Studies 27 May, 2013

Reviving the Local Dialect in Qatar: An Issue of Linguistic Concern or Identity Politics?

Hessa Al-Attiyah

Hessa al-Attiyah is a research assistant at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. Her research interests focus on linguistics and identity formation in Qatar. She is also the coordinator of the “Policy Analysis Unit” at the center, and a member of the editing board for Siyasat Arabiya, a peer-reviewed bi-monthly political periodical published by the Center. Before joining the ACRPS, Hessa graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Affairs, Cum Laude (With Distinction), from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service at Qatar, majoring in Culture and Politics (CULP). Her Honors Thesis was titled “Reviving the Local Dialect in Qatar: An issue of Linguistic Concern or Identity Politics?”. Before entering university, she received the Education Excellence Day Award in 2007, a Qatar-wide distinction recognizing pre-university student’s academic success. She remains a member of the Phi Alpha Theta: National History Honor Society, and was previously a member of the Honor Council at Georgetown University.

Historically, Qataris have strived for autonomy and independence, and have always sought to define themselves apart from others. This has dictated a specifically defined identity in which language stands at the core of identity formation. In the process of constructing a national identity, Qataris realized that a revival of the Arabic language, following a decline in its use, needed to stress the use of Nabati, a local Qatari dialect that is closely linked to Qatar's historical identity, and the tribal structure that preceded state formation. Alongside a linguistic revival in Qatar, came a rebirth of national history that paved the way for the construction of national discourse. The Qatari dialect being revived forms part of the current state ideology, which sees the language's revival as a critical step in state building. Differentiation, even from the closest neighbors, is an essential component in Qatar's state ideology, which supports the nations desire to build an independent Qatari identity within its borders.


In Qatar, identity-formation is taking place extensively at different levels-from primary schools, to universities, to places of work, and across the country via the media and different events. Significantly, the focus is not just on reviving the Arabic language itself, but on reviving the dynamics of Arabic by creating realities through words, and learning the different use of words in Arabic. Language is, after all, not just about speaking, but about knowing where and how it is used-this is what defines the power of language. Indeed, the strongest indicator of the power of language is in its application. For example, in order to use it as a scientific language, one needs to understand it as a language of thought and critical analysis. The more people apply language in everyday life, whether socially or professionally, the more powerful it becomes. Likewise, the more individuals feel dependent on a specific language, the more powerful and central it becomes. By understanding how language empowers people, one can begin to understand how the revival of nationalism and national history is taking place in Qatar.

This paper seeks to trace the different methods of revival and their successes, as well as identify earlier indicators of a language in crisis that are linked to an increased use of English and its long- and short-term impacts on the national language. When analyzing the progression of the language's revival and the different changes that took place, especially how they influenced Qatar's society, the following questions are key: how did the dominance of the English language impact the culture, local society, and its members? What was the role of educational and professional institutions in this context? How do individuals define themselves when a language crisis occurs, and how are they defined by others within, or outside, their society? How does language impact the power structure and the structure of local society? Finally, what will change when revitalization takes place?

Theoretically, the paper utilizes Pierre Bourdieu and Peter Gran's hypotheses to analyze the Qatari context. Bourdieu's s Language and Symbolic Power will provide the basis of the theories advanced with some areas of his theory on language looked at more specifically, such as those regarding linguistic production and circulation, modes of expression, linguistic exchange and symbolic power, and linguistic exchange as a sign of wealth and authority.[1] Peter Gran's The Rise of the Rich: A New View of Modern World History is useful in that it suggests that today's world is shaped by a specific Eurocentric narrative that also impacts one's understanding of the world, and that the language associated with it by default becomes dominant.[2] He also suggests that history empowers individuals; therefore, a Eurocentric narrative implies that Europeans view themselves as dominant while others remain marginalized because they feel that they lack a history.[3] The way history is written, therefore, reflects power relations. To revive the local language means to revive the local history; in Qatar, the initial focus was on reviving the classic Arabic language. Over the years, this revival began to include the local Qatari dialect, a process that has been accompanied by the construction of a historical narrative that was part of nation-state building.

Gran holds that for the current Eurocentric paradigm to change a crisis is required, which is precisely what has happened in Qatar.[4] The local dialect and the classical Arabic language were in crisis following a decline in their use and in the people's ability to express meaning. More specifically, the crisis became political because tribal dissatisfaction increased as the youth communicated in a foreign language: English. The government realized the gravity of this predicament, particularly considering that those born in the 1980s and 1990s will be the country's future leaders and managers. The state was, and continues to be, sensitive about its language crisis, and has sought to address this problem since language is strongly tied to the government's aim of building a solid national identity. The building of a state and the formation of identity ultimately necessitated the strengthening of the Arabic language.

