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									                          Languages of the Islamic World

Language Classification: Macrolanguage and Diglossia:

A macrolanguage is a grouping of closely related languages that may or may not be mutually
intelligible, that is, speakers of one group may not understand the speakers of another another
within the same macrolanguage. To facilitate communication speakers of a macrolanguage
usually devise a standardized version for use in formal, public occasions, and especially for
written communication. This standardized version is usually not spoken at home. A culture
that is characterized by this multi-tier language use is called a diglossic culture. The culture of
Arabic has been very strongly diglossic. Thus, Arabic is a macrolanguage, and its standardized
public form is called Fusaha; its local varieties--which may be mutually unintelligible--have
until recently been neither named not standardized—they are simply what one speaks at
home, and in the streets.

In addition to this, Islamic cultures have also been strongly diglossic across language
boundaries. One example of this is the situation in the South Asian subcontinent—which
consists of the modern nations of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. South Asian
Muslims have traditionally had a 3-tier system of language use. They have used Fusaha Arabic
for saying their prayers in the mosque or at a saint’s tomb. For bureaucratic and literary
purposes S. Asian Muslims used Persian until the middle of the 19th century. For use at home
and, other informal occasions, South Asian Muslims used a variety of local unnamed and
unstandardized languages. These languages were named and standardized starting in the late-
18th century, and have come to be called ‘Urdu’ and ‘Hindi’. Since Urdu and Hindi are
mutually intelligible we can see them as one spoken macro-language. Anatolia (modern
Turkey) before the 20th century presents another example of a diglossic culture. Historically
Turks used (and continue to use) Fusaha Arabic for saying prayers; for literary purposes they
used a mixture of Turkish and Persian, sometimes increasing the content of Persian in their
Turkish depending on the formality of the occasion—thus courtly Turkish was heavily
Persianized. And, finally, for informal occasions they used varieties of unstandardized
Turkish. What this means is that we cannot simply equate Islamic cultures with Arabic
language. Muslims do indeed recognize the centrality of Fusaha Arabic since the Quran was
revealed in it, but historically Muslims in different parts of the world have used, not just
another language, but combinations of other languages for different contexts. And these
combinations have themselves changed over time. For example, South Asian and Turkish
Muslims no longer use Persian in any context: formal or informal, bureaucratic or literary.

Language classification depends on several issues which we can choose to emphasize or de-
emphasize: should we take mutual intelligibility to be a criterion for a language? Which slice
of time do we focus on for our classification—the modern Muslim community, or the Muslim
community in the past? And if in the past, then which slice of time do we choose? Do we
classify language size according to the number of speakers who grow up speaking that
language (first-language), or the number of speakers who learn the language and achieve
fluency in it through education--as many South Asian and Anatolian Muslims did achieve in
Persian when it was considered the language of prestige and courtly elegance?
The results will vary tremendously depending on which issues we choose to include or
exclude. For example, if mutual intelligibility is not a criterion, then in the modern Islamic
world Fusaha Arabic, with its roughly 221 million speakers, is hands down the largest Islamic
language. But if mutual intelligibility is a criterion then Hindi-Urdu, with its 82 million
speakers, is the largest language grouping in the Islamic world, and Egyptian Arabic is the
second largest, with 54 million speakers; which puts Egyptian Arabic barely ahead of Turkish
with its 50 million speakers.

Literary Cultures of Classical Islam:

All of the above is the case only if we focus on the modern period—after, say, the first part of
the 19th century. If we focus on the historical sweep of Islamic culture in the millennium
between 1000 CE up to beginning of 19th century then the picture is different again. In this
millennium—which we can call the period of mature or classical Islam--the biggest rival to the
dominance of Arabic was not Hindi-Urdu, but Persian. The world in which Persian was
considered the language of learning, prestige and bureaucracy was much larger than simply
the modern nations of Iran and Afghanistan. South Asia and Anatolia were both active
participants in the Persianate world, as were the urban centers of Samarqand, Bukhara and
Khiva (in modern Uzbekistan). The Persianate world stretched from the city of Istanbul in the
west to Bangladesh in the east, and Uzbekistan in the north.

If we define a language area in terms of the number of users--whether first-language or not--,
then Persian was arguably the largest Islamic language—larger than Arabic, for Muslims in all
of South Asia, Anatolia, Central Asia and the Iranian plateau were learning and using Persian
for literary and bureaucratic purposes. Of course, this was a fully diglossic world in which
local languages also played a part in the experience of a Muslim; the dominant language,
however, was Persian, and this was the case whether one was a Muslim or not. In other words,
Persian became the vehicle through which non-Muslims in this part of the world were
introduced to Islamic norms of behavior. If you lived anywhere in this wide swath of the
world—say in 17th century Bukhara--you would learn Persian in school, but would come home
and speak Uzbeg to your kids. You would draw up a legal document--like a will--in Persian.
The role of Arabic in your experience, however, would be very limited. You might say your
prayers in Fusaha Arabic, having learnt passages from the Quran by heart, but you would be
unable to speak Arabic for any practical purposes.

In the Persianate world the one thing that would have been expected of you was to know the
tradition of Persian lyric poetry (ghazal) well enough to quote it orally at different formal and
informal social occasions. In other words, a knowledge of Persian poetry became the link
between the educated, urban classes of cities as diverse as Istanbul, Bukhara, Samarqand,
Isfahan, Herat, Lahore, Delhi and Dacca. The tradition of ghazal poetry that we will be looking
at came to fruition in the Persianate world by around 1000 CE and was then imitated within
the local languages of this region: Turkish, Urdu, Uzbeg, Hindi and Pashto.
Modern Islamic Languages: Mutual intelligibility not an issue
According to the numbers of 1st language speakers.

Macro-language                   Speakers in millions        Primary Countries

Arabic varieties                 221                         Egypt, Algeria (Arab League)
Urdu                             60.6                        India, Pakistan, England
Turkish                          50.8                        Turkey
Persian                          31.4                        Iran, Afghanistan
Indonesian                       23                          Indonesia
Hindi                            21                          India, England
Uzbeg                            20.3                        Uzbekistan
Pashto                           20                          Afghanistan, Pakistan

Modern Islamic Languages: Mutual intelligibility an issue
According to the numbers of 1st language speakers

Urdu-Hindi                       82                          India, Pakistan, England
Egyptian Arabic                  54                          Egypt
Turkish                          50.8                        Turkey
Persian                          31.4                        Iran, Afghanistan
Indonesian                       23                          Indonesia

Varieties of Macro-language Arabic:
      Egyptian                   54           Egypt
      Algerian                   22.4         Algeria
      Moroccan                   21           Morocco
      Saidi                      19           Egypt
      Sudanese                   16.8         Sudan
      Mespotamian                15           Iraq
      N. Levantine               14.4         Syria
      Najdi                      10           Saudi Arabia

Arab League Members: Established:1945.
Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania,
Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, UAE, Yemen.

Source of Information: Ethnologue.

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