Levantine Music and a Linguistic Epiphany

**Caution: This post is for language nerds.**
It’s Spring Break, and unlike many breaks, this one has been incredibly busy for me. In addition to seeking out summer opportunities and filling out program applications, I have been planning my very first NSLI-Y Alumni event, an information session about The Language Flagship. All the while, I have been passively learning Arabic through one of my favorite means of linguistic immersion: music!
I’ve written extensively about the importance of music in language learning, but I never thought that Anghami, the Arab version of Spotify, could essentially serve as a “research database”. With that, I want to take this time to geek out/reflect on an extremely interesting sociolinguistic phenomenon that I have run into while listening to some of my favorite Arab musical artists.

My favorites list on Anghami

To understand this phenomenon, some background in Arabic is necessary, but I’ll try to fill in the gaps as we go. I first made this interesting observation when I chanced upon the music video for “ما وحشناك” (Ma Wahashnak), a song by Mohammed Assaf, my all-time favorite Palestinian singer. “Ma Wahashnak” is a sad, romantic song, and the video shows that the subject of the song (to whom Assaf is singing) is clearly a girl.

However, Assaf refers to his subject as “إنت” (inte), the masculine Arabic subject pronoun for “you”, as opposed to “إنتي” (inti), the feminine pronoun.

Mohammed Assaf, whose music peaked my curiosity

I was surprised, until I realized that this was not the first time I had heard such a thing. In fact, every morning, while living in Jordan, our driver, Bilal, would blast slow, sad Arabic songs from the late 80s in which the singers would wail “حبيبي” (Habibi), the masculine word for “darling”, while referring to female subjects. I was intrigued by the odd grammatical composition of the songs. Why would male singers, especially when singing clearly to females, chose to use masculine pronouns and adjectives?
As I scrolled through my favorite Levantine songs on Anghami, I found that a vast majority of the songs used this same pattern, and I noticed some common trends:

  • Many male singers refer to female subjects as “إنت” (you masculine) instead of “إنتي” (you feminine).
  • These same singers use the word “حبيبي” (Habibi), or “darling”, in the masculine, rather than “حبيبتي” (Habibti), the feminine form.
  • These songs include masculine conjugations when referring to their subjects, and even phrases such as “I love you”, are directed towards the masculine gender, although the subject is female.

I made a table to illustrate this grammar phenomenon:
**To avoid having to constantly switch between the Arabic and English keyboards (it is incredibly hard to format due to the direction of the script), I will write using standard Internet transliteration**

How singer refers to the feminine subject (using masculine) How the words would have been written in keeping with regular grammar (using feminine)
“7abibi ma b3aref lesh b7ebak”: Melhem Zein (Darling I don’t know why I love you) 7abibti ma b3aref lesh b7ebik
“inte 7abib al2alb”: Assi alHalani (You are the darling of the heart) inti 7abibat al2alb
“yala nor2os ya 7abibi”: Rami Ayach (Let’s dance darling) yala nor2os ya 7abibti
“inte nseet”: Mohammed Assaf (you forgot) inti nseeti

I found the pattern to be present in a vast majority of the songs that I listen to. While, in the above table, the first three artists are Lebanese and the last one is Palestinian, I noticed the same patterns in a few songs from Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria. However, since most of the music I listen to (and actually partially understand) is Levantine, I wanted to focus on that region in particular.
As I was combing through my list of songs (and seriously analyzing their grammar), I came across another interesting pattern. Of the Levantine songs on my list, many of the exceptions were– Syrian!!
In the song “Manu shar6” by Nassif Zeytoun, I was intrigued to see that he refers to his female subject as “inti”, instead of the masculine subject pronoun that many of the other Levantine artists use. It was thus quite surprising to see that Hussein al-Deek, also a famous Syrian singer, uses feminine pronouns and conjugations to refer to his subjects. Another song, by Amar al-Deek, uses the subject pronoun “inti” as well. When I noticed the usage of feminine adjectives in one of Syrian singer Anas Kareems’ songs, I knew that this couldn’t just be a mere coincidence. Although four musical artists are not enough to really make a conclusion, I do feel that I’m on to something!

Levantine music, much of which is Syrian

With all my personal observations before me, I decided to do some research, so I ran a quick Google search. Surprisingly, I wasn’t able to find as much information as I expected about why this phenomenon exists; however, after some looking, I found a crowdsourced forum that gave me some answers. As I learnt, Arab male musical artists refer to their female subjects as male for a few key reasons:

  1. Apparently, in more ancient versions of Arabic, male adjectives were used to convey extremes. Thus, a woman of “extreme beauty”, for example, would be described using masculine adjectives, to truly underscore her beauty. That might explain why many songs use male adjectives.
  2. The second reason, according to forum contributors, is that feminine adjectives and conjugations often add an extra syllable and sound (such as an “-e” or an “-i”), which would interfere with the rhythm, rhymes, and flow of the lyrics.
  3. One answer even discussed “modesty”. Apparently, using the masculine made the singer sound more “modest”. I don’t think I really understand this one, but perhaps it was meant to make the singer sound less direct to his subject. Of course, when ancient Arabic poetry was first developing, music videos didn’t exist, so that may have made more sense at the time.

My online findings are no way an end to my queries, and there are many more questions to be asked and answered. For one, I still don’t have an explanation for why many of the Syrian songs do not follow this pattern. In addition, my observations have been limited to the Levantine songs that I listen to and can somewhat understand. A holistic research would involve using a broader sample size, instead of my “Favorites” list on Anghami. I do, however, feel like I have come to a very interesting starting point, and I definitely hope to look into these patterns in detail. Who knows, they might even become a full-on research project! 😀

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