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Descriptive language use in the Maghreb and Lebanon Descriptive language use in the Maghreb and Lebanon
by Joseph Gatt
2020-07-13 08:42:11
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A short description of which language to use in the Maghreb and Lebanon. Arabic, Berber, French and English tend to be used interchangeably, so I'll give a socio-linguistic description of when languages are used and in what context.

Use Arabic when:

-Dealing with most working-class people.

-In working-class neighborhoods (which tend to be crime and drug-infested, speaking French or English could get you in trouble, all though some idiots speak French in those neighborhoods when they are showing off, but they chose the wrong place for that).

-In most rural and semi-rural areas.

leban001_400-At most “cheap” restaurants, barbers, hair salons, beauty parlors, clothes shops, cafés etc. Let's be clear: sandwich costs less than a dollar, order in Arabic. Sandwich costs 5 bucks, you could use French. Hair cut costs a dollar, use Arabic. Hair cut costs 20 bucks, you could use French. A lot of “snobs” order their 50 cent sandwich in French and find a couple of flies in their sandwich (not a coincidence).

-With most taxi drivers (if your taxi driver speaks to you in French, he could well attempt to jack up the price, so force him to speak to you in Arabic).

-With the police and security agents. BUT, if you pretend not to understand Arabic and you get in trouble, speaking excellent French and pretending not to understand Arabic could save you from trouble with security forces.

-At the post office (most banks use French, I'll get to that in a second).

-With plumbers, electricians, construction workers, delivery men etc. (if you speak to them in French they could deliberately sabotage your plumbing).

Use Berber when:

-In Berber rural and semi-rural areas (Berber “big” cities tend to prefer Arabic or French).

-At the post office, at most “cheap” shops and services, with taxi drivers, with the police and security agents, with working-class Berber people and so on.

-In Arab cities, you may use Berber if you have identified and figured out that your colleague/shop owner is also a Berber, but you only do so in the private sphere. Example: you go to your favorite grocery store. Owner is a Berber. No clients in store: you may chitchat in Berber. Shoppers in the store: use Arabic if you need anything.

Use French when:

-At the bank, insurance companies, with lawyers, with doctors, with a lot of nurses. In some cases doctors and lawyers use unofficial “interpreters” because some doctors don't understand the vernacular.

-Eating at high-end restaurants, or somewhat “pricy” restaurants. This needs further clarification: when eating at high-end restaurants, clients, in the privacy of their own table, are expected to speak French, and in some cases, can get reprimanded for speaking Arabic.

-When dealing with high-end businessmen and politicians (they will tend to refuse to speak to you in Arabic).

-When meeting Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Lebanese overseas, be it in France, in Turkey, in Russia, in the US or in Liberia, they will prefer French to Arabic, and may even refuse to speak Arabic in the privacy of their own home with family members, and even on the phone with family members -as if the walls had ears).

-At high-end hotels, at the airport, or in any location where “foreigners” may be visiting. I once got reprimanded for asking staff a question in Arabic at a 5-star hotel in Algiers.

-Note on doing business. SMEs will tend to use Arabic (that is companies under 50 employees or so will tend to use Arabic). SMEs dealing with import-export will tend to use French. Large companies will tend to use French, except for construction companies which tend to use Arabic.

-When addressing “rich” people, or the elite, always speak to them in French.

-Some plumbers, electricians, taxi drivers, cheap restaurants etc. may attempt to use French to see if they can jack prices up when they “French it up” before moving back to Arabic if the trick doesn't work.

-Some parents speak to their children in French, and speaking Arabic or Berber is taboo within some families. “Rich families” of course, but any family who wants a shot at being part of the elite will prefer French.

-Some “pathological narcissists” like to use French everywhere, not realizing that they could get in trouble for that. Such people usually brag loudly about material wealth in French, others like to “loudly” lecture about politics in French, while others brag about “practicing zumba” or “doing aerobics” or “fitness” or “crossfit” or “paragliding” or any other “posh” hobby. That is these guys and girls like to brag about that in working-class neighborhoods.

Use literary Arabic when

Literary Arabic is a form of Arabic that has no real form. In most Arab nations, literary Arabic is a mixture of Quranic Arabic, Egyptian and Emirates Arabic, a little bit of Qatari Arabic, a few expressions in Lebanese Arabic, and a few local uses of Arabic. There is no “clear” definition of what literary Arabic is.

-News anchors use literary Arabic, so do news reports.

-Politicians tend to address the public in literary Arabic.

-Imams tend to preach in literary Arabic (although those who use the local vernacular in their preaches tend to be way more popular).

-Public figures embroiled in “moral” scandals tend to use literary Arabic (hinting that they adhere to Islamic moral values).

-School teachers are supposed to use literary Arabic. Very often, school teachers read the textbook out loud, or dictate notes, and rarely lecture.

Use English when

-You don't speak Arabic, Berber or French and have no other choice. 

-Some hotels and high-end restaurants will accept English if it's your first language. If you are a local and speak to them in English, they could be offended.

-Some “pathological narcissists” like to sit in public spaces and mumble around in English; hoping neighboring tables will hear them. They get a kick out of that.

-Some SMEs and large companies use English as the working language. I've dealt with several small and big companies where speaking excellent English is a must to get hired, and all communication is done in English (at least most of it).

Additional notes

-Most official political or business documents are drafted in French. Only public speeches tend to be drafted in Arabic.

-When speaking French, keep in mind that Islamic moral and cultural standards prevail. Most Maghrebis and Lebanese are obsessed about their reputation, so don't point out anything negative about them, their company, or their surroundings. Avoid criticizing their countries.

-Maghrebis and the Lebanese will be very defensive about their countries in the presence of strangers. If you are good friends, you can criticize the country all you want. But among strangers, they'll be like “what recession? There is no recession. We're the best economy in the world!”

-When Arabs from different nations meet: they will tend to try to use whatever language is least likely to be understood. Some like to joke that Arabs would communicate in Chinese if they could to avoid being understood. In sum, when two Moroccans meet at an Arab forum, they will speak Berber if that protects their privacy. If two Lebanese meet at an International Arab Forum, they will use Lebanese vernacular, lots of slang and code words.

-Final important note: Arab societies tend to be very, very, very competitive. Judging, harassing, bullying, irritation, impatience and aggressiveness are a normal part of the game. Interruptions can be very, very frequent. To avoid looking “dumb” in public, some Arabs, if they are forced to converse with you (because of sitting arrangements) can shower you with questions and interrupt you at any attempt to answer their questions, just to show the public that they are “in control.”

-In sum, at the dinner table, or in public, you'll get peace of mind if you eat in silence. As a general rule, you'll get peace of mind if you behave like you're “shy” and “not a man/woman of words.” Quiet people tend to be admired. When asked questions, and that you're at a public dinner or event, use that “shyness” as much as you can. In the privacy of an office or a restaurant table, use context to determine whether you should be your “talkative self” or your “too shy to say anything” self. 

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