The word on the street - same-same, but different

In the souqs of Dubai and the taxis of Abu Dhabi, a new language fusing four different tounges may be evolving.

Abu Dhabi - October 6, 2008:  Taxi driver Rab Nawaz Nawaz Mir, from Pakistan speaks arabic, urdu, farsi, dari, and pashtu, drives his cab in Abu Dhabi. ( Philip Cheung / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  PC0048-language2.jpg

In the souqs of Dubai and the taxis of Abu Dhabi, a new language may be evolving. Arabic has absorbed English, Urdu has altered Arabic, Farsi has fused with Hindi. The cultural melting pot of the Emirates has cooked up a "street talk" as chaotic as the cities in which it was born. Mixing and morphing words from half a dozen languages, it is heard nowhere else - and the phenomenon looks set to continue. The quasi-English phrase "same-same" has become a favourite of salesmen, the Arabic word "ma'a lum" (understanding) is the universal question mark or confirmation, and taxi drivers will understand anyone who says: "Sida - straight on, my good man". "Nooooo problem" is, of course, the requisite reply.

These and other examples are indicative of the country's linguistic confusion, say experts, and attempts by the people who live here to communicate. With so many languages and dialects spoken in the UAE, and without a lingua franca, words are increasingly being bent, broken down and mixed in with verbs and nouns and adjectives from different languages. One outcome, some speculate, may be the emergence of a new language. "If you go to places like Dubai, this is spreading everywhere," says Maryam Salim, a professor of linguistics at UAE University. "It's a mixture of Hindi and Arabic and Persian and English. "The reason behind this process is we think that people from other languages will not understand us if we speak normally."

Although Emiratis, Arabs, Pakistanis, Indians and English-speaking Westerners regularly interact, quite often they lack the skills to communicate properly. To overcome this, people are intentionally "breaking down their language", reducing words and phrases to their simplest forms to make dialogue easier. Grammar, for example, is being stripped down to its bare bones. Vocabulary tends to turn into an alphabet soup of words drawn from several languages. In addition to "same-same", another of the myriad examples of this process is "bake". The Arabic word for fan is "mirwaha", but Arabs here frequently say "bake" when talking to South Asians. And although the word "straight" in Arabic is normally "dugheri" or "ala tool", the commonly used word in the UAE - "sida" - derives from South Asian Sanksrit. To be invited to a party in someone's "backside" might have British expats blushing. But in Dubai, a backside is a garden, while the word is also commonly used by cabbies to denote the street or building behind another. The phrase "same-same" is perhaps perfect for any salesmen who does not know the answer to a question. The phrase, rooted in English is usually used by non-native speakers, is also popular in South-east Asia, and roughly means "similar, as usual". It's related phrase "same-same but different" corresponds to "seems similar but different in some ways". Linguists refer to this process as pidginisation, where people of different linguistic backgrounds form a common, simplified language after prolonged contact with each other. In the past, it has occurred when more powerful societies acquired pieces of language from other cultures, or when traders needed a basic set of commonly understood words. When pidgin languages evolve to become a community's primary tongue, they are called creole languages. In the 15th and 16th Centuries, as European colonisation spread, pidgin languages began forming at an accelerated rate - from the Americas to the islands of the South Pacific. In the 17th Century, Chinese Pidgin English developed in southern China to ease trade between locals and the British Empire. Tok Pisin, now the language of Papua New Guinea, emerged from contact between British traders and indigenous peoples. After generations of use, it grew from a pidgin language to a creole. The Gulf region has its own example. After years of contact between native Arabs and settlers from ancient Persia, a pidgin dialect was spawned with elements of Arabic and Persian that is still spoken in Mussandam, Oman's northern enclave. In the UAE today, forces that have led to creole languages in other countries are hard at work, say experts such as Mohammed Aboelenein, a professor of sociology at UAE University. Variegated demographics are driving this process. Although Arabic is the official language, actual Arabic speakers are outnumbered by Hindi and Urdu speakers, English-speaking westerners and people from the Philippines, Vietnam and China. The lack of a formal naturalisation process for long-term residents, for instance, can provide little incentive for people to learn the national language, says Hashem Sarhan, a sociologist at the University of Sharjah. "In the US, they impose regulations that apply uniform laws to everybody who moves to the country, which make it necessary for people to learn English," says Prof Sarhan. "But we haven't got these policies for people who move here. "This affects integration here - it's integration that creates shared values and culture, and it's difficult to have what we call a collective identity without a dominant language." The education system adds to the linguistic evolution, say Prof Aboelenein and Prof Sarhan. Barring a handful of institutions, UAE universities overwhelmingly use English, yet state primary and secondary schools typically teach in Arabic. Arabic-speaking students often use their native languages at home and English in school. "Now I have a situation where my students are both weak in Arabic and English," says Prof Aboelenein. "It's a weird situation. "I don't speak the same Arabic that I speak to native speakers when I deal with someone at the grocer's or in taxi cab," says Prof Aboelenein. "I switch to one of the other hybrid languages and that's not good Arabic - we call it broken language." Young Emiratis are being influenced most by the deluge of foreign languages, he adds. "Unlike any other place in the world, Emirati families are exposed to other languages by people who work in their home." Whether it is their driver, maid or gardener, most of the hired help in Emirati households are from non-Arabic-speaking countries, use broken Arabic infused with their native languages and are in regular contact with Emirati children. "They're inside your house, dealing with your children, speaking their own version of Arabic, which is broken, and transferring it so easily every day to these children." Add to this the predictions of a UAE population explosion, and the odds of new creole languages increase. "Hundreds of visas are issued every month for people coming into this country; I'm sure a very low percentage will be from the Arab world," says Prof Aboelenein. "If you keep allowing people in from other countries, the whole culture will change." But some remain sceptical. Prof Salim believes that although creole languages could possibly take hold in the UAE, it is more likely that Arabic will remain the language of conversation while English the language of business. Nonetheless, concern over the rising influence of foreign languages is prominent in national discourse. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, has named 2008 the year of national identity and, in April, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, organised a national identity conference in Abu Dhabi in which a major theme was the degradation of the Arabic language and the influence of foreign culture. "We have an open-door policy and we concentrate on how to develop our economy and infrastructure," says Dr Sarhan of the University of Sharjah. "But we forget how to develop our culture, our heritage and especially our language. As Emiratis, we are dropping our language in order to let the foreigner understand us." hnaylor@thenational.ae

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