The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s encompassed a new experience for Qatar, one that saw it rapidly opening up to other cultures and slowly shifting away from its tribal structure. This was not anticipated, but something that automatically occurred with the discovery of oil and the collision with other cultures. The country gradually witnessed the impact of identity loss on the younger generations. Their knowledge about historical identity became weak, which is one explanation of why the revival process began to increase in the recent past. A consequence of this opening up process has been the increased use of the English language, which occurred at the expense of Arabic, something that is clearly apparent in the younger generations. Additionally, this began occurring largely due to the Americanization process that stared to grow significantly.

Perhaps the first question to ask, then, is: how can the existence of a language crisis be identified and defined? In Qatar, the revival of the Arabic language was necessary for many reasons, the most important being that a national identity cannot possibly be formed without having a strong national language and with it a national history.

Durkheim's analysis in The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology and its Method on how education is used to create a specific citizen proves useful here, as does his definition of society.[5] James Scott's Seeing Like a State on developing a standard official language for the state is also important.[6] Undeniably, Qatar's aim for international recognition has been growing over the last few years; parallel to this is its drive to develop its own national identity with its own national history and dialect. Politically, this would allow Qatar to distinguish itself from its neighbors, and strengthen nationalism and bonding among Qataris. With a strong, tightly-bound state, the government can reflect a strong image of an independent and sovereign state. Once the basis is set in terms of nationalism, language, and history, Qatar can then progress and enter the international arena with a distinct identity. One concrete example is Qatar's increasing involvement in sports, nationally, regionally, and internationally.

The language of sports is a unique and crucial aspect to highlight in respect to Qatar's revitalization of Arabic. An analysis of the language used when Qatar hosted the Asian Games is, therefore, fitting. Building a sports culture has its place in the revival process, and, simultaneously, in Qatar's aim for international recognition. For the Asian Games, five characters were created as mascots by a local Qatari.[7] These were all mice and represented the jarbo, a specific kind of mouse very well known for its speed that is endemic to Qatar and the Gulf. The five mascots represented different areas in Qatar's north, south, east, and west. This choice of mascots symbolizes a revival process because it is bringing back traditional words that were used in the local dialect. The older generation were familiar with the names and the descriptions associated with them, but, unsurprisingly, this was not the case with the younger generations; those born in the 1980s and 1990s found it challenging to understand the words and their meanings.

A close look at the language used in Qatar's advertising campaign in their bid for the FIFA World Cup in 2022, including its wording, symbols, images, and other elements used, is key to understanding how Qatar perceives itself. Arabic national symbols and words are pervasive on the signs, advertisements, and merchandise, so that viewers are able to understand and absorb the specific "national" image being created. At this point, a pertinent question central to this analysis is: what is this national image and why does Qatar want both the locals and the foreigners to understand it?

In its approach, the state ensures that the national image permeates different areas. The notion of nationalism is worth scrutinizing and proves central in understanding Qatar's development of national identity and its future vision. The use of language is here key and the revival of language brings about the revival of culture and, thus, the revival of national identity. It is not a sequence as much as it is an interconnected set of elements, each being necessary and vital for the progression and development of the other.

Despite specifically focusing on the revival of the local Qatari dialect, this analysis also acknowledges the significance of similar efforts at reviving classical Arabic. In fact, a lot of work has been done in this area, particularly in the education sector. The most prevalent example is the government's legally requiring classical Arabic to be the language of instruction at Qatar University for most courses. However, for the purpose this paper, the focus is on the creation of national identity through the revival of the local Qatari dialect.

These different methods have been adopted by the state of Qatar with the sole aim of shaping identity. In addition to the general symbolism embodied in stamps, the national anthem, the flag, and other items, Qatari media has also played a crucial role in this regards, as seen in the emergence of old national songs that were forgotten over time. Many of the national songs that were prevalent in the 1970s are now being played repeatedly on Qatari radio stations and television channels. For example, the song "Qatar, You are My Life" (Allah ya Umri Qatar) is nationalistic and addresses Qatar poetically. In its attempt to create nationalism and cement state identity, no other event equals Qatar's National Day, which began in 2008 and takes place every year on December 18. Qatar's national day replaced Independence Day, which was previously held yearly on September 3 and marked the end of British involvement. Qatar was not under direct British imperial conquest, and was not really colonized in the direct sense of the word. Rather, it fell under British "protection" which meant they overlooked certain aspects of the country.

With every national day comes new additions that shape Qatar's national identity. In fact, many of the day's events and components existed in the past but were forgotten, overlooked, or labeled as unimportant and unnecessary. Once the state began to revive its identity, distinctive "national" elements gained momentum. Their power was not realized, however, until the process of national identity formation occurred, especially in terms of local history, culture, and society. For instance, national day focuses on and highlights the importance of national symbols, such as the life of Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed-the founder of the State of Qatar-whose life is presented as the day's central focus. His national accomplishments and how the State of Qatar was brought into existence are highlighted as part of the nation's history and constitute the basis for Qatar's national history. The Qatar National Day channel (Qanat al-Yawm al-Watani) was created to cover all the events and aims of national day, and typically starts airing on December 11 and continues for approximately a week after the national day.

