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Language Accommodation and Style Shifting in the Speech of Gamal Abdel Nasser
William Cotter, University of Essex

As president of Egypt and the figurehead of the pan-Arab nationalist movement, Gamal
Abdel Nasser served as a symbol for an entire generation in the modern Middle East.1 Even
today his legacy is visible both in Egypt and throughout the region. Periodic calls for Arabnationalism and the recent surge in pan-Arab solidarity in the wake of the Arab Spring hark back
to the period of Nasserist rule which defined the middle part of the 20th century. Nassers
oratorical skill brought his message to a wider Arab populace and rallied everyday people around
his ideals for a socialist Egypt free from the grip of European influence. By examining Clive
Holes 1993 article on the political speech of Nasser, this paper will discuss language
accommodation and style shifting in Nassers speech through the lens of the unique linguistic
marketplace of Nassers Middle East. Additionally, the paper aims to highlight the political and
linguistic ideologies which may be seen as influencing Nassers varying use of Standard and
Egyptian Arabic in his public address. 2
Through his landmark work Language & Symbolic Power, Pierre Bourdieu offers his
conception of legitimate language and the linguistic market through discussion on the dominant
competence as linguistic capital and the ability of powerful groups to impose that competence as
1

Although the preferred spelling for Holes is Nasir, unless quoting his work directly in which this spelling is used I
have opted for the more widely noted Nasser.
2
Fine grained differences exist but for the purposes of this paper Standard, Classical, and Fusha all refer to
the same form of the Arabic language and I have attempted to favour Standard wherever possible in order to
avoid confusion.

the legitimate form of language (Bourdieu 56-57). Leigh Swigart notes that, Bourdieus basic
ideais that language and linguistic practices can be viewed in economic terms. Different sets
of linguistic practices can be viewed as linguistic capital that can be exchanged for profit on
the linguistic market (Swigart 91). The first question that we must examine is, on the
linguistic market of Nassers Egypt, what constitutes legitimate language in Bourdieus terms?
Nilofar Haeri provides an answer in this regard when speaking of the pan-Arabism that
arose and became a prominent feature of Nassers political Egypt. Haeri states that, pan-Arab
ideology overrode other ideologies on the issue of language. The language of pan-Arabism is not
the various divisive and lowly dialects but the unifying and standard Classical Arabic (Haeri
798). Importantly to note, however, is that according to Haeri the realm of public speeches often
utilize both Standard and Egyptian Arabic, with the Egyptian dialect often being the primary
code with interspersed Classical Arabic (Haeri 797). A final point by Haeri is that the notion that
Bourdieu supported wherein there is a direct link between dominant language and dominant
group is not reinforced by the results of her own linguistic research in Egypt (Haeri 799). These
points give nod to the unique socio-political realities that helped to create the linguist market of
Nassers Middle East.
Turning now to the analysis of the political speech of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Holes notes
that political speech, is governed by social conventions about correct and appropriate
language useNasir achieved much of his popular appeal in Egypt precisely through his
flouting of these conventions and by the directness and accessibility of his language (Holes 22).
In this instance Holes seems to offer a potential counter point to Haeri wherein she had stated
that Egyptian Arabic was often the preferred code in political address. It is interesting to note
here that although Nasser was known for flouting the conventions of official speech which would

Cotter 2

have, as Holes states, heavily supported the use of Standard Arabic, his pan-Arab agenda very
much enforced the notion of an official language through its policy of support for Classical
Arabic in Egypt. Leila Ahmeds A Border Passage provides evidence of this point when
discussing her Arabic studies in Nassers Egypt. Ahmed writes of studying, boring passages in
what, we were told, was real Arabic, correct Arabic whereas what we spoke was an inferior,
corrupt, incorrect Arabic, and Arabic that could hardly be called Arabic at all (Ahmed 147).
Holes further mentions that a loosening of the linguistic rules was a political requirement
for Nasser, who needed to convince the Egyptian masses of the value of his plans for economic
and social reform, and this could not be done if speeches were delivered in Classical Arabic
(Holes 22). Beyond the political situation of Egypt itself, Nasser was a figure on the regional and
world stage. Holes makes note that much of the output of Nassers political speeches was
directed outside of Egypts political borders at a wider Arab populous and attributes these factors
to the variations in Nassers speech style (Holes 23). Although Holes does not touch on this in
his discussion of Nassers political speech, it is probable that Nasser was acutely aware of his
status as a political symbol on the regional stage. Through varying his speech style or code in
favor of Standard Arabic Nasser was able to bring his pan-Arab agenda to a wider audience.
At the same time Nasser faced the enormous task of convincing a largely illiterate
Egyptian population of the benefits of socialism and economic/social reform. This task had to be
tackled through the dialect of everyday speech, Egyptian Arabic. I argue that Nasser
accommodated his speech and switched styles across different speech events, as well as between
sentences in a single speech, in an effort to target different audiences or varying messages which
his speech carried. This will become clearer after examining and reinterpreting some of the data
which Holes analyzed in his work.

