Syrian People - Arabs
The Arabs identify with speakers of their language throughout the Middle East. The majority of Syrian Arabs are Muslims; chiefly Sunni, they also include the Alawis, Ismailis (see Glossary), and Shia (see Glossary). All the Druzes are Arabic-speaking, as are the Jews and half the Christian population; most Christian Arabs are Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, or Greek Catholic (see Religious Life , this ch.). Being both Arab and Muslim leads many Syrians to feel that the two characteristics are natural companions and that one cannot be an Arab without being Muslim and vice versa.
Syrian Arabs are highly conscious of the Islamic-Arab tradition. This is also true of Arab Christians, who follow Muslim customs in many of their daily activities and look with pride to the greatness of the Arab past.
Most Syrian Arabs think of the nomadic tribesman as the ideal Arab type. This attitude is common among both villagers and city dwellers, though the latter may also speak of the tribesman as quaint and backward. Arabs generally think of non-Arabs as inferior, but, because these groups are comparatively small and constitute no possible threat to the social position of the Arab majority, the feeling is not very strong.
Arabic, one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, is the mother tongue of about 200 million people, from Morocco to the Arabian Sea. One of the Semitic languages, it is related to Aramaic, Phoenician, Syriac, Hebrew, various Ethiopic languages, and the Akkadian of ancient Babylonia and Assyria.
Throughout the Arab world, the language exists in three forms: the Classical Arabic of the Quran; the literary language developed from the classical and referred to as Modern Standard Arabic, which has virtually the same structure wherever used; and the spoken language, which in Syria is Syrian Arabic. Educated Arabs, therefore are bilingual, with knowledge of both Modern Standard Arabic and their own dialect of spoken Arabic. Even uneducated Arabic speakers, who in Syria comprise over 40 percent of the population, usually comprehend the meaning of something said in Modern Standard Arabic, although they are unable to speak it; however, they may have difficulty fully understanding radio and television programs, which are usually broadcast in Modern Standard Arabic. Because Classical Arabic is the language of the Quran and is regarded literally as the language of God, Arabs almost unanimously believe that the Arabic language is their greatest historical legacy.
Syrian Arabic is similar to Lebanese Arabic, but differs significantly from colloquial Arabic in neighboring Iraq and Jordan. A Syrian would find colloquial Moroccan Arabic virtually incomprehensible. Like most people speaking dialects, Syrians proudly regard their dialect as the most refined. However, few Syrians believe that their dialect is actually correct Arabic. Although they converse in Syrian Arabic, there is general agreement that Modern Standard Arabic, the written language, is superior to the spoken form. Arabs generally believe that the speech of the beduin resembles Classical Arabic most closely and that the local dialects used by settled villagers and townsmen are unfortunate corruptions. To overcome these linguistic barriers, educated Arabs speak Modern Standard Arabic to one another. Uneducated and illiterate Arabs, if Muslim, can converse with other Arabs in Classical Arabic learned from oral recitation of the Quran.
Within Syria, regional differences in colloquial vocabulary, grammar, and accent are wide enough that a native speaker can readily identify another speaker's home province, tribe, city, and even his neighborhood from his dialect. For example, Alawis from Al Ladhiqiyah Province are called "Al Qaf" because of their distinct pronunciation of this letter, the "Q".
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