Qāl wa Qulnā: What the Letter Qāf means in Spoken Jordanian

Qāl wa Qulnā: What the Letter Qāf means in Spoken Jordanian

November 21, 2019

اقرأها بالعربية

“Relations of communications are always, inseparably, power relations which, in form and content, depend on the material or symbolic power accumulated by the agents (or institutions) involved in these relations…”
– Pierre Bourdieu [1]

Teklakūsh!” (“Don’t worry!”) [2] was an expression uttered in 2017 by Youssef al-Saqour, the president of the Jordanian football club Al-Wehdat when assuming the presidency of the club. By saying so, he reassured fans that the team would achieve a better performance that season. The phrase was the subject of much mockery by fans of Al-Faisaly club, traditionally comprising East Jordanians, but it was a point of pride for Al-Wehdat, whose fans were mostly Palestinian-Jordanians. The word was used as graffiti, as a hashtag on social media, and displayed in shops. Many popular singers introduced it into their songs.

What had happened was the club president transformed the Arabic letter qāf into a kāf in pronouncing teqlaqūsh, as is customary for the locals of many Palestinian villages when speaking their spoken dialect. No one would have batted an eye at the phrase had it been uttered with a standard qāf, or even a Cairene gīm, widely used by East Jordanians, whatever their origins: peasant, Bedouin, or urban. Perhaps, had he rendered the qāf into a hamza, as the majority in the cities of Palestine and the Levant do, then the fans of both teams—most of whom pronounce the qāf as a gīm—would have made less mockery of it, or taken less pride in it, and perhaps no one would have taken any notice of the phrase.

In certain Arabic dialects, qāf is seen as loaded with sociolinguistic connotations, much more so than other letters. It is among the phonetic signifiers that mark the identity of the speaker; their origin, sex, age, generation, and social class. It is considered a crucial sound in different Jordanian dialects, as it carries social meanings indicating the origin of the speaker’s family or tribe (peasant, Bedouin, urban); their region (Jordanian or Palestinian); social class (rich, poor); age (child, young adult, old); and gender (man, woman). The qāf also acquires its significance in Jordanian dialects from the different roles and functions it performs in both the public and the private spheres, as well as the boundaries that it draws on speech patterns. The qāf in the spoken dialect of the city of Amman is therefore unlike other letters, and is a linguistic, social, political, age-related and gendered symbol.

In Jordan, the letter qāf may be pronounced at least four different ways. It can become a Cairene gīm, similar to the letter “G” in English, so that a word like qāl (“he said”) becomes gāl. Some render the qāf into a hamza, with the same word qāl thus becoming ‘āl, while others render it as a kāf, pronouncing qāl as kāl. Sometimes, qāf is simply preserved as it is; the word qāl pronounced as in classical Arabic. [4]

The introduction of ‘āl to Amman appears to have taken place with the arrival of Palestinian and Syrian city-dwellers in the 1920s and 1930s, [5] who comprised a class of merchants and state officials and who, as both men and women, mostly pronounced the qāf as a hamza. At the time, Amman was home to many Bedouin tribes who pronounce the qāf as a gīm like the majority of today’s East Jordanians who reside outside of Amman.

After the Nakba, and the forced collective displacement of Palestinians, kāl entered Amman with the arrival of Palestinian refugees from rural backgrounds. After 1967, hundreds of thousands fled there from the villages, towns and desert areas of Palestine. Some of them speak with kāl, like the rural population of the villages of the interior and the West Bank, while others pronounce qāl as ‘āl such as locals of Jerusalem, Jaffa, and other Palestinian cities. Others still, such as the people of Beersheba and south Hebron, speak with the gāl, breaking the gāl monopoly of the East Jordanians.

This article examines the Amman dialect, the different transformations of the qāf in this city, and the letter’s political, social, and gender associations. It aims to demonstrate that the dialect is not simply a technical tool for communication, but rather an important reflection of the form that power relations take in the society in which it manifests and acquires its value and authority.

Samira Tawfik and Bedouinization as a Path of Nation-Forming

Following the coup against the government of Suleiman Nabulsi in 1957, Jordan underwent a process of nation-forming at the level of the state and society, at the heart of which was the issue of dialect. The state worked to establish a unifying “Jordanian dialect,” through popular tools, notably popular songs which spread primarily after the establishment of Jordanian radio[7], and the launching of the project of the revival of Jordanian folklore. The nationalization of the dialect had political dimensions tending towards the transformation of the dialect into an official state language of a kind, overlooking the fact that dialect is the spoken language of a region, city, village or tribe; that it by nature precedes the nation-state and could not be fit to the state’s measures. Any attempt to create “a state dialect” would thus be an ideological position that attempted to transform the spoken language from that of communities (within the state, or transnational ones beyond a single state) into the dialect of the state.

In his book Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan [8], Joseph Massad explains how the process of nation-forming in Jordan began following the settlement of the Bedouins with the founding of the principality. At the time, Bedouinism was the principal enemy of the new state, as well as of British colonial officials for whom it was an issue requiring “a solution.”

Massad argues that, for the emerging state as well as for colonization, it was not a question of simply setting up administrative procedures aimed at managing Bedouin affairs, but rather to change the Bedouins’ nomadic way of life. The intention was to impose regional divisions by means of regulatory tools and laws, starting with the Bedouin Supervision Act of 1929 [9]. The law aimed to subdue the Bedouins (who constituted half the population of East Jordan) [10], and control their movements as if they were “criminal suspects” [11]. After having “modernized” them, the law sought to standardize them within the framework of the nation-state [12]. To achieve this, Britain’s Lieutenant-General John Bagot Glubb, who commanded the Arab Legion of 1939-1956, was summoned. He had worked in Iraq to subdue the Bedouin tribes before arriving in East Jordan.

