Dr. Ben Hebblethwaite used his 2014 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship to travel to Paris, France to study the influence of Islam on French language and culture as part of a long-term book project. In particular, Dr. Hebblethwaite explored the linguistic contact between vernacular French and Arabic through rap music created by French Muslims. Dr. Hebblethwaite’s research suggests that common religious idioms and vocabulary unique to Arabic overlap into vernacular French through rap music, which forms a common set of cultural terms shared by both languages and their speakers. Although this common set of shared terms, or lexical borrowings, is hardly universal, it nevertheless indicates a broader cultural awareness of the religious lexical field of Islam.
Dr. Hebblethwaite conducted a survey of a random sample of seventy-three French participants regarding their knowledge of common religious phrases and vocabulary in Arabic as found in French rap texts. Based on his findings, increased multilingualism has a positive correlation with knowledge of Arabic religious phrases and vocabulary. This awareness was not surprisingly highest amongst Arabic and French speakers, but even among participants who did not speak Arabic particular religious phrases and vocabulary was relatively well-known. Another factor is generational. Participants under the age of thirty possessed better knowledge of this lexical field than older participants, but this difference was not too great. Although this evidence suggests some diffusion of the Arabic religious idioms and vocabulary, the results do not consistently show a high-level of awareness.
Such awareness, albeit not exceedingly high, is cultivated both by the popularity of rap as a genre of music and the vibrancy of the local rap culture. The imprint of rap culture on public space is significant. Whether through advertisements for concerts or use of Arabic words on public buildings the physical imprint of Arabic on the Parisian landscape is tangible. Also, French Muslim rappers utilizing Islamic symbols on their cover art (a minaret, for example) and reflecting on religious themes in their lyrics like the moral problem of permissibility (halal) and impermissibility (haram) make possible the linguistic contact between vernacular French and Arabic. Additionally, debate on Islam has been intense in France over the last 20 years and this broad context lays a foundation for linguistic and cultural contact.
Dr. Hebblethwaite’s project provides a window into how communities and boundaries are formed through linguistic contact and lexical borrowings. The political currency of Islam in France created by Muslim immigration and their imprint on public space affects the formation and reception of Islamic communities in France. Nevertheless, the extent to which the religious lexicon of Islam is disseminated through the popular medium of rap music suggests a possible way of reframing the debate in France and in such a way that is not necessarily antagonistic.
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