North Cyprus  

Maronite Cypriot Community

The Spoken Arabic Dialect Of The Maronites Of Cyprus
  George J. Thomas, J.D.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney of Jasper County, Missouri.
  The Journal of Maronite Studies
Volume 4, Number 1 - January 2000
   This article will provide a brief classification of the dialects of Arabic, a description of the Cypriot Arabic dialect’s main features, and suggestions for future studies.

The author wishes to thank Mr. David Brandon for his comments and consistent encouragement and Mr. Edward Brice for his assistance in providing valuable references. The views presented in this article are those of the author and not necessarily of MARI or the JMS

I. Introduction

The Maronite communities of Lebanon and Syria, like the Copts of Egypt and the Assyrian Christians of Iraq, are notable for their great age and extensive traditions. While scholars of Maronite studies have often focused on specific aspects of the Maronite heritage (liturgy, theology, music, translations, etc.), it is not often known that one Maronite community has proven to be an interesting footnote to the study of Arabic linguistics. For centuries, an Arabic-speaking Maronite community on the island of Cyprus has quietly endured, and until recently, has been largely unknown to the outside world. A study of this community’s spoken dialect adds to the richness of the Maronite tradition, and yields much of value to the field of Arabic linguistics.

The study of the colloquial dialects of Arabic has long been the unwanted stepchild of Semitic linguistics. Traditionally, the study of Arabic grammar was viewed as properly confined to training in the classical written norm; the colloquial forms were either viewed as errors in speech or worthless patois, unworthy of serious study. In modern times, too much attention to the dialects by Western orientalists has been seen as a deliberate attempt by the colonial powers to subvert the linguistic unity of the Arab world. While there is some merit in this view, it is also true that modern methods of analysis applied to dialect study has helped -- in describing the substratal influences that unite all the dialects -- to reveal the full depth and unity of the linguistic tradition in the Near East.

This article will outline some basic features of a minority Arabic dialect that has received little formal study. Due to its small size and placement outside the mainstream of political currents, the Maronite community of Cyprus remains relatively unknown, even in the larger Maronite circles in other countries. Yet this small community has something significant to tell linguists and historians. As will be shown, the Cypriot Arabic speech may be a relic of the medieval dialects spoken in the Syrio-Iraqi area; besides this linguistic importance, it adds an interesting footnote to the history of the Maronites of Lebanon and Syria.

 Historians believe that there were four major migrations of the Maronites to Cyprus. The first migration occurred in the eighth century, the second in the tenth century, the third at the beginning of the twelfth century and the fourth at the end of the thirteenth century. The Maronites were numerous and occupied 60 villages in Cyprus but were the victims of so much oppression and persecution that they were reduced to 4,500 people located in only four villages. Today, the Maronites are refugees in Cyprus due to the Turkish invasion of 1974, which occupied their villages and denied them the right to return and to own land. (Hourani 1998)

This uprooting of people also occurred in Kormakiti where this Arabic dialect had been prominent. Consequently, there is a great danger that the language will disappear among those who now know it because of the dispersal and the lack of community clustering of the Maronites of Kormakiti outside their village.

II. Classification of the Dialects of Arabic 

Studies of Arabic linguistics usually divide the spoken colloquial forms of the language into five groups: Arabian dialects, Mesopotamian dialects, Syrio-Lebanese dialects, Egyptian dialects, Maghrebi dialects. While this grouping may be based more on political boundaries than anything else, it is as good as any other, and provides a useful reference point. (Versteegh 1997: 145)

While all of these dialects are generally mutually intelligible, differences appear in the pronunciation of the Arabic letters (phonology), the grammatical structure of sentences (morphology), the vocabulary for everyday speech, and the extent of incorporation of foreign loanwords. The Syrio-Lebanese speech forms are spoken in what is now known as Lebanon, Syria, parts of Jordan and northern Palestine. Even within this group, there are several sub-groupings which differ from each other in relatively minor ways. The Syrio-Lebanese dialect has a number of significant characteristics, a few of which are: the unvoiced letter qaff (which is treated as a glottal stop), changing of the interdental letters (thaa and dhaal) to stops, the future marker rah, the present tense verbal marker bi-, and the simplification of verb conjugations from standard Arabic. (Versteegh (1997: 153). While a full description of Syrian Arabic is outside the scope of this article, it is important to note the geographical distribution of the dialect and its basic features.