Cotter 3

Before moving forward, an interesting point that Kathryn Woolard makes regarding
ideologies of language relates to the case of Nassers Egypt. Woolard states that the widely
accepted view of ideology sees it as:
derived from, rooted in, reflective of, or responsive to the experience or interests of a
particular social positionthis emphasis on social and experiential origins necessarily
denies explanatory independency to ideology. It casts ideology as in some way dependent
on the material and practical aspects of human life. (Woolard 6)
Woolards conception of ideology helps to clarify some of the potential contradiction in Nassers
linguistic use. Using Bourdieus idea of legitimate language as it operates on the linguistic
market would lead us to believe that Nasser should be more inclined to use Standard Arabic as
the dominant or legitimate form of language in Egypt, especially given his political and social
power as the leader of the country. If we complicate Bourdieu by utilizing the idea that ideology
is dependent on practicality we can create a more flexible definition of language ideology and
legitimacy in Nassers Egypt.
In the interest of further complicating Bourdieus notion of legitimate language, Haeri
notes in her article that Bourdieu has been criticized for ignoring the varying dynamics of power
and solidarity in regards to official or legitimate language use (Haeri 802). Judith Irvine goes
further by mentioning the inflexibility and oversimplification in his concept in stating that, little
room is left for any statement made in one of the available varieties to make a difference to the
political and economic situation to be anything other than a symptom of it (Irvine 256). I
would propose that Holes examination of Nassers speech supports Haeri and Irvines
contestation of Bourdieus ideals as well as Woolards statements on the dependency of ideology

Cotter 4

on the practicality of use and a potential for flexibility in the application of ideology if it serves
strategic purpose.
While Holes examines six speech excerpts in his article, this paper will touch on only
four of those. The first two excerpts represent two very different speech styles delivered roughly
a week apart. As Holes notes, both were delivered at mass rallies in Cairo with the first being
given on November 9th, 1956 following Anglo-French attacks on Port Said and Port Fouad, the
manifestation of Anglo-French plans to retake the Suez Canal from Egypt (Abdel Nasser
09/11/1956). The second, delivered a week prior, was given when the Egyptian army was
retreating from Israeli forces in the Sinai but before the attack in Port Said (Abdel Nasser
02/11/1956) (Holes 23).
Holes labels the first speech as unusual for Nasser, as it was delivered in nearly pure
Classical Arabic (Fusha) (Holes 23). The importance here lies in Holes commentary on the
message of the first speech. As Holes states, the meaning in Nassers words is predominantly
that there is a difference between surrender and peace and that the Egyptian government had not
surrendered. Nasser offers this message through political abstraction and symbols (Holes 24).
Nasser never addresses the crowd in Cairo directly but, as Holes states, as the stylized sons of
Egypt or the abstract and anonymous third-person individuals or citizens (Holes 24). This is
a reoccurring theme in Holes analysis, which sees Nasser deploying Standard Arabic regularly
in situations which call for abstract political notion or symbolism.
In her work, Arabic Sociolinguistics, Reem Bassiouney offers support to Holes regarding
Nassers use of Standard Arabic for the purposes of political abstraction and symbolism. During
a 1954 speech in which there was an assassination attempt against Nasser, Bassiouney quotes

Cotter 5

Nasser as saying in near perfect Standard Arabic, Citizens, if Gamal Abd Al-Nasser dies, he
will die happily because you are all Gamal Abd Al-Nasser (3 times). You all fight for freedom
and dignity. Men, move, with Gods blessing (Quoted in Bassiouney 84). Bassiouney argues
that Nassers shift in speech reflects a change in his role. As she notes, He was no more the
friend or peer. He was now giving himself a more subtle status. He was a symbol, an idea, and
this idea was inherent in all Egyptians (Bassiouney 84). Conceptualizing Nassers use of
Standard Arabic in situations of political abstraction or symbolism is in line with Murray
Edelman when he notes that the potency of political language does not stem from its description
of a real world but rather from its evocations of unobservables in the present and of
potentialities in the future, language use is strategic (emphasis added) (Edelman 13). This
elucidates the idea that Nasser was potentially aware of the different effect his language use
could have and how it could be used for specific audiences or purposes.
Returning to Holes analysis of the first speech, Nassers words could also be seen as
calculated in the sense that they are directed not only at Egyptians but as well to a wider Arab
audience. This accommodation and shift towards Standard Arabic in his speech could reflect his
awareness that, in this instance, Classical or Standard Arabic was a more effective vehicle for his
message than Egyptian Arabic. Nassers July 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal from
European control (BBC News) was seen not only as an incredible victory for the Egyptian
people but as well a victory for the pan-Arab movement of which Nasser was at the fore.
Nassers choice of Standard Arabic in this particular speech excerpt could signal his potential
recognition that Anglo-French attacks at Port Said in November 1956 were not only a strike
against Egypt but also a retaliation against a larger pan-Arab identity. Through his choice of
Standard Arabic, Nasser could ensure that his political rhetoric and message of steadfastness and

