Death of Arabic language- a myth?

"Arabic Language" in the Arabic Al-B...

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The month of Ramadhan is now over, how sad, looking forward to the next one! All Muslims have now celebrated Eid (to mark the end of Ramdhan), a nice time to meet family and friends and exchange gifts, oh and not forgetting eating special food.  

So once again I could not help myself but comment on yet another article about the so-called “death”  of Arabic language, or rather the question of is Arabic dead or in danger?  I came across this article written very well on Middle East Online, in which the writer clearly states that the whole idea that Arabic is dead (or dying or in danger) is a myth and greatly exaggerated for that matter. The more I read on this topic the more interesting it becomes, seriously, so  many people investing their time in writing about a concern or a myth or the demise of a language- that has to get people interested! What’s all the fuss about? As I always say again and again on this blog, I wonder what the situation of Arabic language will be in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time. Who will be right? The optimists or those warning over the “death” of Arabic?

In general, the writer in his lengthy article (that’s why I did not paste it here),  gives a historical background to the whole situation of how actually Arabic has never really had so many speakers, even in the days when it occupied the status of the language or culture and civilization. Based on that claim, he asserts that today Arabic has so many more speakers than even then, so why the panic now? Why the fear that Arabic is in demise if it has an unprecedented number of speakers today? An issue that constantly comes up – the belief that the more speakers a language has the less likely it is to become weak, or in extreme cases for it to die.  As I have said before, any linguist working in language revitalization or language ecology will disagree with this popular belief, and perhaps even show languages with more speakers facing danger of extinction whilst languages with fewer speakers remain strong and face no danger.

The writer cites many of the language revival efforts which I have quoted/ discussed in this blog too; such as the Beirul F’il Amr organisation, some Gulf countries’ efforts to revamp interest in the Arabic language and so on…and how these are all reactionary ways of dealing with the fear that Arabic is in danger. He then quotes experts who share his opinion that Arabic is in no danger, and he then balances it out by including the opinion of other experts who express concern over the education policy in schools in the Arab world and call for that to be revised if Arabic language is to be used correctly- and by extension if it is to avoid “death”.  So to be fair he does try to show both sides even if only just.

I liked the way he qualifies all his statements either by historical examples or instances of Arabic use today by people, this always adds a touch of veracity.  For example, he uses the case of Ibn Mandhuur (author of the most respected Arabic dictionary- which spans 25 volumes, but now these are available on CDs, I have to say I prefer the hard copies) in which Ibn Mandhuur writes in the preface of the dictionary that he fears the demise of Arabic.  The writer here argues that there is no way that Arabic was in danger at the time, which is right, because it was the lingua Franca of the part of the world from as far as India and to the Iberian Peninsula. It was the language of education, culture and business and yet this scholar thought to put down his fears over its demise. The writer says here that Ibn Mandhuur feared that people were not using the FuSHa (Classical/Qur’anic Arabic) and were using their spoken Arabic dialects which in turn was affecting their use and understanding of the original Arabic. Having read Ibn Madhuur’s words myself, I always think if he was here today what would he say about the situation of Arabic?  If during its peak and enlightenment, he thought Arabic was in danger and his primary concern was the FuSHa, would he even consider some of today’s Arabic as Arabic?  One might say that his fear drove him to compile a dictionary that would stand the test of time and a dictionary that actually played a crucial role in the preservation of Arabic language.  His type of fear I think is the same type of fear some people have today, if you keep promoting the spoken and not study the classical you will lose touch with your language for sure.

The writer insists that today Arabic is in more use that it has ever been before in history because of the available channels by which communication can take place, such as satellite TV, internet, forums and blogs.  Claiming that 300 million speakers guarantee that Arabic will never be in decline and that merely going through these forums one can see the different, local and idiosyncratic ways in which Arabic language is being used- something unprecedented. Unprecedented indeed! There has never really been a time in which communication across the world has been so easy or managed to break linguistic, social and economic barriers like today.  But does that mean that just because so many people are writing, texting and blogging in ‘Arabic’ (however one wishes to define Arabic) that the language is in no danger of being under threat or at least facing what linguists call ‘shifting’?  I have to say here that Arabic is greater demand today for many different reasons, religious/liturgal (which is the primary one, because this extends to non-Arabs too, so we could exaggerate and say over a billion people will do some type of Arabic learning during their lifetime ), political, security reasons, and maybe even cultural reasons. In relation to this point, let’s ask (apart from religious reasons) who else is interested in Arabic? In my experience (as a student and teacher) definitely non-native speakers are the ones investing their time and money in studying and understanding the Arabic language. Apologies if this statement offends anybody, it does not take much to come to my conclusion, simply browse the internet and you will see the number of centres, academies and places in which Arabic can be taught, none of the adverts are in Arabic!  How many university students from Europe, America and Australia are in the Arab universities studying Arabic language, either for one term, one academic year, summer courses, Easter courses, Christmas language breaks and so on? So although the author says that Arabic is now studied in a way that it never has been before, I agree but not by its native speakers, at least in the Gulf countries. And those who are concerned over the demise of Arabic are worried that native speakers are losing the language. One might say well that’s like English, as a native English speaker I don’t invest in studying English, I might study stylistics or academic rhetoric but those are advanced levels for someone who has mastered the language. In school it is one subject that a student studies throughout their life, it’s one of those subjects that if students could opt out of they would; but the whole education system ensures that all students who leave school need to have a certain level of linguistic competence. In England, as I am not sure about other English speaking countries,  if one fails English at school they may not be able to do their desired course at A- level or nowadays get a job!  To reinforce this all subjects are taught in English, and the education policy introduced something called ‘literacy across the curriculum’ where students needed to be competent in writing or expressing themselves in English in all subjects. Therefore, I don’t need to invest in learning English, I can linguistically afford to learn Chinese or French- it makes sense.  But Arabic language policies are apparently not so clear-cut, at least based on my research of Gulf countries (but that is a topic for another post). There are different types of schools for different types of people, for different types of aims so the education system is one that is unique- hence any language policy would need to be written coherently and implemented by the letter.

Another point he brings up is that today people are more literate than ever before and that even the great cultural civilizations such as Egypt until recently had less than half their population classed as illiterate.  My question, really not just to the writer but in general- how do we define literacy? Does it mean that if I cannot read a language, therefore I am cultureless or therefore I cannot be considered to be academically sound? What if my culture is one of an oral tradition? Can I not participate in culture or add anything to the arena of civilization?  Arab culture has always been an oral one and information by their greatest scholars and poets was stored by way of a rote system. These people had, and in some parts of the Arab world this still happens, what we might call photographic memories; I discussed this is the ‘Preservation of the Arabic language revisited’ post, where committing to memory 10,000 lines of rhyming poetry was no great task! It was the revelation of the Qur’an and it subsequent writing down and the recording of hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him) that transformed the Arab culture from an oral one to a literary one- hence its survival until today.

To end, I think that numbers of speakers is no indicator of the whether a language will survive or not, rather it is the quality and accuracy by which its speakers use it that will determine the robustness and shelf-life of a language.  Perhaps it is a myth that Arabic language is dying, but I don’t think it is a myth that Arabic proficiency is very weak among some native Arabic speakers.