He began to undo the old Bedouinism of the Bedouins, and to produce a new one that corresponded best with the vision of colonization and the emerging nation-state, through recruitment in the army, and “giv[ing] tens of thousands of wild nomads a vision of a new kind of life.” [13] The urbanization of Bedouins by the army was violent, because it was grounded in destroying the Bedouin economy, disciplining the Bedouins and reforming them according to the standards of European modernity. Moreover, this process ensured that the Bedouins played the role of policing each other, according to Massad.

The process of forging this “new Bedouin culture” lasted for decades, with its political ends and manifestations having effects on the lives of Bedouin, their bodies, their food, their attire as well as their language. In the 1950s and 1960s, the state introduced this new culture as a “national culture.” The process was described by Massad as follows: “The process of sedentarizing the Bedouins was constituted by the state’s process of redefining their culture for them while continuing to identify it as Bedouin, and it set the new culture as the norm throughout society by identifying it as ‘true Jordanian culture’.”[14]

Through Samira Tawfik, the state popularized this style of singing as “Bedouin singing,” after the failure of earlier attempts to promote songs with traditional Bedouin musical style

What Massad describes as “de-Bedouinization as a precursor to the Bedouinization of Jordanian national identity” has had an important role in the nationalization of the dialect by its Bedouinization. This is clearly seen with the rise of popular songs in Jordan in the 1960s, the goal of which was the “shaping of the Jordanian state’s character based on the unification of both banks of the Jordan River,” in the words of the researcher Muhammad al-Jrebih. [15]

In the early 1960s, the Jordanian state attracted the Lebanese singer Samira Ghastin Karimona (born to a Maltese father and a mother from south Syria’s Hawran region), known as Samira Tawfik, in order to “revive Jordanian folklore with my voice,” as she put it. In televised interviews, Tawfik would describe how Jordanian state and radio officials had taught her what she sometimes referred to as the “Jordanian dialect” and at other times as the “Bedouin dialect.” In fact, “the number one artist of the desert” often equated Bedouinism and Jordanianism, without distinction or qualification.

Tawfik sang for the first time during the inauguration of Jordan Radio in 1959, after being invited by Salah Abu Zeid, who would later become Jordan Radio’s director. She was there among other Arab singers invited to the inauguration ceremony, but was unsuccessful on the occasion, and withdrew from the stage crying after having failed to sing before King Hussein and a number of senior officials. The next day, Abu Zeid organized a private party attended by a number of artists and state officials, during which she performed some traditional Iraqi songs and mawwals. A few months later, she was officially invited by the state to come to Jordan and promote popular songs, which had become an important political tool for the Bedouinization of the dialect and its nationalization.

Through Samira Tawfik, the state popularized this style of singing as “Bedouin singing,” after the failure of earlier attempts to promote songs with traditional Bedouin musical styles (al-shurūqī, al-hajīnī, and al-ḥidā’). This failure was due to the hegemony of Egyptian, Iraqi, and Lebanese songs, and to the fact the Jordanian urban population did not find this type of song to be particularly pleasant or palatable [16]; nor did they easily understand its words derived from the Bedouin dialects ​​of Jordan. With directives from senior state officials (of peasant or urban origins), a number of poets, headed by Rachide Zeid al Keilani [17] (of urban origin), worked to collect and rewrite popular folklore inspired mainly from Jordanian and Palestinian peasant folklore, with some Bedouin lexicon. The melodies and musical compositions were designed to fit the musical tastes of the city dwellers. Subsequently, this folklore was promoted in Jordan and other Arab countries as being “Bedouin.”

The letter qāf was of paramount importance in these songs, as the dialect in which many of them they were sung was urban [18], rather than Bedouin. However, great emphasis was placed on the need to render the qāf into a Cairene gīm, as pronounced not only by Bedouins but by East-Jordanians in general. The composer Ruhi Chahin gives an important example of the centrality of this sound in the popular Jordanian song. He recalls how state officials who supervised the production of the songs on Jordanian Radio explicitly asked for the gīm sound in the performance of singers. “Because the Radio was in Ramallah, we would use the vanilla dialect [of ‘āl]. When we arrived in Amman, the senior officials started to supervise the recording of the songs, and asked for Jordanian songs with gāl; among them I remember Wasfi al-Tall and Haza’ al-Majali,” Chahin reminisced.

