What was the singer Dalida's native language?
April 13, 2021 5:04 AM   Subscribe

I was reading about the life of the singer Dalida and I'm curious about what her native language was. I know she was born in Egypt to Italian parents and then moved to France later in life, but from what I've read online she had a distinct foreign accent in both Italian and Arabic. Could it be that Italians living in Egypt had developed their own specific dialect or something like that?
posted by iamsuper to Society & Culture (6 answers total)
A bit of research didn't produce many answers. It seems Italian immigrants in Egypt live in mixed neighborhoods with Arabs, and Dalida spoke both fluently, and attended a local Catholic school ran by nuns. I don't imagine she learned French before she was 18, when she participated in her first beauty contest in 1951.

posted by kschang at 6:30 AM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

I don't know about Italy and Egypt, but distinct accents that survive to the umpteenth generation in immigrant communities is a thing that can definitely happen.

Think about Italian-American families that have a distinct Italian-American accent even if everyone in the family grew up somewhere on the East Coast, or Chicano families that have a Chicano accent even if they all grew up in LA. They're fluent native English speakers! They might not even speak any Italian or Spanish at all! They just still identify as second, third, or fourth-generation members of an immigrant community, and share an accent with the rest of that community.

I have no idea if something like that did happen in an Italian immigrant community in Egypt. But if you're asking could it have happened? If such a community existed, then absolutely, it could have, just like it did all over the US.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:52 AM on April 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

I have a friend who was born in Canada and lived there, speaking English, until age 18. She then moved to Europe for university, then a different European country for grad school. She now speaks four languages and has a super strong, unidentifiable accent in English. So it's entirely possible for someone's accent to change
posted by carolr at 2:56 PM on April 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

French native speaker here. I don't know about her native language but when she spoke french she had mainly an Egyptian accent. It's not the italian "r", not to my hear anyway, she was rolling her "r" as you would in arabic. She spoke perfect french by the way.
Here are points of comparison :
Dalida on french tv
Marcello Mastroiani interviewed on french tv (he's a native Italian speaker, not as comfortable as Dalida is in french, thick Italian accent)
Youssef Chahine on french tv (Native Arabic/Egyptian speaker, very good french speaker)
Although Dalida's has less of an accent than Chahine you can compare the "r" sound which gives away the arabic/egyptian accent. My grandmother who was raised in Syria and Lebanon had the same thing with the "r" when she spoke french.
posted by SageLeVoid at 4:06 AM on April 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't believe Dalida was a native Arabic speaker; I would bet that Italian was her native language. When I did a quick Google search in French, I found this article, which seems to confirm that. While I can't comment on what kind of accent she may have had in Italian, if she did have some sort of foreign accent, that wouldn't be totally unexpected for a heritage speaker who grew up speaking her parents' language at home, in a country where the main language was something different. Plenty of heritage speakers have accents that are noticeable to native speakers. So I don't think this is a matter of a particular dialect spoken by Italians in Egypt, per se - just a common phenomenon that happens with heritage speakers in general all over the world. (Also, it looks like Dalida's parents immigrated to Egypt from Italy, so I don't think this was part of a linguistic evolution that took place over many generations in Egypt.)

That being said, it's certainly possible that someone born in Egypt at that time to an immigrant family could/would have spoken native-level Arabic with no foreign accent. One of my aunts (by marriage) was from a Greek family and grew up in Alexandria. (I'm not sure if she was born there or not, but looking at the year Dalida was born, I think my aunt was likely born around the same time as her.) According to my dad (who is Egyptian), she spoke Arabic like any native speaker.  

However, I don't think Dalida fell into that category. By the '80s, she struggled with both speaking and understanding Arabic to a huge extent. Even though native speakers do forget pieces of their native language if they haven't used it in a long time, I can't picture a native speaker's Arabic ever devolving to the level hers was at unless they quit using the language as a child, which wasn't the case with Dalida (she left Egypt at the age of 21).

This interview with Dalida shows her struggling with both speaking and understanding Arabic; it's clear she would be a lot more comfortable doing the interview in French. I'm not a native Arabic speaker, but I can say that her accent does not sound like a native speaker's (the way she pronounces sounds like the ح, the خ, the غ), and the way she speaks in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and flow sounds much more like a non-native Arabic learner than a native (a huge contrast to this interview with Omar Sharif on the same program that popped up in the YouTube recommendations - and he had been living outside Egypt for decades at that point too). She mixes in a whole bunch of words from other languages, mainly French, when she can't recall the Arabic words (to give you an idea, these include "nostalgia," "Christmas," "at home," "health," "love," "smell," "family," "musician," "money," "god," "violin," "new," "people," "three minutes"), misunderstands one of the questions the interviewer asks, asks the interviewer to translate fairly simple Arabic words ("friends," "projects") that she doesn't know, asks the interviewer to translate a whole question that she doesn't understand, etc.

The comments on that video include a discussion of her Arabic where everyone basically agrees that she doesn't speak it well, and multiple people say she spoke Italian at home and French at school while growing up in Egypt, and seem to agree she couldn't have been a native Arabic speaker. One person says it was possible for a European family in Egypt at that time to live in an enclave where they wouldn't actually have had to really know Arabic. Another says that even in the Egyptian movie A Glass and a Cigarette, which Dalida appeared in before leaving Egypt, she spoke Arabic like a foreigner (I couldn't find any clips of Dalida speaking in that movie, so I can't personally verify it either way, and in any case saying scripted lines is very different from regular conversation). Obviously, these are YouTube comments, so take it with an enormous grain of salt. But all in all, I really don't think Dalida was a native Arabic speaker; I think it's much likelier that Italian was her native language.
posted by LNM at 6:00 AM on April 14, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Fascinating answers! Thank you all!
posted by iamsuper at 11:00 AM on April 14, 2021

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