III. The Maronite Dialect of Cyprus 

In several regions of the world, Arabic appears as a minority language. (Versteegh 1997: 211-225 identifies Maltese, Cypriot Maronite Arabic, Anatolian Arabic, Uzbekistan and Afghani Arabic, Central African Arabic, and Arabic-speaking minorities in South America and Western Europe as minority dialects of Arabic). One of these Arabic-speaking minority groups is the community of Maronite Christians on the island of Cyprus. In the northwest region of the island, a Maronite community has existed since the emigration of large numbers of Christians from Lebanon and Syria between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. (Hourani 1998) The dialect is now confined exclusively to the village of Kormakiti, which has about 1200 inhabitants. The dialect’s long isolation from the main currents of the Arab world has caused it to develop on a track of its own, to such an extent that it is practically unintelligible to native speakers of Arabic. (Tsiapera 1969: at 1) The dialect (hereafter referred to as CMA, for Christian Maronite Arabic) is never written; Greek remains the language of educated discourse, so that CMA is confined to family and religious purposes. CMA’s restriction to a limited social field and its moribund vocabulary can be seen, unfortunately, as part of the final stages of language death.

When the Turkish government sent military forces to the island in 1974 in the wake of clashes between the Greek and Turkish communities, the Maronite community (roughly 5,000 people) in the northwestern region was dispersed throughout the island. This sudden uprooting of the population, and its resettlement in a drastically different context has done drastic harm to the survival of CMA. Alexander Borg, a linguist whose study remains the authoritative work on the subject, noted the urgent need for more original fieldwork on CMA in light of its precarious situation. Borg undertook research in Cyprus between 1979 and 1982 under extremely unfavorable field conditions: the Turkish authorities would not let him travel freely about the island, and Kormakiti itself was declared off-limits. His interviews had to be confined to refugees living in other parts of the island, removed from their cultural base in Kormakiti. Nevertheless, in spite of all these obstacles, he was able to produce a remarkably detailed study of the dialect’s features.

As a native speaker of Maltese, an Arabic-based language similarly removed from the mainstream of the Arab world, Borg was probably ideally placed to undertake such a study. Maria Tsiapera’s work on CMA, completed in 1969, has the advantage of having been completed before the social upheaval brought on by the Turkish invasion of 1974. Although not as exhaustive as Borg’s study, this work has merit in its own right, for Tsiapera’s fluency in both Greek and colloquial Arabic allowed her access to the CMA heartland in Kormakiti before the Diaspora triggered by the 1974 invasion.

According to the fieldwork done on CMA, the dialect possesses several features which separate it from the Syrian and Mesopotamian (Iraqi) dialects. One is the non-standard consonantal patterns. Between vowels, the consonants are realized (called "voiced stops"), but they are not voiced at the end of words. As an example, Versteegh cites the standard Arabic verb kataba, which becomes kidep in CMA. Another feature is the addition of the k sound before y, which has been attributed to the substratal influence of Greek. This combination of letters apparently occurs with some frequency in spoken Greek. The dialect has also lost the so-called "emphatic consonants" (saad, daa, dhal, taa).

The triliteral root system of Standard Arabic has been preserved in the CMA verb. Quadriliteral forms are also present, although less frequent. CMA employs all of the derived verbal forms of Standard Arabic, with the exception of Form IV, which is apparently extinct. (Borg 1985: 75) Also absent is the internal passive (in Arabic al-majhoul, or "the unknown"), which is not surprising, since this form has disappeared in other spoken dialects as well.

