I have finally found some time to write-up this post that I have been thinking about for a while now since being shown a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium discussing something I had never given much thought to. Something that he calls “naming rights” the idea of who has the right to name something, in their language and more importantly to name it first? Why do they have that right? And how does language fit into all of that? It is a loaded idea both politically and linguistically but it is something that illustrates the ubiquitous and ever-important nature that language carries more than just simple communicative messages (like the ball is green for example). By simply naming something in one language and not in another and by virtue of people using that same name to refer to it regardless of their language is an indicator of how human civilisation works and is built and again more importantly how language is an indicator of the power of knowledge and discovery. As DeGrasse says, “if you get there first you get to name it first” and others have to accommodate themselves, he gives two simple examples: first, the internet and that it was the Americans who exploited its use first and so they get to have the default web address of .com but all other countries are forced to use other endings such as, .co.uk/ .ae/ .fr/ .au/ and so on. Secondly, he says that because the British were the first to make the postage stamp we until today are the only country who do not have to say where the stamp originates from, whereas all others must indicate country of origin. That’s naming rights, it’s about getting there first and doing it well so that it stands the test of time, and no one can take that away from its original creators.
DeGrasse mentions in the clip that almost 2/3 of all star names are in fact in Arabic! The numbers we use today (in English and most languages) are referred to as “Arabic numerals” and there is whole host of English words that originated from Arabicto not only English but many other world languages! How? and Why? That is the question. DeGrasse points out important reasons of why not only Arab scholars but more importantly why Arabic language was once a language of inquiry, reasoning, genius and innovation and also offers his explanation of why it no longer is.
At the beginning of the video he correctly reminds the audience that there are many cultures in the world that excelled and superseded other nations in one subject or another, but that there comes a time when they reach a peak and then sometimes it drops off and other times they manage to hang on. But what he is interested in is what allows for that to take place? Of course I will not transcribe the whole video but I think the reasons are important to dwell over. He points out that between 800AD and 1100 AD Baghdad was the centre of knowledge and learning because it opened its doors up to all people, Christians, Jews, doubters (atheists/agnostics) and everybody was allowed to excel regardless of their background and this according to him is what made that time so unique, fertile and we still feel the effects of that success today. For example the discovery of the zero, algebra, algorithm, establishment of advanced hospitals (where some were diseases specific something unprecedented at the time) and many other contributions (see http://www.1001inventions.com/ or videos on that here).
Why am I talking about this on Arabizi? Simple really because many Arab scholars of today are not sure how to get Arabic language to be one of advancement, education, knowledge or simply to be one of practical use by its speakers. Which is something I discuss a lot here on Arabizi, is it diglossia, it is the English language, is it the dialects, or is it poor education that has put the Arabic language in this situation? In that 300 year period in Baghdad they questioned everything with a curious mind and welcomed everyone –perhaps that is the solution? Use both English and Arabic in education (which some Gulf universities are implementing right now which is exciting) that way Arabic can be used academically and use English because it is undoubtedly the language of knowledge today, allow people regardless of their background to have access to all the appropriate facilities and maybe, just maybe we might see something changing in the current path that the Arabic language is taking. It will never be like Baghdad because we live in different times and different political and social environments but Arabic still has the ability to be a language of real inquiry and research in its own right. Naming rights are only for those languages whose speakers have excelled and benefitted humans in knowledge that’s it…you offer something your language is not only used but preserved…… what do you think? I will not spoil it by telling you what caused this so-called “golden-age” to end you’ll have to watch the video for that I’m afraid…but it was disastrous, completely uncalled for and detrimental to the Arabic and Islamic societies the world over and I dare say it has impeded and disabled these societies from looking at the pursuit of knowledge (for the benefit of human beings and even religious knowledge [which has its own crazy issues]) the way they once did in great Baghdad…….enjoy
If you have any comments to add please do so, it is controversial and some people may not like what he is saying but being open- minded is the first step to solving so-called problems right? I’ll be posting next in September (guest post on humour and Arabic I have a treat in store for you)….Ramadhan (month of fasting) is round the corner please feel free to read my Ramadhan and Arabizi post here in the archives since its relevant right now…..thanks for reading.
This second part of the post is much more provoking and may anger some readers because of the analysis Franck makes as to why the Arabic language is in the situation it finds itself in today. But like any researcher he has to explore all the possible reasons and possible “solutions” to the problem and do so in a constructive manner. The Arabic language has a unique, complex and complicated linguistic situation wherever it exists as a “native language”; and because of this, in the postcolonial globalized era the language loss/shift debate is further complicated. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did and that it gets the minds of sociolinguists or those interested in Arabic to think on a much deeper less defensive level about the way in which we use Arabic today.—–start
Foreign imposition or self affliction?
