Code-switching Arabic in song

Yasmine Hamdan

Yasmine Hamdan

Interesting review today on NPR of the latest album from Lebanese singer, Yasmine Hamdan, Ya Nass. She is well-known in the Middle East, going back to her days in Soapkills, the duo she founded with Zeid Hamdan. Hamdan now lives in Paris and is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. However, she sings exclusively in Arabic. This is a decision that is culturally understandable, but which tends to limit her popularity. According to the BBC, Hamdan was offered a lucrative contract by music executives, if she were willing to sing in English, but she refused. She’s forgoing catering to the larger English-speaking public, at least in part, because her songs are culturally and linguistically tied to the Middle East. As she has traveled and lived in a variety of Middle-Eastern countries, Hamden speaks a variety of dialects of Arabic, which, according to Wikipedia, has enabled her “to playfully use various dialects of Arabic in her lyrics, which alternate between Lebanese, Kuwaiti, Palestinian, Egyptian and Bedouin, as well as some of the code-switching which is so typical of Middle-Eastern humour”. Clearly, English or French would have a whole different dynamic in her songs, losing much in the translation.

Code-switching among Arabic speakers is common, but that occurs principally between speakers’ own dialect of Arabic and Standard Arabic. Typically, Standard Arabic is used in formal, religious, and literary contexts, while dialectal versions are used in everyday situations. Code-switching can be used for paralanguage purposes, i.e. to convey irony, disdain, or special emphasis. It also has social functions, such as its use for identity negotiation, social-group membership, or to signal social solidarity (or superiority). Less common than the back and forth between Standard Arabic and dialect, at least in normal everyday situations, is the kind of dialectal code-switching done by Hamdan. However, it is used for effect in the entertainment industry. Such code-switching occurs in the U.S. entertainment as well, for example, by having a character speak with a strong hillbilly-like accent, a clear signal of unsophistication and a source of humor.

Yasmine Hamdan – Ya Nass ياسمين حمدان – يا ناس‬

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