Jeremy Leland Palmer and Dr. Dil Parkinson, Asian and Near Eastern Languages
In Arabic there is a fundamental schism between the formal standard language and the scores of dialects spoken throughout Middle Eastern countries. Nearly all newspapers, magazines and television programs throughout the Middle East exclusively utilize the formal standard language. In contrast, the spoken dialects are rarely recorded in a written or audio format, even though they are what the people of the Middle East actually use in daily communication. Unfortunately, most grammar books and dictionaries are only available in the formal variant. The dearth of colloquial language-learning materials causes extreme difficulty for students who want to become more familiar with the different spoken dialects of the people in the Middle East.
My primary objective was to collect data about the colloquial dialect particular to Syria. This data consisted of lexical items and expressions used in everyday conversational Syrian. The information I gathered is now being used to facilitate the making of a book of Arabic synonyms. The author of the book is Professor Dilworth Parkinson of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University. The data I gathered will contribute conversational Syrian nuances and definitions to his work. My research will be directly used to facilitate and enhance the essential colloquial aspect of the project.
I conducted my research through the medium of short interviews. These interviews were short conversations with native Arabs willing to contribute a few minutes of their time and experience. Most of my research was completed at the University of Damascus. I spoke with as many people as possible about their understanding and interpretations of specific previously selected words. One of my predetermined requirements for volunteers was that they must be native-born Syrians in order to ensure reliable and consistent feedback. If I learned that the volunteer was from a country other than Syria I simply thanked them for their time and continued to search for someone else. Upon finding a native Syrian I began the interview.
Before beginning an interview with a volunteer I asked a few questions about their life, work, and family. I asked these questions in order to set a calm relaxed atmosphere in which thoughts could easily be expressed and recorded. After a brief conversation I began to ask questions such as, “What is a synonym for this word?” or “Could you use this word in an example sentence?” It was often difficult for the volunteers to think of anything related to the word. In this case, I would try to give them an example of the word used in a sentence either in English or in broken Arabic. I found that this technique sometimes required a few minutes of silence for the person to think of a synonym. Responses were carefully recorded first on scratch paper and later entered into a notebook. Before the data was entered into my notebook, I would confirm the information with two or three other Syrians. Although this process took a great deal of time, it produced consistent results. This notebook will later be edited and transferred into Dil Parkinson’s database of other Arabic synonyms.
Upon learning a new Syrian synonym I wanted to know how it was used in a real life context. Along with almost every entry in my notebook are several example sentences in which the synonym is actually used. This information will be a great asset to Arabic learners who want to understand the word in actual speech.
Examples of Results
Here are a few examples of simple Syrian synonyms:
When I first began my research I was willing to work with anyone whenever and wherever they were willing to give me a few minutes of their time. I spoke with people of various ages and backgrounds. I later discovered that the students at the University of Damascus seemed to better understand what I wanted. The majority of my time was therefore spent walking the campus looking for volunteers.
I learned that students who had a basic knowledge of English also improved the quality of the interviews. Students who could speak English would often ask me to use the equivalents of the synonyms in sentences. When they understood me it often helped them produce their own examples.
Finally I also learned that interviewing the same people multiple times was by far the most effective method of research. These people understood what I wanted and did not need another introduction or explanation. There were three or four reliable and creative thinkers that I primarily worked with towards the end of my stay in Damascus. As time began to run out, it became inefficient to work with anyone else. I will always be grateful to these few volunteers.
The vast majority of Arabs do not speak formal Arabic daily. Currently, most Arabic language learning materials are published in the formal variant. Studying the colloquial language is a great benefit to anyone who wants to earn the respect and trust of the native people. I hope my research will be used in such a manner as to provide a great asset to students who want to become familiar and communicate with the language that the Middle Eastern people use in their daily lives.