The songs of Samira Tawfik helped to load the letter qāf with a considerable amount of Bedouin symbolism. She sang about camel-hair tents, the rebab instrument, Bedouin coffee, cardamom, camels, horses, and Bedouin clothes. Along with pronunciation, special attention was paid to wardrobe and choreography, with Samira Tawfik’s dresses, designed by Lebanese designer William Khoury, being promoted as Bedouin attire. All elements were understood as belonging to a Bedouin way of life. Mustapha al-Khashman, a researcher of Bedouin poetry, says: “The songs of Samira Tawfik were presented as Bedouin, but they were composed by peasants, and Wasfi al-Tall, Habes al-Majali and others. Bedouin poetry has its own, different, lexicon. The words that Samira Tawfik sang were categorically those of peasant songs. Neither the words, melody, nor dance were Bedouin. Moreover, the songs of the Bedouins do not contain dance; a little dabke and foot movements perhaps, but no jumping in the air.” [19]

Once Samira Tawfik had mastered the pronunciation of qāf as the imagined Bedouin, she began to conceive of herself as an “authentic” Bedouin, born and raised in the desert. In one of her interviews, she said, “My soul is Bedouin, my sensibilities, my emotions, my psyche is Bedouin, as if I were born in the desert.” She boasted about her mastery of the gāl compared to Beirutis. In another interview, she said, “During one of my tours in Beirut, the audience shouted ‘Nescafé! Nescafé!’ demanding the song ‘Pour the Coffee.’ I didn’t immediately understand what they wanted, and an audience member then shouted, ‘We want the ‘ahwe song.’ So I replied, ‘‘Ahwe!? What is ‘ahwe! Say gahwe instead!’ (…) They were unable to pronounce ‘gahwe’ (…) so they said ‘Nescafé’ instead. They learned it from the French, so how can you teach them Bedouin?”

It is clear that the Bedouin dialect for Samira Tawfik consists of no more than turning the qāf into a Cairene gīm. This is clear from her songs, in which she is unable to pronounce any other letters in the manner of the Bedouins in Jordan, although she said she learned “the dialect” after a month, and mastered it to the extent she was able to correct the choir’s pronunciation. For example, in one of her performances, when she sang the song “Where to? Ramallah?” she occasionally pronounced the letter ẓā’ as zā’, in the manner typical of many Levantine urbanites. She made similar adjustments to other letters in other songs.

While there does not exist a single “Jordanian dialect,” nor indeed a single “Palestinian” or “Lebanese” one, (because the regiolects and dialects are numerous within the same country, and sometimes common across countries), the 1960s and 1970s saw attempts to nationalize the Bedouin dialect and export it as the Jordanian national dialect. The songs of Samira Tawfik played an important role in this regard. The qāf was the pivot, despite the fact that its realization as a gīm was not exclusive to the Bedouins, and indeed was a source of internal dispute among them [20]. For example, the Udwan and Bani Hasan tribes occasionally pronounce the qāf as a standard jīm.

The Post-1970s Qāf: Power Dynamics and the Division of Labor

With the advent of the 1970s, the cartography of the qāf in Amman was, with a few exceptions, as follows. Palestinian-Jordanians of rural origin, both men and women, spoke with the kāl. Palestinian-Jordanians of urban origin, as well as East Jordanians of urban origin who settled in Amman, both men and women, spoke with the ‘āl. East Jordanians from Bedouin tribes who settled in Amman, men and women, spoke with the gāl.

Many researchers [21] agree that the political-military conflict between various Palestinian factions on one side, and the Jordanian regime on the other, has had a significant impact on the dialects of Amman. This conflict reclassified and redefined speech from a social and political point of view, which changed the use of qāf in the public and private spheres and redrew the map of its variations.

In his book A War of Words: Language and Conflict in the Middle East, Yasir Suleiman refers to a set of studies and research in the field of linguistics carried out in the 1980s. These studies observed the phonetic changes to the pronunciation of the qāf by the younger generations, not only their elders. They showed how rural Palestinian-Jordanian men moved from kāl to gāl, while urban Palestinian-Jordanian men and their East Jordanian counterparts moved from ‘āl to gāl. On the other hand, Palestinian-Jordanian women of rural origin changed their kāl into ‘āl, and East Jordanian women of rural or Bedouin origins changed the gāl to an ‘āl. East Jordanian city-dwellers and Palestinian-Jordanians of urban origin have held on to their ‘āl [22]. The feminine shift towards ‘āl is known in sociolinguistic studies as “linguistic urbanization” or “the feminization of speech” [23], notably because the qāf in the 1970s began to refer to new definitions. As the studies used by Suleiman demonstrate, ‘āl was at that time seen as “gentle, soft, and feminine” [24] when compared to kāl or gāl, while gāl became a signifier of masculine virility and nationalist fervor, as Massad demonstrated in his book.

Consequently, the qāf in Amman has undergone a process of genderization and partition: on the one hand, there are men of all social and regional backgrounds who speak with gāl, and women of all social and regional backgrounds who render it ‘āl. An analysis based exclusively on gendered language nuances would not provide a solid and coherent explanation of what really happened. Suleiman poses a set of arguments and questions that demonstrate the inadequacy of this line of explanation. For example, why have Palestinian-Jordanian men shifted from kāl to gāl, and not to ‘āl, when the power relations between kāl and ‘āl see the latter having all the symbolic weight of the city’s superiority over the rural kāl, which is then regarded as inferior in the social hierarchy? A similar process could push Palestinian peasants to ‘āl and not to gāl, as some of the people of Bethlehem and Golan do, when they come in contact with the populations of Jerusalem and Damascus. The same held for East Jordanians and Palestinian-Jordanians whose ‘āl was also considered to be superior in the dominant social hierarchy; at least higher than the gāl they adopted since the 1970s. And if the gāl was distinguished by masculinity, why did Palestinian-Jordanian men, peasants and townspeople, not begin to internalize this until the 1970s?

