a written language. Through this analysis, this study provides a valuable window into the process of vernacularization in the Arab world.
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