Are we over anxious about the demise of Arabic? I think not

A Dictionary Of The English Language

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It has been some time since I last posted, but thank you for all the emails and messages about the previous posts. Sometimes people feel that perhaps those who fear for the demise of Arabic are over anxious and as a result cause panic or insecurity in the people. You would think given the status and spread of English that those who speak English, or even speak for English would never feel that it was under threat. Well think again! I recently came across an article in the Independent newspaper written by Charles Crawford who was formerly the British ambassador to Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Warsaw- where he shares his fears about the neglect of language. Usually I choose a piece that concerns Arabic directly, but this article made me think about Arabic and how its speakers use it today. Below I have pasted the article without any editing, then I’ll discuss my thoughts on it- enjoy!


Charles Crawford: Language is a tool which must be kept well-honed to do its job

Language does not decay unless it ceases to be used for communication. It changes, sometimes other people’s usage (or mistakes) grate upon those who say it differently, but the language itself is not in any danger.

Language has existed for thousands of years, performing its function adequately, without any care or attention at all, and most have never been subject to it at any time in their history.

A rabid free-marketeer like myself can have little complaint if things indeed change, and millions of people don’t mind too much, if at all. Although I do object to my own language and identity changing because the state has effectively nationalised large parts of the teaching of English and simply can’t do it properly.

I can not shake off the thought that language is a tool. And tools if neglected can just get blunt, or wear out, or otherwise be less good at doing some vital jobs.

If we start to “lose” spellings and grammar as currently constituted, and therefore some of the innermost subtlety of expression which together have made English such a towering force for human advancement round the world, aren’t we all just poorer? We have fewer tools to do the mass of possible jobs with precision.

It’s as if Rembrandt had only 10 brushes of varying sizes, instead of (say) 16, after a thief steals six. Sure, he’ll manage to do a fine portrait. But it could have been even finer with those extra tools available. And he is diminished and demoralised if he knows that. The issue is all too evident in the quality of writing now being served up in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and across government by the nation’s top graduates. A non-trivial proportion of it is unusable and sent back for reworking: it is simply not precise enough. As a result, a product is produced which is less good and less clear and less authoritative than it could have been.

Sure, not much changes. But standards help keep us all on our toes. And if a general sense of unstoppable ‘declinism’ sets in for our language (and so our very thought) as for everything else, that looks and smells like decay to me.


Short, precise and really I think he makes many valid points. As I always say, the number of speakers of a given language means nothing if the language is not being used correctly and therefore becoming weaker. His worry about English language may be ridiculed since English is a major world language, to the point that others have suggested that English marginalises other languages and often kills them off!  But the worry and concern about his language, is real for him and is legal. In previous posts we saw how people thought that Arabic have millions of speakers why the worry that it will die?  Well I think Charles Crawford just answered that question for us.

His description of language and its life and development is correct, and his view that language is a tool is a view that many linguists including myself hold. It is a tool first and foremost of communication with other people, it allows one to express themselves and so on. But if the language through which you are supposed to express yourself goes unchecked and ‘mistakes’ ( I say mistakes with inverted commas since some linguists do not believe in mistakes as such, any language use for them is right as long as it is right for the speaker..mmm..not sure?) continue to be made by speakers then the language will decline. My quarrel is always that if one claims to speak a language and they think their identity is presented best through that language, well then why not perfect it? Why not learn it well and present yourself through it with confidence? For many Arabic speakers there is this struggle between speaking and identifying with Arabic as their mother tongue but then having no confidence or interest in improving their diction, syntax or grammar and between wanting to learn and perfect their English (which is problematic in itself) since they see that as the door and bridge to their financial success?!

 But I think that Crawford’s article is a lesson in foresight and true understanding of what it means to speak and own, yes own, a language through which you see the world and through which you communicate with the world. If your language declines you decline as a person, as a society and it is not an exaggeration to say as a civilization too! How can you contribute to humanity if you can’t communicate well in any of the languages you claim to know? Watching movies in English and reading a text you understand in English does not determine your level of spoken or written proficiency, mastering the language is another different world- one in which you need to consciously engage and learn by intent. Being born to a family that speaks language x does not give the speaker a guarantee in proficiency either- there has to be a degree of consciousness in both language acquisition and communication.

So are those who feel that Arabic is in danger of decay, decline or death (the triple‘d’) over anxious, unwise, and over exaggerating? I think not. Language is to be looked after like any other living organism; since it lives it can also die. Since it lives it needs care, attention and to often be checked ensuring that ‘standards’ don’t fall, because if that happens then decline of the language means cultural and intellectual death of its people. I rest my case.

  As usual I’ll be glad to discuss this further with any of the readers; I do appreciate your emails, feedback and notes of encouragement- thank you.



Furthr reading:

Skutnabb-Kangas, T (2000) Linguistic genocide in education or worldwide diversity and human rights? Mahwah :Lawrence Erblaum Associates inc.

Crystal, David (2000) Language Death. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Knowles-Berry, Susan. 1987. Linguistic decay in Chontal Mayan: the speech of semi-speakers. Anthropological Linguistics 29:332-341.

Dorian, Nancy C. (1978). Fate of morphological complexity in language death: Evidence from East Sutherland Gaelic. Language, 54 (3), 590-609.

Zuckermann, Ghil’ad (2009) “Aboriginal languages deserve revival”. The Australian Higher Education.

Aitchinson, Jean. (1991). Language change: progress or decay? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dalby, Andrew. (2003). Language in danger: The loss of linguistic diversity and the threat to our future. New York: Columbia University Pres