Playing into the hands of keepers of the Arab nationalist canon—as well as Arabists and lobbyists working on behalf of the Arabic language today—the AP article adopted the cliché that the decline of Arabic—like the failure of Arab nationalism—was the outcome of Western linguistic intrusions and the insidious, colonialist impulses of globalization. “Many Lebanese pride themselves on being fluent in French—a legacy of French colonial rule,” Karam wrote, rendering a mere quarter-century of French mandatory presence in Lebanon (1920-46) into a period of classical-style “French colonial rule” that had allegedly destroyed the foundations of the Arabic language in the country and turned the Lebanese subalterns into imitative Francophones denuded of their putative Arab personality. Alas, this fashionable fad fails to take into account that French colonialism in its Lebanese context differed markedly from France’s colonial experience elsewhere. For one, the founding fathers of modern Lebanon lobbied vigorously for turning their post-Ottoman mountain Sanjak into a French protectorate after World War I. And with regard to the Lebanese allegedly privileging the French language, that too, according to Selim Abou, seems to have hardly been a colonialist throwback and an outcome of early twentieth-century French imperialism. In his 1962 Le binlinguisme Arabe-Français au Liban, Abou wrote that the French language (or early Latin variants of what later became French) entered Mount-Lebanon and the Eastern Mediterranean littoral at the time of the first Crusades (ca. 1099). Centuries later, the establishment of the Maronite College in Rome (1584) and the liberal (pro-Christian) policies of then Mount-Lebanon’s Druze ruler, Fakhreddine II (1572-1635), allowed the Maronites to further strengthen their religious and their religion’s ancillary cultural and linguistic ties to Rome, Europe, and especially France—then, still the “elder daughter” of the Catholic Church. This unleashed a wave of missionary work to Lebanon—and wherever Eastern Christianity dared flaunt its specificity—and eventually led to the founding of schools tending to the educational needs of the Christian—namely Maronite—communities of the region. Although foundational courses in Arabic and Syriac were generally taught at those missionary schools, European languages including French, Italian, and German were also part of the regular curriculum. French, therefore, can be argued to have had an older pedigree in Lebanon than suggested by Karam. And contrary to the classical norms in the expansion and transmission of imperial languages—the spread of Arabic included—which often entailed conquests, massacres, and cultural suppression campaigns, the French language can be said to have been adopted willingly by the Lebanese through “seduction” not “subjection.” It is true that many Lebanese, and Middle Easterners more generally, are today steering clear of Arabic in alarming numbers, but contrary to AP’s claim, this routing of Arabic is not mainly due to Western influence and cultural encroachments—though the West could share some of the blame; rather, it can be attributed, even if only partially, to MSA’s retrogression, difficulty, and most importantly perhaps, to the fact that this form of Arabic is largely a learned, cultic, ceremonial, and literary language, which is never acquired natively, never spoken natively, and which seems locked in an uphill struggle for relevance against sundry spontaneous, dynamic, natively-spoken, vernacular languages. Taha Hussein ascribed the decay and abnegation of the Arabic language primarily to its “inability of expressing the depths of one’s feelings in this new age.” He wrote in 1956 that MSA is difficult and grim, and the pupil who goes to school in order to study Arabic acquires only revulsion for his teacher and for the language, and employs his time in pursuit of any other occupations that would divert and soothe his thoughts away from this arduous effort … Pupils hate nothing more than they hate studying Arabic.
Yet, irreverent as they had been in shunning Arabic linguistic autocracy and fostering a lively debate on MSA and multilingualism, Lebanon and Egypt and their Arabic travails are hardly uncommon in today’s Middle East. From Israel to Qatar and from Abu Dhabi to Kuwait, modern Middle Eastern nations that make use of some form of Arabic have had to come face to face with the challenges hurled at their hermetic MSA and are impelled to respond to the onslaught of impending polyglotism and linguistic humanism borne by the lures of globalization. In a recent article published in Israel’s liberal daily Ha’aretz, acclaimed Druze poet and academic Salman Masalha called on Israel’s Education Ministry to do away with the country’s public school system’s Arabic curricula and demanded its replacement with Hebrew and English course modules. Arabophone Israelis taught Arabic at school, like Arabophones throughout the Middle East, were actually taught a foreign tongue misleadingly termed Arabic, wrote Masalha
The mother tongue [that people] speak at home is totally different from the … Arabic [they learn] at school; [a situation] that perpetuates linguistic superficiality [and] leads to intellectual superficiality … It’s not by chance that not one Arab university is [ranked] among the world’s best 500 universities. This finding has nothing to do with Zionism.