Another change from modern standard Arabic is the loss of most of the internal plural "shapes" (called by the classical grammarians gama’ al-maksour, or "broken plural"). (Borg 1985: 75) Classical Arabic has roughly thirty "shapes" of the broken plural, but CMA displays only five. (Cowan 1995: 200) Borg reports these plurals as CcaC, CcuC, CCeC, CceCeC, CceCiC, where the capitalized "c" represents a root consonant. In place of literary Arabic’s refined plurals, the dialect often simply tacks on the suffix –at. Younger speakers are encouraged to use this form. This is marked change from the Syrian Arabic dialect, which retains many of the broken plural shapes, as well as the dual form and the –at suffix plural form. Finally, the dialect shows the inroads of many generations of Hellenization; even for everyday situations, Greek loans are everywhere. The linguistic term "code switching" is used to describe the process whereby speakers change from one language to another, depending on the situation. Because of this phenomenon, it is often difficult to determine if a word is a genuine loan, or simply a response to a speaker’s environment. The high infusion of Greek loans in CMA, together with the use of Greek for most formal situations, inhibits the study of the limits of CMA’s lexicon. As mentioned above, CMA is not used in any educational, legal, or formal communicative setting: Tsiapera reports that none of the CMA speakers she interviewed could read and write Standard Arabic. (Tsiapera 1969: 1)

The most intriguing aspect of CMA is its connections to the Syrian and Mesopotamian dialects of the mainland. Borg lists a number of similarities CMA shares with the mainland dialects of southeast Anatolia, Aleppo, and Baghdad. One of these is the presence of "inclination" or imala in the medial vowel "a". (Borg 1985: 155) The "vowel shift" in the medial /a/ is a feature CMA shares with the mainland dialects, especially the Jewish and Christian dialects of Baghdad. Besides the presence of the medial imala, linguistic evidence has linked CMA to the mainland Syrian dialects in a number of other ways. (Borg 1985: 158).

Even more fascinating is the possible direct connection that CMA may have with the medieval dialects of Baghdad. According to Borg, CMA displays a rare phoneme which has a direct counterpart in the Muslim and Jewish dialects of Baghdad. (Borg 1985: 158) This, together with some similarities with Baghdadi in gender markings on suffixed pronouns, and long and short forms of the number "one", may lend credence to the theory that CMA is a survival of the medieval Arabic dialects spoken in the urban centers of the Near East, especially Baghdad. This possibility raises some fascinating questions about the nature of the historical links between the urban centers of the Near East, and the nature of the social upheaval caused by the Crusades. Borg finds that the present differences between CMA and Baghdadi Arabic are more the result of outside influences (namely, the Greek language) pushing "inward" on the language, rather than inherent differences in the origin of the dialects. All in all, Borg makes a persuasive case for the connections between CMA and the Mesopotamian dialects; future study will hopefully investigate the soundness of these speculations.

IV. Conclusion 
  As has been noted, much additional fieldwork is needed before a full and accurate picture of this dialect can be drawn. It is not certain if we will ever get the chance, for CMA is not likely to persist long into the next century. Still, such an investigation would be worth the effort, since CMA’s current situation raises interesting issues in modern linguistics: how minority languages adapt to the pressure exerted by the dominant spoken language (adstratal influence); the extent of the shared characteristics between the Mesopotamian and Syrian-Lebanese dialects in historical times; and the organic processes of language corruption and death. Perhaps Orientalists will find the Cypriot dialect worthy of a second look, if only to probe more deeply into these questions. Although the dialect’s continued existence in the future is uncertain, it nevertheless highlights the surprising diversity and cultural tenacity of the Middle East’s Maronite community. 
  • Borg, A. Cypriot Arabic: A Historical and Comparative Investigation into the Phonology and Morphology of the Arabic Vernacular Spoken by the Maronites of Kormakiti Village in the Kyrenia District of North-Western Cyprus, Stuttgart: Deutsche Morgenlandische Gesellschaft, 1985.
  • Cowan, D. An Introduction to Modern Literary Arabic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Cowell, M. A Reference Grammar of Syrian Arabic, Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1964.
  • Crisis on Cyprus, Washington: The American Hellenic Institute, 1975
  • Hourani, G. A Reading in the History of the Maronites of Cyprus, Journal of Maronite Studies [] (July 1997).
  • Ryding, K. Formal Spoken Arabic: Basic Course, Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1990.
  • Tsiapera, M. A Descriptive Analysis of Cypriot Maronite Arabic, The Hague: Mouton & Co., N.V., 1969.
  • Vanezis, P. Cyprus, the Unfinished Agony, London: Abelard-Schuman Ltd., 1977.
  • Versteegh, K. The Arabic Language, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
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