The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, January 11, 2004
 

Can Thomas Friedman speak Arabic?


The thought sparked by a discussion at Matthew Yglesias on Friedman's latest effusions (including in the NY Times January 11) on Middle East affairs.

A previous piece of Friedman's nonsense led me (December 4) to assume (by inference from the quality of the product, as well as lack of positive evidence directly on the point) that he did not. Speaking Arabic is a complex notion (touched on in a piece on August 31 2003), there being 12 spoken languages - with a large element of mutual incomprehensibility - as well as a testing written language.

Knowledge of any language is not a yes/no proposition: with Arabic, even less so [1].

I have a single source on Friedman's abilities in Arabic: Kevin Drum from May 2003 says
...Friedman does have lots of experience in the Middle East, he speaks Arabic, and he has some good ideas...

Now, cursory searching suggests that Western hacks with a knowledge of Arabic are not exactly thick on the ground: if such a well-known name as Friedman was genuinely fluent in one of the diglossias - in Standard Arabic and the Egyptian variety of the spoken language, for instance - his and his friends' boosting of the fact would have left something of a trail online.

According to his Times bio, he has a
B.A. degree in Mediterranean studies from Brandeis University in 1975. In 1978 he received a Master of Philosophy degree in Modern Middle East studies from Oxford.
No indication of the sort of specialisation that achieving real fluency in one of the Arabic diglossias would require. (Perhaps I'm unduly influenced by the use of the soft-option word studies in the degree titles...)

If he is thus fluent, why wouldn't the Times want to trumpet it: his pieces for them are often to do with Arabic-speaking countries, after all.

Why should we be forced to guess? What's the harm in letting the reader into the 'secret'?

  1. For instance, with my knowledge (such as it is) of Spanish, I can read many texts on Portuguese media sites for gist without even a proper notion of how to pronounce the words! Would I say, baldly, that I know either language? Absolutely not.


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