Masalha’s is not a lone voice. The abstruseness of Arabic and the stunted achievements of those monolingual Arabophones constrained to acquire modern knowledge by way of Modern Standard Arabic have been indicted in the United Nations’ Arab Human Development reports—a series of reports written by Arabs and for the benefit of Arabs—since the year 2002. To wit, the 2003 report noted that the Arabic language is struggling to meet the challenges of modern times[and] is facing [a] severe … and real crisis in theorization, grammar, vocabulary, usage, documentation, creativity, and criticism … The most apparent aspect of this crisis is the growing neglect of the functional aspects of [Arabic] language use. Arabic language skills in everyday life have deteriorated, and Arabic … has in effect ceased to be a spoken language. It is only the language of reading and writing; the formal language of intellectuals and academics, often used to display knowledge in lectures … [It] is not the language of cordial, spontaneous expression, emotions, daily encounters, and ordinary communication. It is not a vehicle for discovering one’s inner self or outer surroundings.
And so, concluded the report, the only Arabophone countries that were able to circumvent this crisis of knowledge were those like Lebanon and Egypt, which had actively promoted a polyglot tradition, deliberately protected the teaching of foreign languages, and instated math and science curricula in languages other than Arabic. Translation is another crucial means of transmitting and acquiring knowledge claimed the U.N. report, and given that “English represents around 85 percent of the total world knowledge balance,” one might guess that “knowledge-hungry countries,” the Arab states included, would take heed of the sway of English, or at the very least, would seek out the English language as a major source of translation. Yet, from all source-languages combined, the Arab world’s 330 million people translated a meager 330 books per year; that is, “one fifth of the number [of books] translated in Greece [home to 12 million Greeks].” Indeed, from the times of the Caliph al-Ma’mun (ca. 800 CE) to the beginnings of the twenty-first century, the “Arab world” had translated a paltry 10,000 books: the equivalent of what Spain translates in a single year.
But clearer heads are prevailing in Arab countries today. Indeed, some Arabs are taking ownership of their linguistic dilemmas; feckless Arab nationalist vainglory is giving way to practical responsible pursuits, and the benefits of valorizing local speech forms and integrating foreign languages into national, intellectual, and pedagogic debates are being contemplated. Arabs “are learning less Islam and more English in the tiny desert sheikhdom of Qatar” read a 2003 Washington Post article, and this overhaul of Qatar’s educational system, with its integration of English as a language of instruction—”a total earthquake” as one observer termed it—was being billed as the Persian Gulf’s gateway toward greater participation in an ever more competitive global marketplace. But many Qataris and Persian Gulf Arabs hint to more pressing and more substantive impulses behind curricular bilingualism: “necessity-driven” catalysts aimed at replacing linguistic and religious jingoism with equality, tolerance, and coexistence; changing mentalities as well as switching languages and textbooks. This revolution is no less subversive in nearby Abu Dhabi where in 2009 the Ministry of Education launched a series of pedagogical reform programs aimed at integrating bilingual education into the national curriculum. Today, “some 38,000 students in 171 schools in Abu Dhabi [are] taught … simultaneously in Arabic and English.” And so, rather than rushing to prop up and protect the fossilized remains of MSA, the debate that should be engaged in today’s Middle East needs to focus more candidly on the utility, functionality, and practicality of a hallowed and ponderous language such as MSA in an age of nimble, clipped, and profane speech forms. The point of reflection should not be whether to protect MSA but whether the language inherited from the Jahiliya Bedouins—to paraphrase Egypt’s Salama Musa (1887-1958)—is still an adequate tool of communication in the age of information highways and space shuttles. Obviously, this is a debate that requires a healthy dose of courage, honesty, moderation, and pragmatism, away from the usual religious emotions and cultural chauvinism that have always stunted and muzzled such discussions.
