- Language and Identity in Modern Egypt by Reem Bassiouney
Language and Identity in Modern Egypt, the most recent book by Reem Bassiouney, provides an overview of the relationship between language and identity in Egypt based on a survey of public-discourse data. The text is divided into six chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, covering methodological issues, the historical development of Egyptian identity, the relationship between social indexes of Arabic varieties, and the place of Arabic in defining and contributing to the development of Egyptian identity up to the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
The introduction provides a general overview of the book, highlighting the need for a book like this in Arabic sociolinguistics. Additional background details are also given for why Egypt is a suitable case study for this kind of work. Issues related to Charles Ferguson’s (1959) conceptualization of diglossia, along with a more limited discussion of linguistic prestige as it relates to the case at hand, are also included. The introduction ends with an overview of the data to be examined in the book, the intended readership, and limitations of the work.
Chapter 1 outlines the theoretical foundation of the book, drawing on work related to stance, positioning theory, and indexicality to frame the wider argument. This argument rests on the idea that language is used as a method of classification while at the same time individuals use language to adopt stances in discourse that [End Page 163] in turn index various aspects of Egyptian identity (41). Chapter 1 concludes with a discussion of some of the types of discursive and structural resources that the author uses in the data analysis provided later in the book.
Chapter 2 provides a historical overview of the place of language in the development of Egyptian identity. The chapter traces the formation of modern Egyptian identity as a pushback against colonial powers. At the same time, language is tied to other factors like locality that the author argues have worked together to forge a notion of what being Egyptian means. The chapter concludes with a nod to the ongoing debates regarding standard versus colloquial varieties of Arabic and to language attitudes and ideologies more generally.
The third chapter discusses the indexes of Arabic within Egyptian society and the relationship between indexicality and language attitudes and ideologies, tying some of Ferguson’s foundational ideas about diglossia to indexicality. One crucial point in Bassiouney’s treatment of indexicality is that it is not actually linked to linguistic practice; instead, second-order indexicality specifically is linked to access or a lack thereof to varied Arabic codes. This move, in and of itself, is not problematic. However, the reader is never really provided with an explanation of what the author’s take on indexicality buys us analytically that previous indexical methodologies did not.
Chapter 4 draws on popular Egyptian media to argue that public discourse presents a cohesive community in Egypt by employing varied stances and specific social variables. In this respect, Bassiouney identifies historicity, locality, and ethnicity as variables that are at the core of the cohesive notion of community present in public discourse. In drawing on Yasir Suleiman (2011) in this chapter, the author effectively sidelines a great deal of variationist work within Arabic sociolinguistics. The critique of variationist research in this chapter comes across as flatly dismissive. This is curious since a great deal of the third-wave sociolinguistic research on identity, style, or indexicality has productively used variationist research as a foundation for building on and advancing theory. Religion, which chapter 4 discusses at length, is an area where I think a better understanding and use of sociolinguistic theory could have been useful for the author. While Bassiouney is correct in noting that there has not been a study that links religion to linguistic variation in Egypt, the author appears to accept at face value the homogenized representation of religion presented in Egyptian public discourse.
My gut reaction as a sociolinguist is to agree, since the link between religion and language has largely eluded...