According to Massad, the linguistic changes that affected Amman’s qāf were due to the political consequences of the events of September 1970, when the Palestinian figure became “the Other” as part of the ongoing nationalization project. Suleiman recounts how his colleagues and student friends at the University of Jordan in 1970; Palestinian-Jordanian men; began using gāl instead of ‘āl and especially instead of kāl. He observed this daily as identity cards were checked by security forces along the street from al-Madina Square to the university. He also recalls his younger brother, who was 11 years old in 1970, when he began using gāl in the public sphere, although it was not used in the family [25]. These observations corroborate what Massad says: “With the nationalization of the dialect, and its genderization, young Palestinians and city-dwelling East Jordanians who used ‘āl instead of qāl before puberty began pronouncing the qāf as a gīm to affirm the masculinity they had acquired.” [26] Suleiman indicates that the “Belgian” ethnolinguistic association [27] with which the Palestinian-Jordanians were designated is a label charged with identity implications and hierarchical dichotomies, which had its effects on the new distributions of qāf in Amman. This description had traced the boundaries between East Jordanians on the one hand, and Palestinian-Jordanians on the other, as two groups, respectively endogenous and exogenous. The label in question also consolidated “relational disparities with institutional power, justifying the description of Palestinians as a subordinate group and Jordanians as a dominant one.” As such, gāl acquired symbolic capital given that it represents the dialect of the dominant group. [28]

the 1960s and 1970s saw attempts to nationalize the Bedouin dialect and export it as the Jordanian national dialect

This accompanied another significant material factor, which has widened this division of power and labor between the two dialects, on a regional basis and for political reasons. Gāl has become the dialect of state officials, and the public sector became an institution exclusive to East Jordanian men after September 1970. Moreover, gāl became the form of speech for men in the security forces, civil service administration, and the military, as well as judges. Therefore, gāl has acquired its symbolic power from the fact that it is the dialect of the establishment, and of men within it more precisely. In the context of Bedouinization, the ‘āl would be judged as feminine or effeminate, a label based on the perception by Bedouins of city dwellers as “less masculine,” and less courageous by virtue of having abandoned arms in search of comfort and luxury in their homes. This new arrangement, according to Massad, feminized young urban Palestinian-Jordanian men, which “prompted them to begin pronouncing gāl instead of ‘āl when in the company of adult men, in an attempt to affirm their masculinity.”[29]

The Women’s ‘Āl: Status or Employment?

On the women’s side, it would be misleading to opt for easy generalizations and claim the ‘āl had become the dialect of women in Amman. In an article entitled The Lifecycle of Qaf in Jordan, researcher Enam al-Wer attributes the choice by Jordanian and Palestinian-Jordanian women of rural and Bedouin origin to use ‘āl to an attempt to recover some prestige or social status. Since they are deprived of all power in public life, they have adopted ‘āl, which is linked in the imaginary to a certain social symbol, inspired by the great cities of the east, namely: Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem [30] as the sole means of affirming status. Based on al-Wer’s study, Nahed Hattar concludes that, “politically marginalized women make use of ‘āl in their emulation of Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian urban dialects.” He casts them with the responsibility of “hindering the natural evolution of the Amman dialect” represented by gāl due to their being not “integrated” into the public sphere. According to Hattar, “they leave in their male children dialectal amalgams which prevent them from full integration and political evolution.”

Al-Wer had overlooked social class as an essential factor in the study of dialects. She ignored kāl and its speakers, which led to hasty conclusions based upon which Hatter built an entire analysis, blaming women for not having adopted a dialect that dominant men have transformed into an exclusive dialect, peculiar to them. Answering the question of why peasant Palestinian-Jordanian women adopted ‘āl and abandoned kāl would help understand how ‘āl had this predominance among women in Amman. In my opinion, the reason is not the ineffectiveness of women and their non-integration into public life, but the very opposite.

It was possible for the political regime to replace the entire bureaucratic corps, comprising both Palestinian-Jordanian and East Jordanian men, with East Jordanian men exclusively. However, concerning women, such a replacement was not feasible at all, for socio-economic reasons. Among working women in the 1970s and 1980s, the majority were urban Palestinian-Jordanians who spoke with ‘āl, and who had received early education, contrasted with rural and Bedouin Palestinian-Jordanian and East Jordanian women. A female teacher in the early 1970s would have had to finish her basic education in the 1950s or 1960s, and such an education in Jordan was, at the time, more accessible to urban women than their rural counterparts.

Suheir Salti al-Tall, in her book, Prefaces on the Issue of Women and the Feminist Movement in Jordan, argues that the educational opportunities available to rural or Bedouin Jordanian girls were much lower than those of urban girls. Compulsory education, decreed in the 1950s, only stipulated the state’s obligation to guarantee enrollment places for primary and secondary schools, but in no way meant the obligation of parents to send their daughters to schools. [31] In the 1970s, the rate of enrollment in the different stages of education reached 47% [32] in cities such as Amman, Zarqa, and Irbid, which is a very large percentage compared to the rates in other governorates of the Kingdom. Al-Tall attributes the discontinuation of education by young rural or Bedouin woman, following compulsory education, to various reasons. Among these, one could mention the fact that a young woman who wished to continue her education in high school would have been forced to commute daily to the center of the governorate or district. Al-Tall argues that, “the costs of secondary education, and the daily transport costs therein, pushed many girls to stop at compulsory basic education.”[33] The social conditions of the time made it preferable to invest in the education of boys rather than girls, if the choice had to be made. Furthermore, rural Jordanian girls often discontinue their education to contribute to the family economy. Even those who enrolled in middle school or high school would often only receive interrupted schooling, dictated by agricultural seasons or harvests, which ultimately led to the final discontinuation of their studies.” [34]