Linguistic Schizophrenia and Deceit
Sherif Shubashy’s book Down with Sibawayh If Arabic Is to Live on! seems to have brought these qualities into the debate. An eighth-century Persian grammarian and father of Arabic philology, Sibawayh is at the root of the modern Arabs’ failures according to Shubashy. Down with Sibawayh, which provoked a whirlwind of controversy in Egypt and other Arab countries following its release in 2004, sought to shake the traditional Arabic linguistic establishment and the Arabic language itself out of their millenarian slumbers and proposed to unshackle MSA from stiff and superannuated norms that had, over the centuries, transformed it into a shrunken and fossilized mummy: a ceremonial, religious, and literary language that was never used as a speech form, and whose hallowed status “has rendered it a heavy chain curbing the Arabs’ intellect, blocking their creative energies … and relegating them to cultural bondage.” In a metaphor reminiscent of Musa’s description of the Arabic language, Shubashy compared MSA users to “ambling cameleers from the past, contesting highways with racecar drivers hurtling towards modernity and progress.” In his view, the Arabs’ failure to modernize was a corollary of their very language’s inability (or unwillingness) to regenerate and innovate and conform to the exigencies of modern life. But perhaps the most devastating blow that Shubashy dealt the Arabic language was his description of the lahja and fusha (or dialect vs. MSA) dichotomy as “linguistic schizophrenia.” For although Arabs spoke their individual countries’ specific, vernacular languages while at home, at work, on the streets, or in the marketplace, the educated among them were constrained to don a radically different linguistic personality and make use of an utterly different speech form when reading books and newspapers, watching television, listening to the radio, or drafting formal, official reports. That speech form, which was never spontaneously spoken, Shubashy insisted, was Modern Standard Arabic: a language which, not unlike Latin in relation to Europe’s Romance languages, was distinct from the native, spoken vernaculars of the Middle East and was used exclusively by those who had adequate formal schooling in it. He even went so far as to note that “upward of 50 percent of so-called Arabophones can’t even be considered Arabs if only MSA is taken for the legitimate Arabic language, the sole true criterion of Arabness.”  Conversely, it was a grave error to presume the vernacular speech forms of the Middle East to be Arabic, even if most Middle Easterners and foreigners were conditioned, and often intimidated, into viewing them as such. The so-called dialects of Arabic were not Arabic at all, he wrote, despite the fact that
like many other Arabs, I have bathed in this linguistic schizophrenia since my very early childhood. I have for very long thought that the difference between MSA and the dialects was infinitely minimal; and that whoever knew one language—especially MSA—would intuitively know, or at the very least, understand the other. However, my own experience, and especially the evidence of foreigners studying MSA, convinced me of the deep chasm that separated MSA from dialects. Foreigners who are versed in MSA, having spent many years studying that language, are taken aback when I speak to them in the Egyptian dialect; they don’t understand a single word I say in that language.
This “pathology” noted Shubashy, went almost unnoticed in past centuries when illiteracy was the norm, and literacy was still the preserve of small, restricted guilds—mainly the ulema and religious grammarians devoted to the study of Arabic and Islam, who considered their own linguistic schizophrenia a model of piety and a sacred privilege to be vaunted, not concealed. Today, however, with the spread of literacy in the Arab world, and with the numbers of users of MSA swelling and hovering in the vicinity of 50 percent, linguistic schizophrenia is becoming more widespread and acute, crippling the Arab mind and stunting its capacities. Why was it that Spaniards, Frenchmen, Americans, and many more of the world’s transparent and linguistically nimble societies, needed to use only a single, native language for both their acquisition of knowledge and grocery shopping whereas Arabs were prevented from reading and writing in the same language that they use for their daily mundane needs?. As a consequence of the firestorm unleashed by his book, Shubashy, an Egyptian journalist and news anchor and, at one time, the Paris bureau-chief of the Egyptian al-Ahram news group, was forced to resign his post as Egypt’s deputy minister of culture in 2006. The book caused so much controversy to a point that the author and his work were subjected to a grueling cross-examination in the Egyptian parliament where, reportedly, scuffles erupted between supporters and opponents of Shubashy’s thesis. In the end, the book was denounced as an affront to Arabs and was ultimately banned. Shubashy himself was accused of defaming the Arabic language in rhetoric mimicking a “colonialist discourse.” A deputy in the Egyptian parliament—representing Alexandria, Shubashy’s native city—accused the author of “employing the discourse and argumentation of a colonialist occupier, seeking to replace the Arab identity with [the occupier’s] own identity and culture.” Ahmad Fuad Pasha, advisor to the president of Cairo University, argued that the book “was added proof that, indeed, the Zionist-imperialist conspiracy is a glaring reality,” aimed at dismantling Arab unity. Muhammad Ahmad Achour wrote in Egypt’s Islamic Standard that
Shubashy has taken his turn aiming another arrow at the heart of the Arabic language. Yet, the powers that seek to destroy our language have in fact another goal in mind: The ultimate aim of their conspiracy is none other than the Holy Qur’an itself, and to cause Muslims to eventually lose their identity and become submerged into the ocean of globalization.
Even former Egyptian president Husni Mubarak felt compelled to take a potshot at Shubashy in a speech delivered on Laylat al-Qadr, November 9, 2004, the anniversary of the night that Sunni Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad received his first Qur’anic revelation. Mubarak warned,I must caution the Islamic religious scholars against the calls that some are sounding for the modernization of the Islamic religion, so as to ostensibly make it evolve, under the pretext of attuning it to the dominant world order of “modernization” and “reform.” This trend has led recently to certain initiatives calling for the modification of Arabic vocabulary and grammar; the modification of God’s chosen language no less; the holy language in which he revealed his message to the Prophet.
