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In trying to understand the sociolinguistic situation of Arabic all avenues and opinions must be considered, I have pasted below an article/paper by Franck Salameh a professor at Boston College, with interest in Arabic, nationalism and in particular Lebanese politics and history.  He is concerned with presenting a clear picture of what Arabic language means to Arabic speakers and considers issues not from a panic-stricken premise but from a thoughtful stance informed by facts, history, experience and research. He connects language with important social variables like Arabism, identity, and what it means to speak Arabic, which is ideal if one is trying to understand a linguistic situation of language said to be in decline.  He questions and provokes the reader in general, and the Arab linguist in particular his ideas are important in any debate on the future of Arabic language. I have broken the article into two separate posts, I enjoyed reading it and thought to share it with everyone even though I did not agree with everything he wrote (the map above shows the countries in which Arabic is the official language).


Does Anyone Speak Arabic?

Middle East Quarterly
 Fall 2011

In August 2010, Associated Press staffer Zeina Karam wrote an article, picked up by The Washington Post and other news outlets, that tackled a cultural, and arguably political, issue that had been making headlines for quite some time in the Middle East: the question of multilingualism and the decline of the Arabic language in polyglot, multiethnic Middle Eastern societies.[1] Lebanon was Karam’s case study: an Eastern Mediterranean nation that had for the past century been the testing grounds for iconoclastic ideas and libertine tendencies muzzled and curbed elsewhere in the Arab world.[2] However, by inquiring into what is ailing the Arabic language—the nimbus and supreme symbol of “Arabness”—the author aimed straight at the heart of Arab nationalism and the strict, linguistic orthodoxy that it mandated, putting in question its most basic tenet: Who is an Arab?

Arabic and Arabism

For most of the twentieth century, Arabs, Arab nationalists, and their Western devotees tended to substitute Arab for Middle Eastern history, as if the narratives, storylines, and paradigms of other groups mattered little or were the byproduct of alien sources far removed from the authentic, well-ordered, harmonious universe of the “Arab world.”[3] As such, they held most Middle Easterners to be Arab even if only remotely associated with the Arabs and even if alien to the experiences, language, or cultural proclivities of Arabs. In the words of Sati al-Husri (1880-1967), a Syrian writer and the spiritual father of linguistic Arab nationalism: Every person who speaks Arabic is an Arab. Every individual associated with an Arabic-speaker or with an Arabic-speaking people is an Arab. If he does not recognize [his Arabness] … we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand … But under no circumstances should we say: “As long as he does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab.” He is an Arab regardless of his own wishes, whether ignorant, indifferent, recalcitrant, or disloyal; he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feelings, and perhaps even without conscience.[4] This ominous admonition to embrace a domineering Arabism is one constructed on an assumed linguistic unity of the Arab peoples; a unity that a priori presumes the Arabic language itself to be a unified, coherent verbal medium, used by all members of Husri’s proposed nation. Yet Arabic is not a single, uniform language. It is, on the one hand, a codified, written standard that is never spoken natively and that is accessible only to those who have had rigorous training in it. On the other hand, Arabic is also a multitude of speech forms, contemptuously referred to as “dialects,” differing from each other and from the standard language itself to the same extent that French is different from other Romance languages and from Latin. Still, Husri’s dictum, “You’re an Arab if I say so!” became an article of faith for Arab nationalists. It also condensed the chilling finality with which its author and his acolytes foisted their blanket Arab label on the mosaic of peoples, ethnicities, and languages that had defined the Middle East for millennia prior to the advent of twentieth-century Arab nationalism.[5] But if Husri had been intimidating in his advocacy for a forced Arabization, his disciple Michel Aflaq (1910-89), founder of the Baath Party, promoted outright violence and cruelty against those users of the Arabic language who refused to conform to his prescribed, overarching, Arab identity. Arab nationalists must be ruthless with those members of the nation who have gone astray from Arabism, wrote Aflaq, “…they must be imbued with a hatred unto death, toward any individuals who embody an idea contrary to Arab nationalism. Arab nationalists must never dismiss opponents of Arabism as mere individuals … An idea that is opposed to ours does not emerge out of nothing! It is the incarnation of individuals who must be exterminated, so that their idea might in turn be also exterminated. Indeed, the presence in our midst of a living opponent of the Arab national idea vivifies it and stirs the blood within us. And any action we might take [against those who have rejected Arabism] that does not arouse in us living emotions, that does not make us feel the orgasmic shudders of love, that does not spark in us quivers of hate, and that does not send the blood coursing in our veins and make our pulse beat faster is, ultimately, a sterile action.”[6] Therein lay the foundational tenets of Arab nationalism and the Arabist narrative of Middle Eastern history as preached by Husri, Aflaq, and their cohorts: hostility, rejection, negation, and brazen calls for the annihilation of the non-Arab “other.” Yet despite the dominance of such disturbing Arabist and Arab nationalist readings, the Middle East in both its modern and ancient incarnations remains a patchwork of varied cultures, ethnicities, and languages that cannot be tailored into a pure and neat Arab essence without distorting and misinforming. Other models of Middle Eastern identities exist, and a spirited Middle Eastern, intellectual tradition that challenges the monistic orthodoxies of Arab nationalism endures and deserves recognition and validation.