The delay of rural and Bedouin East Jordanian women in undertaking a course of study, in comparison with Palestinian-Jordanian women, has an economic background, and is certainly not about the clichés of superiority, motivated by chauvinistic tendencies, that some Palestinians like to disseminate. Education does not derive its value from itself, but rather from the economic capital, and later social capital, that it provides. When Jordanian Bedouins or peasants had a stable economic structure that ensured the required basics at the time, it was logical that they would not seek a new structure, nor undermine their own structure by sending their daughters to another (modern and urban) environment that represented the opposite of their own. As for the Palestinian-Jordanians whose economic environment had been destroyed by the occupation, they had no choice but the foundation of another structure, or the integration into an existing one, that could ensure their survival. This is confirmed by al-Tall, who says that 71% of all women workers in 1975 were from Amman, [35] with its Palestinian-Jordanian majority.

the qāf in Amman has undergone a process of genderization and partition: on the one hand, there are men who speak with gāl, and women who render it ‘āl.

Educated young women benefited from the development of vocational training at the secondary school level, and from the introduction of new fields of vocational study in the early 1970s, such as nursing, postal work, sewing, and beautification. They also benefited from the establishment of girls’ schools, whose enrollment numbers increased from 497 in 1970 to 2,831 in 1978 [36]. Jordan experienced an expansion in the creation of intermediate post-secondary institutes which was also qualitative, insofar as these institutes began offering more choices in terms of trades. As a result, enrollment in this form of vocational education increased from 419 in 1970 to 3,423 in 1978 [37]. According to al-Tall, the percentage of employees in the services sector and public administration alone included about 24% of the entire female labor force in 1975. The Ministry of Education employed around 12,000 female teachers, technicians, and secretaries, with the Ministry of Health employing about 1,600 women. [38]

According to this social and economic trajectory in the evolution of the Jordanian state, one could claim that ‘āl had become a source of social agency because it represented the dialect of teachers, nurses and academics. It should be noted that the majority of the women who studied abroad (as recipients of scholarships from the Ministry of Higher Education or otherwise), whose number increased from 62 students in 1966 to over 5,000 in 1978, [39] were urbanites studying in Damascus, Beirut, and Cairo, cities where both women and men spoke with ‘āl

My mother, who hails from a rural Palestinian family, was expelled by Israel from one of the destroyed villages of Jenin in 1948. She took refuge in Amman and lived in the Al Mahatta (Hijaz railway station) area in the district of Al Ma’ayneh, where her father worked on the railroad. She tells me of how she began to transition from kāl to ‘āl in the mid-1970s, influenced by her city-dwelling school teachers whose family names, denoting their urban origins, she still remembers. A friend who was hospitalized for three months at the Marka Military Hospital in the early 1970s tells me how all the nurses at the hospital, both Jordanian and Palestinian-Jordanian, used ‘āl, despite the plurilingualism of Marka as an area, where one could find all the varieties of qāf represented. The nurses were educated at the Princess Mouna faculty in Marka, housed in the nurses’ residences, and were doing their internships at the military hospital under the supervision of male East Jordanian or Palestinian-Jordanian doctors, all city-dwellers, who had received their training in Arab countries, the United States, or Britain. Of course, they spoke with the ‘āl, which encouraged nurses of non-urban origins to adopt the ‘āl in public life.

While the division of labor and other political factors had a role in the dominance of gāl among men as the dialect of the establishment and statesmen, the division of labor played a similar role in the prevalence of ‘āl among women. Women active in the public sphere; those who worked as nurses, teachers and other trades and who spoke with the ‘āl, were seen by other women as well-placed in the social hierarchy, and as enjoying a modern social status, whereas gāl had become designated as the dialect of men. In this way, ‘āl has had a social function and was a source of symbolic power that other women sought to possess.

It is important to remember that television also helped to promote the image of ‘āl among women as more prestigious than kāl and gāl. Most television series of the 1980s portrayed women who pronounced ‘āl; modern women, active in public life. Such was the case for the character of the teacher in the series Al ’Ilm Nūr (“Knowledge is Light”), whose role was played by the actress Abir Issa; or the young women in the series Ḥārat Abū ‘Awwād (“Abū ‘Awwād Quarter”); and ’Līwa Wa-l Ayyām (“’Līwa and the Days”). Then, in the early 1990s, ‘āl was definitively consolidated as the dialect of the women of Amman. One of the precursors of this status was its adoption by all presenters of the very popular show Yes’ed Ṣabāḥak (“Good Morning to You”), starting with Juman Majli, the first presenter of the show, then Muntaha Al Ramhi, then Lana Al Qassus.

The evolution of non-gendered dialects and sociolects into nationalized and gendered dialects had effects on the nature of Amman’s linguistic relations, their connotations and their social and political implications. This is tangible in everyday life and the exchanges we in Amman have with one another.

Adoption and Alternation: The Daily Qāf

Kāl declined sharply after more men adopted gāl, and women ‘āl; the dominated adopts the symbols, signs, and language of the dominant, as Bourdieu says. [40] It will therefore be possible for the kāl to disappear altogher from the marketplace of spoken word in Amman, after the passing of elderly Palestinian-Jordanian women, and after the television channel Roya ceases to invite them and exhibit them in their peasant attire as a part of the heritage, and consolidate the status of their dialect as old, “obsolete and old-fashioned.”

