Ethnicity and Language

Jordan Table of Contents

In the late 1980s, several ethnic and religious groups coexisted on the East Bank. Roughly 5 to 8 percent of the total population were Christians. Of these, most were Arabs, including a small number--unique among Christians in the Middle East--who recently had been pastoral nomads. The largest group of non-Arab Christians were the Armenians, perhaps 1 percent of the population, who resided primarily in Irbid and Amman.

The Circassians, a Sunni Muslim community of approximately 25,000 people, were descendants of families brought from the region of the Caucasus Mountains when Caucasian territory was ceded to Russia in the 1880s. By encouraging the Circassians to settle in northern Jordan, the Ottomans sought to provide an element loyal to the sultan that could counterbalance the beduins. Circassians originally settled in Amman and the then-abandoned city of Jarash. Despite their small numbers, they have long been important in government, business, and the military and security forces. In 1938, for example, Circassians constituted 7.3 percent of the nonBritish government officials in Transjordan. Twenty-six of the thirty-three cabinets between 1947 and 1965 included one or more Circassians. Circassian families included prominent landowners and leaders in commerce and industry. Peter Gubser, a United States authority on Jordan, contended in 1983 that the Circassians were not "politically assertive as a group," although they were known for "their loyalty to the Hashemites." It is likely, however, that their relative cultural and economic importance diminished with the increasing predominance of the Palestinians on the one hand, and the improved education level of the Jordanians on the other. The Circassians remained heavily represented in senior military ranks, however, which caused some resentment among other Jordanians. All Circassians spoke Arabic and the rate of intermarriage between Arab Jordanians and Circassians was high.

Another, much smaller group originating in the Caucasus was the Shishans (also seen as Chechens), whose roughly 2,000 members were Shia Muslims, the only representatives of this branch of Islam in Jordan. Another religious minority were a small numbers of Arabic-speaking Druze villagers. A few Arabic-speaking Kurds lived in several northern villages.

A category of immigrants different from the Palestinian refugees may be noted. Between the early 1920s and the late 1940s, some hundreds of families, perhaps more, settled in Transjordan, having left Palestine, Syria, and the Hijaz region in Saudi Arabia. Arabs, and usually Sunni Muslims, they were nevertheless only partially integrated into the local communities in which they lived. This incomplete assimilation occurred in part because they were foreigners in the context of the tribal structure of such communities, and in part because, as merchants, most were looked at askance by tribally oriented groups. Generally, they tended to marry among themselves or with persons of similar origin. In the 1980s, however, most of these families had lived in the East Bank for nearly three generations, and the tribal system that had excluded them had become less significant within the society.

All Jordanians, regardless of ethnicity or religion, speak Arabic, the official language of Jordan. Throughout the Arab world, the language exists in three forms: the classical Arabic of the Quran, the literary language developed from the classical and known as Modern Standard Arabic, and the local form of the spoken language. Modern Standard Arabic has virtually the same structure wherever it is used, although its pronunciation and lexicon may vary locally. Educated Arabs tend to know two forms of Arabic-- Modern Standard Arabic and their own dialect of spoken Arabic. Even uneducated Arabic speakers usually can comprehend the general meaning of something said in Modern Standard Arabic although they cannot speak it themselves and often have difficulty understanding specific expressions. Classical Arabic is known chiefly to scholars; many people have memorized Quranic phrases by rote but cannot speak the classic form.

Dialects of spoken Arabic vary greatly throughout the Arab world. Most Jordanians speak a dialect common to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and parts of Iraq and, like people speaking other dialects, they proudly regard theirs as the best. (Small numbers of nomads traversing Jordan from Saudi Arabia may speak a dialect akin to one used in that country.) Few people believe that their dialect is actually good Arabic in the sense of conforming to the ideal. Although they converse in colloquial Arabic, they generally agree that the written form of Modern Standard Arabic is superior to the spoken form because it is closer to the perfection of the Quranic language. Arabs generally believe that the speech of the beduins resembles the purer classical form most closely and that the local dialects used by the settled villagers and townspeople are unfortunate corruptions.

Within a given region, slight differences in speech distinguish a city dweller from a villager and more significant ones distinguish either of these from a nomad. Even within the villages, various quarters often display unique pronunciations, idioms, and vocabulary specialized to particular lifestyles. Grammatical structure may differ as well.

Arabic is a Semitic language related to Aramaic, Hebrew, various Ethiopic languages, and others. Rich in synonyms, rhythmic, highly expressive and poetic, Arabic can have a strong emotional effect on its speakers and listeners. As the language of the Quran, believed by Muslims to be the literal word of God, it has been the vehicle for recounting of the historic glories of Islamic civilization. Arabic speakers are more emotionally attached to their language than are most peoples to their native tongues. Poetic eloquence was one of the most admired cultural attainments and signs of cultivation in the Arab world; among rural people, sedentary and nomadic, as well as among literate city dwellers, Arabic speakers long have striven to display an extensive command of traditional phrases and locutions. Beauty of expression was highly valued, and the speaker and writer traditionally sought an elaboration and circumlocution in both spoken and written forms that Westerners might find flowery or verbose.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress