Languages are a main driver of personal interactions and intercultural communication, embodying heritage and reflecting the development of civilizations and societies. As such, languages constantly evolve and change from the interaction of society’s various components.
One of the latest research objectives of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar(opens in new window) (CMU-Q), a Qatar Foundation partner university, is to explore and analyze dialects in Qatar.
"Our main goal is to expand Qatar’s knowledge base when it comes to the Qatari dialect, heritage, culture and identity," said Zeinab Ibrahim(opens in new window), teaching professor of Arabic studies(opens in new window) and the lead principal investigator on the project to create an interactive map of the Qatari dialect. The project is funded by the Qatar National Research Fund’s (QNRF) National Priorities Research Program. Principal investigators include Houda Bouamor(opens in new window), assistant teaching professor of information systems(opens in new window) at CMU-Q, as well as Aisha Sultan from Doha International Family Institute and Hany Abdelrhem from Georgetown University in Qatar.
For the project, the research team is tracing the social and geographic variations of Qatari dialect over generations, and creating a digital tool to explore pronunciation, usage and expressions.
Ibrahim said she believes CMU-Q's research can help preserve and promote Arabic language learning in Qatar.
"I have been living in Qatar for quite a while now, and I've noticed a lack of references on the local dialect that has changed over the years. Also, a lot of people move and work here and would like to learn the Qatari dialect, but there is neither a reference nor a textbook available for that,” she said. "Thus, the outcome of this research effort can be used to develop curricula that helps Qatari students learn Standard Arabic."
Bouamor is working on the second part of the project: to assess Qatari dialect usage from a computational linguistics perspective.
"Looking at the way people write on social media, for example, we notice that they either use English or the Qatari dialect. It is therefore important to establish references of the language resources used,"Bouamor said. "Dialects differ from one country to another, even within the Arabian Gulf. The Emirati dialect differs from the Kuwaiti one, for example. Therefore, we must conduct actual research to determine whether a general 'Gulf' dialect exists or if each country has its own specific dialect.
"We notice that many people over the age of 60, for example, use language expressions different from those used by youth in their twenties. Thus, we must track these changes and draw up a reference map," she said.
Project Key Challenges
As part of the efforts undertaken to develop an interactive linguistic map of the Qatari dialect, the research team is working on collecting data from native speakers and gathering linguistic vocabulary in its basic form. With the participation of Qatari researchers, the project features interviews with Qatari individuals in an effort to build standard written conventions for Qatari dialect, and to digitize and analyze this information using natural language processing and machine learning techniques.
Hamed Al-Qahtani is a research assistant on the project and represents the Bedouin dialect.
"As part of our work, we had to conduct interviews with people of different ages tackling five specific topics relating to heritage and old customs and how they changed over time, as well as the nature of past work and the difference between the past and the present,"Al-Qahtani said. "We also asked participants about their take on contemporary issues, such as Qatar hosting the World Cup."
The research endeavor has faced several challenges, the most prominent of which has been gaining people’s trust to get them to speak naturally and spontaneously, said Delma Al-Hajri, another research assistant.
"Among the difficulties we encountered is some people’s reluctance to participate in interviews. Some were not interested in the subject, or didn’t want the conversation on record for privacy concerns, despite being assured that the information would be used for research purposes only," Al-Qahtani noted. "Younger participants were the most enthusiastic about the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, while others expressed interest in discussing Qatari heritage, work traditions and ancient customs."
Another challenge that faced researchers is the overlap in dialect among geographic areas.
"One of the requirements of our work is to document the name of the region in which we conduct the interview. However, there is a nationwide overlap in terms of residence and lineage. Previously, Bedouins lived in non-urban areas but that is no longer the case today, which posed a real challenge for researchers." Al-Qahtani said.
Al-Hajri said the project will offer people a better understanding of their local dialect.
"This project will elegantly frame the Qatari dialect, preserving it against the many impurities that we see today. During my research, I found that some people tend to disown their authentic Bedouin dialect and to use urban terms to sound sophisticated," she said.
Bedouin vs. Urban
Touching on the outcomes of the project, Professor Ibrahim said the research highlights gender-based differences, as well as variations between Qatari generations and Bedouin and urban populations.
"Using Modern Standard Arabic may enable teachers to better help students overcome some common linguistic errors. It can also help, for example, in developing a book tackling the Qatari dialect specifically," she said.
The research project also provides a valuable resource that can be leveraged to create different tools that automatically process the Qatari dialect, starting with creating Qatar's linguistic map, said Bouamor.
"From a computational perspective, this is a great resource. For example, we can draw a map showing where specific words are more commonly used, which represents one of the key objectives of this project," she added. "From a neuro-linguistic programming perspective, we can build a morphological analysis tool using machine learning. Another application is to build machine translation systems or tools to search for documents and information using a purely local dialect."
Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar offers undergraduate degree programs in biological sciences(opens in new window), business administration(opens in new window), computer science(opens in new window) and information systems. Students can choose to pursue a minor in Arabic studies, or from more than a dozen other fields.