This then, the recognition and normalization of dialects, could have been a fitting conclusion and a worthy solution to the dilemma that Shubashy set out to resolve. Unfortunately, he chose to pledge fealty to MSA and classical Arabic—ultimately calling for their normalization and simplification rather than their outright replacement. In that sense, Shubashy showed himself to be in tune with the orthodoxies preached by Husri who, as early as 1955, had already been calling for the creation of a “middle Arabic language” and a crossbreed fusing MSA and vernacular speech forms—as a way of bridging the Arabs’ linguistic incoherence and bringing unity to their fledgling nationhood:
MSA is the preserve of a small, select number of educated people, few of whom bother using it as a speech form. Conversely, what we refer to as “dialectal Arabic” is in truth a bevy of languages differing markedly from one country to the other, with vast differences often within the same country, if not within the same city and neighborhood … Needless to say, this pathology contradicts the exigencies of a sound, wholesome national life! [And given] that true nations deserving of the appellation require a single common and unifying national language … [the best solution I can foresee to our national linguistic quandary] would be to inoculate the dialectal languages with elements of MSA … so as to forge a new “middle MSA” and diffuse it to the totality of Arabs … This is our best hope, and for the time being, the best palliative until such a day when more lasting and comprehensive advances can be made towards instating the final, perfected, integral MSA.
This is at best a disappointing and desultory solution, not only due to its chimerical ambitions but also because, rather than simplifying an already cluttered and complicated linguistic situation, it suggested the engineering of an additional language for the “Arab nation” to adopt as a provisional national idiom. To expand on Shubashy’s initial diagnosis, this is tantamount to remedying schizophrenia by inducing a multi-personality disorder—as if Arabs were in want of yet another artificial language to complement their already aphasiac MSA. Granted, national unification movements and the interference in, or creation of, a national language are part of the process of nation building and often do bear fruit. However, success in the building of a national language is largely dependent upon the size of the community and the proposed physical space of the nation in question. In other words, size does matter. Small language unification movements—as in the cases of, say, Norway, Israel, and France—can and often do succeed. But big language unification movements on the other hand—as in the cases of pan-Turkism, pan-Slavism, pan-Germanism, and yes, pan-Arabism—have thus far been met with not only failure but also devastating wars, genocides, and mass population movements. Moreover, traditionally, the small language unification movements that did succeed in producing national languages benefitted from overwhelming, popular support among members of the proposed nation. More importantly, they sought to normalize not prestige, hermetic, (written) literary languages, but rather lower, degraded speech forms that were often already spoken natively by the national community in question (e.g., Creole in Haiti, Old Norse in Norway, and modern, as opposed to biblical Hebrew in Israel) Shubashy’s call of “down with Sibawayh!” meant purely and simply “down with the classical language” and its MSA progeny. Overthrowing Sibawayh meant also deposing the greatest Arabic grammarian, the one credited with the codification, standardization, normalization, and spread of the classical Arabic language—and later its MSA descendent. Yet, calling for the dethroning of one who was arguably the founding father of modern Arabic grammar, and in the same breath demanding the preservation, inoculation, and invigoration of his creation, is contradictory and confusing. It is like “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” to use Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity. Or could it be that perhaps an initially bold Shubashy was rendered timid by a ruthless and intimidating MSA establishment? After all, there are few Arabs doing dispassionate, critical work on MSA today, who do not ultimately end up being cowed into silence, or worse yet, slandered, discredited, and accused of Zionist perfidy and “Arabophobia.” Salama Musa,  Taha Hussein, and Adonis  are the most obvious and recent examples of such character assassinations. Ultimately, however, it is society and communities of users—not advocacy groups, linguistic guilds, and preservation societies—that decide the fate of languages. As far as the status and fate of the Arabic language are concerned, the jury still seems to be out.
Wow! Ouch! Some important issues raised, I suspect that some of the points he mentioned in this second part could produce a dozen PhD thesis’ that’s no exaggeration. The issue is that complex, it’s that multi-layered, it’s not about panicking or playing down the importance of Arabic….it’s about finding a real solution for how Arabic can be a productive language for its speakers and a language which can be used to account for new and modern discoveries. It does not mean we have to agree with everything he writes, but these are issues/points to think about. I think most Arabic speakers want Arabic to be their language of knowledge where they do not have to translate or learn a new language to understand and appreciate knowledge alongside English and other major languages. Currently it’s taken a back-seat in many spheres of world knowledge and many speakers do not feel empowered using Arabic. In my next post I will discuss naming rights and how language is an indicator of civilisation and knowledge.
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. 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.?” 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.” 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.
 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.
 Fouad Ajami, “The Autumn of the Autocrats,” Foreign Affairs, May-June, 2005.
 Elie Kedourie, “Not So Grand Illusions,” The New York Review of Books, Nov. 23, 1967.
 Abu Khaldun Sati Al-Husri, Abhath Mukhtara fi-l-Qawmiyya al-‘Arabiya (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-‘Arabiya, 1985), p. 80.