Often, in Amman, there is a two-way alternation between the gāl and the ‘āl, and less often with the kāl. According to Massad, “an interesting exercise to do in Jordan would be to locate the slips in everyone’s accents, be they assimilated Palestinian-Jordan men or nationalist Transjordanian urban men and women, especially when their ga slips into a glottal stop, as the new national mask becomes more difficult to wear all the time…”[41]

There are other alternations which correlate to many social parameters, which relate to the nature of the conversation; its location; its purpose, being either mutual social consent or submission; the respective positions of the interlocutors in the social and political hierarchy; the material and symbolic needs of the speaker; their relation to the listener; as well as the respective genders of the two. The adoption of one qāf or another here or there, according to Souleiman, depends on the social exchange that occurs in our daily sociolinguistic relations, within a cost/benefit binary framework.

I would like to mention some examples of alternating variants of qāf in the public or private sphere in Amman, drawn from my own observations and those of my friends. Our observations are not based on empirical scientific methodologies, all my reservations about such methodologies notwithstanding. When in male company, a young man speaks with the gāl and may well chastise one who uses the feminine or effeminate ‘āl among men, but this same young man could very well resort to ‘āl with young women. With men, the use of ‘āl may expose him to male judgement which undermines his masculinity, while with women, this same ‘āl could grant him an air of urbanism/civility. Indeed, some young men believe that women in Amman prefer it. It is the same when it comes to a job interview for a private company or NGO, as young men prefer to assume a modern/civilized character with the use of ‘āl.

This alternation between the different allophones [42] of qāf takes other, more complex, forms in certain contexts. One of my friends would alternate expertly and on a daily basis between kāl, gāl, and ’āl. At home, he uses kāl as a member of a family in which kāl is prevalent. In the neighborhood, he speaks with gāl (to receive recognition as a man), and in his private school where he is a scholarship recipient, he hides his socio-economic status behind ‘āl. My mother does the same, using our kāl with the grocer to accentuate a certain social affinity and discourage him from charging higher prices; while at weddings held in the west of Amman, she speaks with ‘āl to conceal her social class and the stigma of the peasant dialect.

I witnessed only one exception to this general rule in Amman. In this experience, a female who pronounces kāl is seen as very positive and unprepared to abandon her origins: she was a Palestinian-Jordanian friend of rural origins, who speaks with the kāl and thus attracts the admiration of men around her. Indeed, she was modern, of a high level of education, speaks fluent English, is financially independent, from the middle class, and works in an international organization. In this case, the kāl adds to the attractiveness of the person in the eyes of Palestinian-Jordanian men. For the latter, my friend represents the ideal combination of modernism and tradition, with a language that is civilized but which retains some “relics of the homeland.” Of course, this situation would not be at all similar, nor the added value of her dialect, had my friend lived in one of the camps of Amman or in a low-income district.

Women who speak with gāl or kāl in Amman may often be obliged to switch to ‘āl to be accepted in their gendered social context. The perception of gāl as part of a distinctly male dialect is not restricted to men, and is shared by many women. An East Jordanian friend, a rural woman, told me of how, throughout her schooling, she adopted ‘āl at school and gāl at home, to match her schoolmates whose origins were Syrian and urban Palestinian. The mother of another friend, a teacher in a private school, lived in one of the Amman camps for Palestinian refugees. Of rural origin, she was forced to switch daily between kāl and ‘āl when at home and school, respectively. Today, she finds herself obliged to opt for the ‘āl, because her daughter refuses to let her speak to her granddaughter with kāl, considering it an unsuitable dialect in which to address a child. The daughter fears that her own daughter might pick up the kāl, and all its connotations of inferiority as understood within Amman society.

Other young Palestinian-Jordanian women of rural origin are also upset when their mothers address grandchildren while pronouncing kāl. Likewise, some East Jordanian women and Amman residents of rural origin become irate when their fathers address granddaughters with gāl, but that does not bother them when it is the grandsons. It is important at this point in the discussion to add a clarification: the male hegemony over gāl is unique to Amman. In the other governorates of the Kingdom, women use gāl without being seen as lacking femininity or imposing themselves into the male space.

Moreover, the abandonment of the kāl by its speakers may be understandable, given the many tremors, material and symbolic, that it has undergone. What is intriguing, on the other hand, is that the shift from ‘āl to gāl among middle- and upper-middle-class male speakers in Amman can only be understood as a sign of masculinity. We have seen that a number of characters in the television series Jinn would switch to gāl whenever they were angry or wished to exhibit their manhood. [43] ‘Āl continues to be described as “soft,” “feminine,” or “effeminate”. Thus, in a Jordanian television series, a character portrayed as homosexual would be depicted as using ‘āl, but it would be difficult for such a character to speak with the gāl on this series or any other.

In some contexts, gāl is judged according to generational criteria relating to modernity, in addition to the gender criterion. My mother, who alternates and often conceals her rural dialect out of necessity or timidity, does not hide her contempt when my nephews, whose mother is of East Jordanian Bedouin origin, use gāl in their speech. She is convinced that gāl is the symbol of Bedouinism and is not fit for urban children. As a result, my mother is complicit [44] in the modernist evolutionist tendency that sees Bedouinism as an obsolete “backward” structure, which is the same perception city-dwellers hold towards the rural peasant structure. As for my father, it matters little to him, as if he had internalized the gāl without questioning it.