Cotter 6

fearlessness would travel well beyond Egyptian borders to reinsure supporters of Nassers
political ideology abroad in the face of European and Israeli aggression. This example could
again reflect Nassers awareness of his status as a regional symbol of Arab identity which would
not buckle under a threat against Egypt and pan-Arabism as a whole.
The second speech sample which Holes analyzes is predominantly made up of Egyptian
Arabic. As he notes, the recorded version of the speech diverges notably from the textual version
and has a much more conversational style and feel. Holes argues that the second speech is a
concrete personal challenge to the invading enemy while the first is an abstract inspirational
appeal to the Egyptian nation (Hole 26). When speaking of the abstraction of the first speech,
Holes notes that:
abstraction, idealization, and eternal values have become associated in the psychology of
Arab society with an abstract and idealized form of language, and to be effective to an
Arab audiencea message which sets out to appeal to abstractions and ideals should
itself be in an idealized form of the language, that is, fushaa (Standard). (Holes 27)
Although the plausibility of Holes argument is without question, the choice of Egyptian Arabic
in the second speech could also reflect Nassers attempts at negotiating his unique linguistic
market; a market that, given his wider regional status as a symbol of pan-Arabism, may not be
integrated or unified. His speeches operate within varying local and regional markets which
could be seen to place differing value on speech style. Furthermore, the diglossia of Arabic may
be called upon as evidence for the notion that Nasser delivered his speech under varying
linguistic conditions and with different markets or audiences in mind. This notion is reminiscent
of Bells Audience Design in which speakers design their speech style for or in relation to their

Cotter 7

audience (Bell 143). These two speeches show evidence of Nasser navigating varying terrain
between markets.
In this second speech Nasser speaks directly to the Egyptian people and, as Holes puts it,
the affective and communicative punch of the aamiya (colloquial) in expressing such domestic
values overrides the fushaa dominated conventions of public speaking (Holes 27). While the
abstractness of the first speech can be seen as an attempt by Nasser to appeal to pan-Arabism, the
style and language of the second speech very much directs Nassers message to Egypt, the
Egyptian people, and his audience in Cairo. This is evidenced by his reflections on personal
experiences in the 1948 war with Israel, his continual use of we to refer to Egyptians, and his
assertion that Im with you here in Cairo and We will fight, like I told you yesterday, to the
last drop of blood (Holes 25). This example echoes Edelmans point that, the leader of a
country in imminent danger of aggression from a foreign enemy is expected to assure the
population that resistance will be resoluteIt is not creativity that wins an audience in such
cases, but rather telling people what they want to hear in a context that makes the message
credible (Edelman 15).
I believe this reflects the political situation in Cairo at the time. When Nasser delivered
this speech on November 2nd 1956, his army was in retreat from Israeli forces in Sinai after three
days of intense fighting and additional days of bombardment from European forces. For Nasser,
the ultimate aims of European and Israeli forces to recapture the Suez Canal from Egypt were
probably still unclear. The noticeable shift in Nassers speeches could reflect the changes in the
political situation over the intervening week and a potential realization on his part that European
forces were not intervening to stop an Egypt-Israeli war, but with ulterior motives.

