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Kamran Scot Aghaie, Chair CAL 528 | 204 W 21st St F9400 | Austin, TX 78712-1029 • 512-471-3881

Spring 2006

MES 381 • Lang & Nationalism in Mid East

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
41195 TTh
12:30 PM-2:00 PM
CAL 221

Course Description

In his influential book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson contends "the most important thing about languages is their capacity for generating imagined communities." Even for the sociolinguist or linguistic anthropologist, such a claim likely represents an exaggeration, but it begs an important question: what role has or might language play in the creation of imagined communities and nation-states? In this course, we will seek to answer that question with respect to the languages of the Middle East, both the dominant languagesArabic, Hebrew, Farsi, and Turkishand at least two very important minority languagesBerber and Kurdish. To achieve this goal, we will first need to learn something about nationalism and the ways in which students of nationalism have theorized about the role language might play in nationalism as well as the ways in which students of language in society have thought about nationalism. We will then take the languages of the Middle East in turn, treating each as a case study. As we will see, debates about Arabic, the fuSHa and the dialects, and arabization have granted the language itself totemic status. How should we understand the evident fact that there are many countries where Arabic is spoken but the enduring notion of a single 'Arab nation'? The case of Hebrew stands as the most successful case of language revitalization or rebirth in recorded history, and the country continues to create Israeli citizens partly by teaching them Hebrew. Debates about modern Persian have sometimes included discussionand fightsabout issues of purity in an effort to rid the language of borrowings from other languages, especially Arabic. With a stroke of the pen and the stamping of a seal, Atatürks reforms, which included shifting from the Arabic to the Roman script, are said to have rendered nearly all of the countrys literates unable to read their own language; they also defined Turkey as a country where all spoke Turkish. In each of these cases, the national language has served roles far beyond those of a common language. The enduring presence of minority languages like Berber and Kurdish remind us that the communities imagined by and through national languages often ignore the presence of minority languages and other imaginings of community and membership in the nation-state. Our goal in the course will be to use arguments about language and nationalism as a way of understanding important aspects of Middle Eastern history, life, culture, and, of course, language. In brief, we will be studying how arguments about language are, in many regards, constitutive of membership in various groups and nation-states.

Grading Policy

Attendance & participation (including leading discussions): 25%; Questions on the reading: 15%; Course paper and assignments leading up to it: 60%


In addition to a course packet with articles on nationalism, language, and language and nationalism, we will read some or all of the following works: Haeri, Niloofar. 2003. Sacred Language; Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt. Lewis, Geoffrey. 1999. The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success. Suleiman, Yasir. 2003. The Arabic Language and National Identity: A Study in Ideology.


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