As demonstrated at the beginning of this article, this perception of a correlation between Bedouinism and gāl has an important historical context, but does not reflect reality. The reality is that the dialect of the people of Amman who make use of gāl has nothing to do with the real Bedouin dialect, except for the pronunciation of the letter qāf in the manner of the majority of Bedouins. The Bedouin dialect is excluded from public space in Amman, since it is not the dialect of businessmen in the city, nor that of ministers or even television broadcasts, advertisements or soap operas, with the exception of nostalgic Bedouin soap operas. The Bedouin dialect is perceived as being part of the past,[45] as opposed to the present life in Amman. It is incomprehensible to the inhabitants of Amman, who may see its speakers as foreigners, not only to the city but to the country. The former head of the Specifications and Standards Organization[46], Haydar al-Zeben (of Bedouin origin) in an interview with Toni Khalife [47], describes how he disguised himself once to monitor a gas station: “There had been several complaints about this station, so I decided to wear my Bedouin attire and my shemagh, and I went there speaking my Bedouin dialect. The man thought I was from outside Jordan, so he tried to cheat me on the price, and I was able to catch him in the act.”


There are two possible transformations in the next two decades: On the one hand, an increase in the use of ‘āl among East Jordanian and Palestinian-Jordanian men, particularly in the middle and upper classes and among employees in certain commercial sectors. In recent years, with the rise of the private sector and the retrenchment of the public sector, many men employed in banks and enterprises have adopted ‘āl as complementary to their use of English in professional relationships. It might also be observed that many workers in the lower and lower-middle classes are being forced to resort increasingly to ‘āl during their working hours. Many Careem drivers [48] have told me that ‘āl is more appropriate in the workplace because it is “more sophisticated” and “less brutish.” The same applies to those who work in luxury restaurants, wedding halls, shopping centers, certain television channels and radios, and the service sector in general.

Elsewhere, outside of Amman, the same patterns can also be found. A while ago, I was at a restaurant in Ajloun which attracts many tourists, where the waiters were speaking with ‘āl. I asked one of them, a native of Anjara, who replied that management had asked employees to be as polite as possible with customers, especially since many come from Amman. This directive was translated as the use of ‘āl. As for Petra and Wadi Rum, the gāl retains its attractiveness in the eyes of Orientalist tourists and seekers of “the experience of Bedouinism.” I do not believe that the young Ajlouni man and his colleagues will ever fully transition towards ‘āl. In other areas outside of Amman, gāl remains stable and hegemonic, but the alternation between the ‘āl and gāl in Amman, among some workers in the private sector, may push them later to definitively switch towards ‘āl.

Moreover, and in other contexts, one begins to see ‘āl written [49] as it is pronounced. In some cafes in West Amman, one often finds ‘Ahweh instead of Qahweh written on their signs or menus. After English had dominated the cafes of West Amman as the “modern” language, there is now evidence of a return to spoken Arabic, albeit urbanized or Lebanonized, as a written language, to distinguish it from classical Arabic, which is seen by some as the language of “tradition and heritage” used by small local merchants in working-class neighborhoods.

On the other hand, we can observe that, for the last two decades, more East Jordanian women in Amman, especially young people, have begun using gāl in the public sphere, as well as in the private sphere. In a book published in English in 2001, Massad points out that at that time, some East Jordanian feminists began to use the gāl to “confirm their equality within this new Jordanian national feature.” [50] Moreover, the development of education and the increase in women’s participation in the labor force caused a rise in the presence of Jordanian women from outside Amman, who use gāl, in the public sphere in Amman. This positively encouraged the Ammani East Jordanian women, and promoted their ability to adopt gāl in the public sphere as well, regardless of its motivations. Therefore, the increased adoption of gāl by East Jordanian women could break its monopoly by the male dialect in Amman.

To conclude, the qāf in Amman is not an eternal qāf suspended and frozen in time, but a historical qāf that changes according to the power relations within the changing social, political, and economic structures. What remains important to remember is that dialects never carry essentialist traits. If we were to set aside the nationalist imaginaries, we would see that Jordanian dialects are much broader than what was drawn by the national state, and we would interact with them with less rigidity.

  • الهوامش

    [1]Bourdieu, P., & Thompson, J. B. (1991), Language and Symbolic Power, Harvard University Press.

    [2]This is the negative imperative of the verb “to worry” about the second person plural: “Worry not!”. What makes the sentence anecdotal is the fact that the phoneme qāf contained in the verb is pronounced as the variant kāf. The article will then explain all the sociolinguistic sensitivities underlying the multiple phonetic variation of the phoneme qāf. (Translator)

    [3]The glottis is a consonant whose subtle presence can be observed in front of ‘ā initials in a word. (Translator)

    [4]From now on, for ease of reading, I will refer to different dialects using the word qāl, gāl, kāl, and ‘āl.

    [5]Suleiman, Yasir (2004), A War of Words: Language and Conflict in the Middle East, Cambridge University Press, p. 102.

    [6]There are many explanations about the origin of this mutation. According to Hadi al-Alwi, it comes from an Andalusian background. Assuming that this change existed in the Andalusian Arabic dialect, al-Alwi believes that it amounts to a talk of an ancient clan of Arabic, since the dialect of Andalusia is composed of five dialects of Arab tribes who were settled in Spain. See Hadi al-Alwi: هادي العلوي, المعجم العربي الجديد, دار المدى للثقافة والنشر, بيروت, 2014, ص 38-39

    [7]Regarding the History of Jordan Radio, see Amer Abu Jableh:
    عامر أبو جبلة “مسيرة إذاعة المملكة الأردنية الهاشمية ودورها الثقافي (1956-1996)”, دراسات في تاريخ الأردن الاجتماعي, مؤلف جماعي, دار سندباد للنشر, عمان, 2003.