Qatar's National Day includes events such as poetry, traditional sword dancing, cultural TV shows, camel races, horse races, and many other associated events, which not only represent government efforts, but also those of local individuals. For instance, a Qatari female broadcasted a message on Blackberry on December 1, 2010, detailing a national day mini-project that she came up with-Qatar National Day shirts. This demonstrates that though the government initially conducted the efforts for national day, Qatari citizens have taken to support the national identity and the overall movement toward Qatari nationalism.

Such events prompt an interest in analyzing the different ways in which language is used and constructed to create a specific image. How are the words used and represented in each of these events? How will viewers understand them? What if they do not have enough background information? What would assist their understanding? What if they understand it differently? Undeniably, the older generations in Qatar have different interpretations when compared to the younger generation. One needs to ask whether or not they should all have the same interpretations, and what problems occur if the interpretations differ. Would the sense of belonging to a nation with a specifically outlined national identity be reached in the end? Can individuals from different age groups agree on one overall national image? The state's approach is a key factor in this regard.

Qatar has adopted an innovative approach concerning language; it is developing a hegemonic national Arabic dialect that is not classical. At the same time, a colloquial new language is developing among the younger generations. These two processes are taking place as a third language. An E-language is being used across the different modes of communication, such as the internet (email, messenger, blogs, and even websites), mobile phones, and blackberries (text messaging). As the E-language gains strength, it becomes even more widespread through the media. The majority of the E-language users are younger and the most affected by the language crisis. From Parallels and Paradoxes, Edward Said makes a powerful statement: "... identity is a set of currents, flowing currents, rather than a fixed place or a stable set of objects."[8] He states that the change in language itself reflects this flowing current. It applies to the way this generation has lived their lives, especially in their social use of Arabic and their educational use of English. In this scenario, a fusion of languages and cultures has occurred, which would explain the changes in language and identity. For example, the new language developed by Qatar's youth uses English letters and numbers to represent the Arabic language. One must ask if there are implications to using such a language, as well as whether this development should be viewed positively or negatively. The older generation disapproves of it because they see it as not being a part of their local identity. One might wonder whether this language could be reverted. Or has it become part of the identity of the youth? This E-language mirrors the globalizing factor of language. It transcends national borders and is an anti-systemic and hegemonic language.

Another central aspect for analysis is Qatar's oral history. The historical narrative Glimpses from the History of Qatar[9] by Sheikh Mohammed bin Ahmed Al-Thani is one example that confirms orality as the central method for constructing history in Qatar. Oral culture is central in Qatari society and thus forms the basis of national history, and illustrates how Qatari individuals and tribes have always striven for autonomy. Even before state formation, Qataris strove for independence; this holds true today in the current approach by the state of Qatar, one that aims to become internationally recognized with its own distinct Qatari identity.

This study's main focus is on the methods used in reviving the Arabic language in Qatar, and how this signified a revival of the local Qatari dialect in the many areas of the state, overriding the importance of classical Arabic, which was mostly restricted to the realm of education. A revival of the Qatari dialect brought about other revitalization methods for national history. This study provides an explanation of how each of these elements combined to form the basis for Qatari nationalism.

This issue can also be approached from three stages of development: pre state formation, during state formation, and post state formation; different uses of Arabic are attached to each time period. Before state formation, around the late 1800s, the local Qatari dialect was linked to tribalism and tribal identity. This has been revived after the state was formed to define the Qatari identity and outline the state's national discourse. During this time period, I hypothesize that there is a new view of tribalism in which the tribal structure in Qatar and the Gulf is not linear; instead, it is fluid and complex. The second stage is during state and identity formation, when classical Arabic was introduced. This was a period when Qatar shifted its focus to education and the nation's identity with the Arab world. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Qataris underwent a new experience with the discovery of oil as they opened up to other cultures, gradually moving away from the tribal identity associated with their history. As a result, the later generations lacked knowledge about their historical identity, providing one explanation for the revival process that is taking place today.

As the state solidified, the Qatari dialect was re-emphasized as a significant factor in Qatar's historical identity. The English language was introduced as an important language, and the use of classical Arabic declined. Alongside these language movements, the local Qatari dialect was revived because of the power of society; the Qataris wanted to keep their own dialect. This, in turn, also defines identity because this language is linked to tribal identity as well. One should highlight that the Qatari dialect is Nabati, a derivative of classical Arabic shaped by the local context. The revival of this dialect has increased significantly over the last six years. It came about as a reaction to the increasing use of English, which has impacted Qatari identity. To this end, it is important to investigate what this specific Qatari identity that the state is currently trying to revive and shape entails.

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[1] Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, (USA: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 35.

[2] Gran, The Rise of the Rich, p. XI.

[3] Ibid., p. XII.

[4] Ibid., p. XX.

[5] Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, p. 54.

[6] Scott, Seeing like a State, p. 72.

[7] Al-Gharbawi, "Revealing the Asian Cup Spell".

[8] Barenboim and Said, Parallels and Paradoxes, p. 5.

[9] Al-Thani, op. cit.