 Franck Salameh, Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010), pp. 9-10.
 Michel Aflaq, Fi Sabil al-Ba’ath (Beirut: Dar at-Tali’a, 1959), pp. 40-1.
 Selim Abou, Le bilinguisme Arabe-Français au Liban (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1962), pp. 157-8.
 Michel Chiha, Visage et Présence du Liban (Beirut: Editions du Trident, 1984), p. 49-52, 164.
It’s great to be back after a break, Ramadan is over, wishing everybody Eid mubarak (Happy Eid), a new academic year- so it’s back to the usual. There are exciting things for me this year and for Arabizi too I hope. A warm welcome to the new readers, I hope that Arabizi will be a good resource for you and not rubbish in your inbox. And also thanks to all those who wrote emails and comments on the blog these are very much appreciated….. now to the post….
When I wrote the previous short post about Emarati Arabic being taught to expats in the UAE, it never occurred to me how a non-native speaker might feel about that. Nor did I ever know that as a result of one of the shortest posts I have ever written, that I would learn so much about the perceptions, feelings and frustrations of Arabic language learners. But that is exactly what happen in the form of a clear and constructive comment from Robert Lane Greene, journalist at the Economist and best-selling author of ‘You are what you speak- Grammar Grounches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity’. A keen language learner and enthusiast of Arabic language himself (the number of languages he knows would put any linguist to shame), saw the beneficial side of the teaching of Emarati to non-Arabic speakers. The points he raised made me think not only about the challenges non-speakers face, but it also allowed me to see what I deemed as negative in a new way. What his comment made me do was realise that given the diglossic situation of Arabic with its complicated grammar (not a negative thing) and many dialects, that perhaps an effort such as the teaching of Emarati Arabic was to be appreciated. And maybe should be looked at as a step towards strengthening Arabic learning on part of the non-native speaker as it would give them access to ‘real- spoken’ Arabic as opposed to textbook examples of ‘how’ things should be said. Following that comment and subsequent conversations he kindly agreed to honour Arabizi and write a guest post for us :-).
It is candid, detailed to the point and describes Arabic from a non-native learner’s point of view which is rarely read about. Most learners complain at the complicated nature of the grammar, the rules and the impossibility to converse in Arabic. Most students will relate to the struggles and challenges he mentions and I am sure even the funny parts. I also hope that Arabic teachers can take note of how non-native speakers feel about the learning of Arabic language and hopefully work towards making it easier for the students. Yes, I know it is only one person’s experience but, it is a consistent, sincere and continuous one therefore lessons need to learned from it.
I have added it below without editing from myself- thank you Lane, a real treat for us at Arabizi. Comments are most welcome and I am sure Lane will not mind answering or adding to any points readers will make.
Six years ago, I wrote a piece for Slate on learning Arabic. Since it’s still the second Google result for “learning Arabic”, people occasionally write me and ask me if I’ve made it past the problems I described there (with some attempt at humor, but no exaggeration). I’m happy to report that yes, I have made a lot of progress over the years, alhamdulillah. I can read a newspaper with minor dictionary help, I can chat with cab drivers in Brooklyn who are usually amazed by the white American guy who speaks with them in decent colloquial, and I can follow, with some difficulty, a full-speed al-Jazeera broadcast on a familiar topic. It’s been a long road, but fascinating.
When I started the journey, the hardest part was for me was the forbidding grammar of Modern Standard Arabic: ten verbal paradigms, reverse-gender agreement of numbers, the feminine singular for plural inanimate subjects, the litany of mind-bending quirks familiar to the student of the language. These are the things I focused on in that piece for Slate.
Since then, though, the single most frustrating thing about making progress is the polyglossia of the Arab world. Yes, we refer to diglossia most of the time, but that implies two varieties, high and low. For a journalist like me, who has followed the fascinating news from Libya to Tunisia to Egypt to Syria to the Gulf in the past year, the problem isn’t just learning just one “high” for reading and another “low” for speaking, but picking one of several colloquial Arabics, maybe picking a sub-colloquial among them, finding good teaching materials, and sticking with it.
My first Arabic teacher was a very nice Moroccan, and a very bad teacher. He began by teaching us the letters, having a hard time explaining the emphatic consonants to his puzzled students (to him the difference between daad and daal was just obvious). But worse, he began teaching us to speak in Moroccon colloquial, while never telling us that that was what he was doing. I learned ish taakul, “what are you eating?” or “what will you have to eat?”, with no idea that this was Moroccan dialect. What can I say? The class was free. You get what you pay for. I quit.