    [8]Massad, Joseph (2001). Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan, Columbia University Press.

    [9]This law was abolished in 1976.

    [10] Joseph Massad indicates that Bedouin nomads constituted 46% of East Jordanians in 1922. They numbered about 102,000 inhabitants over 225 miles, according to estimates of the Tribal Authority. These figures do not include the area stretching from Ma’an to Aqaba, which was integrated into East Jordan in 1923, and which has one of the largest Bedouin tribes – Al Hwetat.

    [11]Massad, Joseph, p. 112.

    [12]Massad, Joseph, p. 107.

    [13]Massad, Joseph, p. 261.

    [14]Massad, Joseph, p. 133.

    [15]AL Jrebih, Mouhammad (2003), Jordanian Radio in the 1950s and 1960s: The Political sphere and the Crystallization of the Jordanian National Character, Studies in the Social History of Jordan, Collective Work, Dar Sindibad, Amman.
    محمد الجريبيع, الإذاعة الأردنية في الخمسينيات والستينيات: المجال السياسي وبلورة الشخصية الوطنية الأردنية, دراسات في تاريخ الأردن الاجتماعي, مؤلف جماعي, دار سندباد للنشر, عمان, 2003 775 ص.

    [16]Massad, Joseph, p. 141.

    [17] He was among the composers who wrote the most for Samira Tawfik, for more details, see Ra’ida Ahmad (2017), “Samira Tawfik and Her Role in Promoting the Jordanian Song”, in The Jordanian Art Review. Vol 10, Ed. 3, p. 271-296.
    رائدة أحمد, “سميرة توفيق ودورها في نشر الأغنية الأردنية”, المجلة الأردنية للفنون, مجلد 10, عدد 3, 2017, ص 271- ص 296.

    [18]For more details on the differences between Bedouin dialects and urban dialects, see Ibrahim Anis (1992), On Arabic Dialects, Cairo, p. 90-138.
    إبراهيم أنيس, في اللهجات العربية, مكتبة الأنجلو مصرية, القاهرة, الطبعة الثامنة, 1992, ص 90-138.

    [19]For details, see: al-Khashman, Mustapha(2011), The Country’s Breeze, Language Studies and Heritage, Ministry of Culture, Amman.
    مصطفى الخشمان, نسائم الديار, بحوث في اللغة والتراث, وزارة الثقافة, عمان, 2011.

    [20]Mustapha, al-Khashman (2014), Traditional Folk Vocabulary in Ma’an. Ministry of Culture, p. 8-9.
    مصطفى الخشمان, المفردات الشعبية التراثية في محافظة معان, وزارة الثقافة, عمان, 2014, ص 8-9.

    [21]Joseph Massad, Yasir Suleiman, Enam al-Wer.

    [22] Suleiman, Yasi, p. 96-136.

    [23]Suleiman, Yasir, p. 108.

    [24]Suleiman, Yasir, p. 108.

    [25]Suleiman, Yasir, p. 114-115.

    [26]Massad, Joseph, p. 448.

    [27]The origin of this appellation remains unknown. (Translator)

    [28] Suleiman, Yasir, p. 116-118.

    [29] Massad, Joseph, p. 447.

    [30]he Lifecycle of Qaf in Jordan, Enam al-Wer and Bruno Herin, 2011, pp. 70-71.

    [31]Salti al-Tall, Suheir, (1985), Introductions to the Issue of Women and Feminist Movements in Jordan, The Arab Society for Studies and Publishing, Beirut. p 54
    سهير سلطي التل, مقدمات حول قضية المرأة والحركة النسائية في الأردن, المؤسسة العربية للدراسات والنشر, بيروت, 1985, ص 54.

    [32] Ibid.

    [33]Ibid., p. 63.

    [34]Ibid., p. 64-65.

    [35]Ibid., p. 79.

    [36]Ibid., p. 55-56.

    [37]Ibid., p. 57-58.

    [38]Ibid., p. 71-74.

    [39]bid., p. 60-61.

    [40]Bourdieu, Pierre (1993), Sociology in Question, London; Thousand Oaks.

    [41]Joseph Massad, p. 449.

    [42]We use the term “allophone” in the phonetic sense, a phonetic variant of an archiphoneme. (Translator)

    [43] Jinn is a 2019 Netflix series in Arabic set in Jordan. (Translator)

    [44]Bourdieu explains in his Language and Symbolic Power; how symbolic power is by nature an invisible power, and cannot be exercised without the complicity of those who do not confess their submission to this same power.

    [45]This folkloristic nostalgic vision is shared by some intellectuals. See Hani, al-‘Aamd (2001), Popular Songs in Jordan, Ministry of Culture, Amman, p. 79.

    [46]The equivalent of AFNOR in France. (Translator)

    [47] Famous Lebanese presenter. (Translator)

    [48]The equivalent of Uber in Jordan.

    [49]Usually, the phonetic variants of the phoneme qāf in the different Arabic dialects, are peculiar to the oral, and as soon as one goes to writing, qāf reappears as a letter. In the example above, a desire for transparency between oral and written is worth noting. The writing becomes a transliteration. (Translator)

    [50]Massad, Joseph, p. 448.