The Arabic Language Debate

Take for instance one of the AP article’s interviewees who lamented the waning of the Arabic language in Lebanese society and the rise in the numbers of Francophone and Anglophone Lebanese, suggesting “the absence of a common language between individuals of the same country mean[s] losing [one’s] common identity”—as if places like Switzerland and India, each with respectively four and twenty-three official, national—often mutually incomprehensible—speech forms, were lesser countries or suffered more acute identity crises than ostensibly cohesive, monolingual societies. In fact, the opposite is often true: Monolingualism is no more a precondition or motivation for cultural and ethnic cohesiveness than multilingualism constitutes grounds for national incoherence and loss of a common identity. Irishmen, Scotsmen, Welsh, and Jamaicans are all native English-speakers but not Englishmen. The AP could have acknowledged that glaring reality, which has been a hallmark of the polyglot multiethnic Middle East for millennia. This, of course, is beside the fact that for many Lebanese—albeit mainly Christians—multilingualism and the appeal of Western languages is simply a way of heeding history and adhering to the country’s hybrid ethnic and linguistic heritage. Cultural anthropologist Selim Abou argued that notwithstanding Lebanon’s millenarian history and the various and often contradictory interpretations of that history, the country’s endogenous and congenital multilingualism—and by extension that of the entire Levantine littoral —remains indisputable. He wrote: From the very early dawn of history up to the conquests of Alexander the Great, and from the times of Alexander until the dawning of the first Arab Empire, and finally, from the coming of the Arabs up until modern times, the territory we now call Lebanon—and this is based on the current state of archaeological and historical discoveries—has always practiced some form of bilingualism and polyglossia; one of the finest incarnations of intercultural dialogue and coexistence.[7] So much, then, for linguistic chauvinism and language protectionism. The Arabic language will survive the onslaught of multilingualism but only if its users will it to survive by speaking it rather than by hallowing it and by refraining from creating conservation societies that build hedges around it to shield it from desuetude. Even avid practitioners of multilingualism in Lebanon, who were never necessarily talented or devoted Arabophones, have traditionally been supportive of the idea of preserving Arabic in the roster of Lebanese languages—albeit not guarding and fixing it by way of mummification, cultural dirigisme, or rigid linguistic planning. Though opposed in principle to Arab nationalism’s calls for the insulation of linguistically libertine Lebanon “in the solitude of a troubled and spiteful nationalism … [and] linguistic totalitarianism,” Lebanese thinker Michel Chiha (1891-1954) still maintained that: “Arabic is a wonderful language … the language of millions of men. We wouldn’t be who we are today if we, the Lebanese of the twentieth century, were to forgo the prospect of becoming [Arabic’s] most accomplished masters to the same extent that we had been its masters some one hundred years ago … But how can one not heed the reality that a country such as ours would be literally decapitated if prevented from being bilingual (or even trilingual if possible)? … [We must] retain this lesson if we are intent on protecting ourselves from self-inflicted deafness, which would in turn lead us into mutism.?”[8] Another fallacy reiterated in the AP article was the claim that “Arabic is believed to be spoken as a first language by more than 280 million people.”[9] Even if relying solely on the field of Arabic linguistics—which seldom bothers with the trivialities of precise cognomens denoting varieties of language, preferring instead the overarching and reductive lahja (dialect/accent) and fusha (Modern Standard Arabic, MSA) dichotomy to, say, the French classifications of langue, langage, parler, dialecte, langue vérnaculaire, créole, argot, patois, etc.—Zeina Karam’s arithmetic still remains in the sphere of folklore and fairy tale, not concrete, objective fact. Indeed, no serious linguist can claim the existence of a real community of “280 million people” who speak Arabic at any level of native proficiency, let alone a community that can speak Arabic “as a first language.”