My next class was at New York University’s continuing education school, with Karam, a Palestinian. He was also a very nice guy, and the quality of the class was much higher. But once again, diglossia was a problem. Karam was a big believer in colloquial, and so taught it alongside MSA from the start. We had a big book (a bad one, in my opinion: Ahlan wa Sahlan from Yale University Press) for MSA, and Karam’s home-made handouts for the Palestinian colloquial. He would teach us something in MSA, and then give the colloquial straight away. It was too much. I simply shut my ears at the colloquial parts, trying to remember only one version of everything. MSA was hard enough on its own.
With my third teacher, things improved. Ahmed was an Egyptian, but taught no-nonsense MSA. He was pot-bellied, loud and funny, and it was hard not to enjoy just being in his classroom. The only Egyptian we got was in the form of songs, which he would occasionally teach, and positively insist we sing along. Looking back, I think it was a good pedagogical technique; it was painful for everyone, but so it was funny, and everyone relaxed as we got back into the MSA. And I still remember one song: Salma, ya salama, ruhna w giina b-salaama. I never learned any Egyptian colloquial beyond that, though I remember Ahmed’s typically Egyptian stress pattern: al-qaa-HI-ra, not al-QAA-hi-ra.
After Ahmed, I was on my own, with no time for classes. I kept the much better books he used in his class, the Al-Kitaab series, and worked my way through them on my own. As I started putting fairly fine finishing touches on my knowledge of MSA, I began to want to learn a colloquial properly. I had met two Egyptians at a bar in South Africa who didn’t speak English, and the only thing I had been able to resort to was MSA, very weird for all of us. I wanted to start speaking the way Arabs speak for real.
But which dialect? My biggest interest was in the Levantine countries, I decided. So simple: I’ll learn “Levantine colloquial.” I was loth to have to pick one, but that’s what I chose, with silent apologies to the Iraqis, Saudis and Algerians. Only to discover, as I gathered materials, there were coursebooks on Syrian Arabic, on Lebanese Arabic, on Palestinian Arabic… and these were far more different from each other than I wanted them to be! And this was Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem Arabic. Imagine my annoyance on learning that if I traveled to a small village in the Levant, much less talked to a Bedouin, I’d probably encounter yet another Arabic I couldn’t understand.
I flitted aimlessly between my three books. There really is such a thing as a Levantine continuum, and I understand that Syrians and Palestinians understand each other well. But there were all these choices I had to make, and didn’t want to: –kum or –kon for the 2ndperson plural attached pronoun? Final taa-marbuta becomes –e, or no? (Hiyya or hiyye?) In my own book, I write with joy about the messy real world of language. In learning Arabic, I wanted there to be one right variety, or by God, at least only two clear-cut varieties I had to learn. But the universe didn’t offer me a simple solution. Today I speak a sort of mishmash Levantine, probably mostly Palestinian. (I re-hired Karam as a private tutor for a few hours of practice.)
All of this has made me wonder about how Arabs feel about all this. I have encountered opinions from
– denial (“this isn’t an issue—everyone speaks one language, really”), to
– scorn of the dialects (“the Bedouins are the only ones who speak real Arabic”—the belief that Bedouins basically speak Classical Arabic, but most children have to go to school to learn “real Arabic”), to
– embrace of the dialects (“we speak the nicest Arabic in [my home country], which is incidentally closest to fusha”).
Opinions seem as varied as the linguistic map itself.
Pragmatically, it would be fabulous if the much-mooted “Middle Arabic”—combining the most common dialect features with a simplified MSA grammar—would appear as a kind of koine. But there is no one to bring it into existence. So the result is many different “Middle Arabics” improvised by speakers from different regions trying to talk to each other, or by educated speakers on television trying to sound serious (classical) and real (dialect) at the same time by mixing elements of the two ad-hoc.
The situation is difficult enough for Arabs; it is harder still for the learner. But nobody promised it would be easy. I’m glad I’ve learned as much as I have, but I know that I’ll be adding piecemeal to that knowledge of Arabic—Arabics, really—for the rest of my life.
A few days ago on Twitter I was discussing the issue that some Arabic language purists claim Arabizi is affecting the Arabic language in a negative way and that Arabization was the way forward. This afternoon whilst browsing the internet I came across an article in the Peninsular reporting that Qatar has made a law to Arabize all its billboards how strange? To make it simple Arabization is the idea that all things be in Arabic- the news, public signs, newspapers, language in the workplace and the emphasis being that Arabic is alive it’s visual for all to see. Some linguists study the linguistic landscape of a country, this would be looking at things such as shop signs, billboards, adverts on the highway, government notices….and some study how the linguistic landscape supports or hinders the language identity of that country. Others connect the languages with more subtle issues like the impact colonisation had on a country and how that reflects in the linguistic landscape. If Arabization was successful this would mean that everybody travelling to an Arab country would need to have a good command of Arabic in order to communicate with the locals(if you’ve lived in Egypt or Syria you’ll know what this means in contrast to living for example in Dubai or Doha). This move was discussed a few years ago by countries that have very high expatriate populations that speak languages other than Arabic like Saudi Arabia; they saw that the status of the national language of the country was overtaken by English and something had to be done about it. I don’t know the progress of the project and this would be something to look into. Below I have pasted the short report from the Peninsular without editing, I only added the links on the highlighted words- enjoy!