Cotter 8

Shifting focus now to the final two speech excerpts which Holes analyzes it is possible to
see some of the same accommodation techniques applied previously by Nasser in his earlier
speeches. These two speech samples come from Nassers Victory Day speeches in 1957 and
1964. The 1957 speech excerpt is very much Standard Arabic without case inflections, which
sticks closely to the written version of the speech (Holes 34). As with the first speech discussed,
the message of this excerpt is abstract and political. Nasser uses abstractions in the forms of a
grand Egypt, the world, the policy of nonalignment, and removing the specter of war
(Holes 34).
Holes does note, however, one important down shift in speech style. This is attributed to
a change in the interpersonal aspect of the message. As an example of this Holes states that:
The we of the first twelve lines is the political we of Egypt on the world stage
working towards peace and stability but the we of (18b) is the we of ordinary
Egyptians, the audience themselves doing such everyday things as looking and
remembering, tangible things like battles, violence, flags, and martyrs hence
the symbolic switch to a kind of Arabic redolent of local values and actual experience.
(Holes 35)
Following this relatively brief downshift in style Nasser returns to speaking in Standard Arabic
and to the abstract political discussion on issues of peace and freedom and the future for Egypt
and, I would argue, for the rest of the Arab World.
The final excerpt mentioned in this paper is the last which Holes analyzes in his article.
As with the previous, this extract comes from another Victory Day speech, this time in 1964. In
this speech Nasser is very much addressing Egypt and this was the most colloquial of all the

Cotter 9

speeches examined in the article (Holes 35). Nasser is lauding the accomplishments that average
Egyptians have achieved, commenting on an Egyptian food crisis, and rejecting American aid to
Egypt. Holes notes that The solitary we = you and me together is emphasized throughout,
and the world which we inhabit is not an abstract or idealized one, but a real world of factories
being built, land improved, and new fields created and irrigated. (Holes 36).
Bassiouney also provides a further example regarding the use of Egyptian Arabic in
political speech. In examining the speech of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak,
Bassiouney notes that Mubarak utilized Egyptian Arabic predominantly when reminiscing with
the audience about past experiences from a shared Egyptian childhood, or when, as she puts it,
Mubarak was playing the role of the old friend with the audience (Bassiouney 77,80). This
analysis of Mubaraks speech is very much in line with Holes examination of the speech of
Nasser, where both Egyptian leaders chose to deploy Egyptian Arabic in instances where they
were trying to relate to their audience as Egyptians, or playing the role of friend through a
shared past.
As Holes notes, Nasser could have made the same speech on the same general topics with
another audience and easily have utilized different speech forms but, where these issues are
being dealt with so that the plain man can understand and empathize this calls for a variety of
Arabic which is instantly comprehensible in its form, symbolism, and frame of cultural reference
to all the aammiyya [colloquial] (Holes 36). Although I would not categorically attribute the
apparent accommodation and style shifts in Nassers speech to the overarching political situation
in the Arab world at the time, it is still beneficial to attempt to tie the two together in a
meaningful way. Nasser delivered his 1957 Victory Day speech in late December, which was
after his nationalization of the Suez Canal and the subsequent Suez crisis. 1957 also marked an

Cotter 10

important precipice in the life of the pan-Arab movement which Nasser was considered to be a
champion of. Just two months after delivering his 1957 Victory Day speech Egypt, with Nasser
at its helm, formed the United Arab Republic with Syria (Palmer 50). Pan-Arabism was still
reaching its apex and Nasser was in an important political position as the mouthpiece of the panArab movement and, as emphasized previously, his language choice may reflect his realization
of his position as an international political symbol. All of these are facts which could aid the
argument for strategic style shifting or accommodation to a wider Arab audience.
The intent in this paper has not been to argue that Nasser was specifically and
meticulously gearing each of his speeches to cater to pan-Arabism or to his Egyptian
constituency. However, as dsicussed, Nasser was aware that Standard Arabic was a vehicle that
could bring his words and ideals to other parts of the Arab world. Although many in the Middle
East find Egyptian Arabic mutually intelligible, Standard Arabic was the locus through which
Nasser could reach millions outside of his borders and by looking at the excerpts which Holes
analyzes in his article I believe that we see the manifestations of that awareness. In those
instances when Nasser hits on the abstract politics of Egypt and the region, topics that could have
a wider and pan-Arab appeal, we see Nasser using Standard Arabic predominantly. However
when speaking on issues of immense importance to average Egyptians; recounting personal
experience, or trying to sell socialism to his people, Nasser often employed what was most
comfortable and utilitarian for the purpose, Egyptian Arabic.
Nassers speech output was sizeable and further examination of his political speeches
would be beneficial in determining what patterns in his speech usage may arise. As a major
political symbol Nasser was constantly in the public eye and his experiments at pan-Arabism
united Arabs across the region. Even today, Nasserist ideals are still held in extremely high

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regard throughout the Middle East. Studying the speech of political figures such as Nasser can
aid in providing a clearer picture of the tools utilized in political speech within Arabic
sociolinguistics while contributing to a greater understanding both of issues of language
accommodation and style shifts, as well as political speech more generally.

Cotter 12

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