Part two will follow next week, I think many of the points raised are quite controversial and I din’t agree with everything he writes. But such provocations are needed if any real debate of Arabic will take place and if any real solution to the current situation of Arabic can be agreed on.  Some of the people he quotes were analysing the situation of Arabic over a decade ago, and some of their insights are applicable today and some are not, so Arabic sociolinguists need to step up and continue where those scholars left off. Technology, travel, politics and media play major roles in how languages survive, thrive or begin a decline, and Arabic is no different-real authentic research is needed and soon.

I did promise that I would be interviewing a second author for the Pioneers Of Arabic series, unfortunately it seems the author is very busy and has not been able to follow through with the interview which is unfortunate. Therefore in the meantime I am on the search for a new author and as soon as I find one I will post the interview here, thanks for recent comments and welcome to new readers in Malaysia- salamat detung :)!!


Franck Salameh is assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at Boston College and author of Language, Memory, and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lexington Books, 2010). He thanks research assistant Iulia Padeanu for her valuable contributions to this essay.

[1] Zeina Karam, “Lebanon Tries to Retain Arabic in Polyglot Culture,” The Washington Post, Aug. 16, 2010. For more on Arabic language decline, see Mahmoud al-Batal, “Identity and Language Tension in Lebanon: The Arabic of Local News at LBCI,” in Aleya Rouchdy, ed., Language Contact and Language Conflict in Arabic: Variations on a Sociolinguistic Theme (London: Curzon Arabic Linguistics Series, 2002);Al-Ittijah al-Mu’akis, Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Aug. 1, 2000, Aug. 28, 2001; Zeina Hashem Beck, “Is the Arabic Language ‘Perfect’ or ‘Backwards’?” The Daily Star (Beirut), Jan. 7, 2005; Hashem Saleh, “Tajrubat al-Ittihad al-‘Urubby… hal Tanjah ‘Arabiyan?” Asharq al-Awsat (London), June 21, 2005.

[2] Fouad Ajami, “The Autumn of the Autocrats,” Foreign Affairs, May-June, 2005.

[3] Elie Kedourie, “Not So Grand Illusions,” The New York Review of Books, Nov. 23, 1967.

[4] Abu Khaldun Sati Al-Husri, Abhath Mukhtara fi-l-Qawmiyya al-‘Arabiya (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-‘Arabiya, 1985), p. 80.

[5] Franck Salameh, Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010), pp. 9-10.

[6] Michel Aflaq, Fi Sabil al-Ba’ath (Beirut: Dar at-Tali’a, 1959), pp. 40-1.

[7] Selim Abou, Le bilinguisme Arabe-Français au Liban (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1962), pp. 157-8.

[8] Michel Chiha, Visage et Présence du Liban (Beirut: Editions du Trident, 1984), p. 49-52, 164.

[9] Karam, “Lebanon Tries to Retain Arabic.”

Source: http://www.meforum.org/3066/does-anyonespeak-arabic