———-note: I have put some pictures so you get the idea of the current situation
DOHA: A law to regulate street hoardings is on the anvil which seeks to make the use of Arabic in all such advertisements mandatory. A foreign language, including English, could be used only with Arabic.
“One more language can be used along with Arabic,” suggests a Cabinet memo on the draft of the proposed law which has been forwarded to the Advisory Council for review.
The proposed legislation would regulate all street hoardings, apparently including those that are put up on top of buildings, on the walls as well as on buses and taxis. Permission from building owners will, however, be required, suggests the draft.
Advertisements have been defined in the draft as writings, visuals and drawings displayed using wood or plastic materials and they even include neon signs.
The Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning will be the licensing authority and there are proposals to penalise violators up to QR20,000. The legislation, once implemented, would replace the existing law that was implemented 31 years ago, in 1980.
All such hoardings must take ample care and not breach in any way Islamic values and traditions as well as local customs and traditions.
The places of worship will be out of the limit for any hoardings and publicity material, warns the draft. Trees and heritage buildings are also barred for use for such publicity materials.
Anyone wanting to use loudspeakers for publicity of goods or services must also seek the permission of the municipal ministry.
The Cabinet has urged the Advisory Council to review the draft and forward its recommendations as early as possible suggesting that the proposed legislation might see the light of day sooner rather than later.
————– end of report
A fine! Well maybe this is the way forward in order to fulfil the law there has to be consequences. Arabization is a huge project and one that needs effort from all those involved in it to determine its success on the ground. It is an issue of the mind as well as of landscape both policy makers and speakers of Arabic must believe in their law if the outcome is to be effective. At least alongside the Arabic there will be English as well and there will be no billboards in English only or those that offend the local population. I wonder what they’ll do with the signs written in Arabizi- is it Arabic or English or will it be allowed because it’s a fusion of both? Let’s wait and see, linguistically it’s a good move at last all the talk is over and the action is beginning.
Another post showing the importance the rulers in the UAE are putting into reviving Arabic language among their people. Below is a post about showing that, slightly different from the previous post about Jordan. —————————–
SHARJAH // Arab parents should encourage their children to express “joys, sadness, defeats and victories” in Arabic, or risk separating their young ones from a rich cultural heritage, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah, said yesterday. Celebrating Arabic Language Day at the Cultural Palace in Sharjah, he said, “It is very important for Arabs to learn Arabic as it is part of their identity.”
A study by Zayed University last year showed 80 per cent of young Emiratis believed the Arabic language defines their identity. The study was conducted among 200 students at the university. However, it also revealed that 53 per cent of the respondents preferred to watch television shows in English. “Regrettably, focus on the Arabic language is waning despite being the major component of the Arab identity and the strong preserver of our heritage,” the state news agency WAM quoted Dr Sheikh Sultan as saying.
“Increasing care of the Arab communities about the foreign languages to communicate with the world should not eclipse our attention about our Arabic language”, he said, citing common Arabic language errors and frequent use of foreign languages among youth. “The language we use to express our joys, sadness, defeats and victories is inseparable part of our own selves.” The UAE was among several countries that celebrated their language as part of the global Mother Language Day, initiated by Unesco.
Dr Sheikh Sultan has written several books and plays aimed at protecting the Arabic language. He promised financial and moral support to help Arabic language projects in the emirate.As part of the celebration, the Sharjah Museum organised an exhibition, “Calligraphy as an Art”, in which tools used in Arabic calligraphy were displayed.
“The Arabic language with its distinguished linguistics holds the strength to promote nation building and strengthening cultural ties,” said Manal Ataya, director general of the department. “Arabic is also the language of the Holy Quran, the basis of our unity, and the mirror of our present and future.”————————————- END
The study at Sheikh Zayed university is interesting in that 80% of the students felt Arabic defined their identity and yet they preferred watching tv in English. It might be because there is no good tv in Arabic? That’s an uneducated statement with over 100 satellite channels can one really not find something to watch? Mind you maybe that’s the problem?! It might be because the education system does not encourage or support them to use Arabic and instead rewards the use of English? All these factors play a role in determining how a person views their language in reference to other languages. At least Sultan al Qasmy is taking serious steps to address this problem that he and his fellow rulers find disturbing. So maybe in the future Arabic language will re-flourish once again in the Emirates…who knows? Thanks for reading!