Lost in Arabic

Arabic was never easy. But if the language spoken by some 240 million people with its convoluted verb forms and guttural phonology suddenly starts appearing in Latin script, then things get really complicated. And at the same time very straightforward. Details from Mona Sarkis

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Mona Sarkis

​​ Downtown Beirut. A billboard advertising a brand of cigarettes with the words: "Betchouf 7alak fiya." A young woman is pictured alongside, her image reflected in a huge cigarette packet. As far as the slogan is concerned, the absurdity of it really couldn't be greater. "Betchouf 7alak fiya" means: "You recognise yourself in it." But the absurdity probably only occurs to outsiders – Arabs themselves really do seem to recognise themselves in this Latinised version of their language.

Numbers instead of letters

"Arabizi" is the new catchword, created from the words "Arab" and "easy". The quite literally unbearable lightness of this style of Arabic lies in the fact that the Latin alphabet takes the place of the Arabic one. It is a procedure that works with words such as "Inshallah" ("god willing") or "Salamat" ("greetings"). It gets more complicated when the corresponding letters are missing – as far as consonants are concerned Arabic is sometimes heavily differentiated, which means that it is not always possible to find a Latin equivalent for every letter. But resourceful individuals also came up with a solution to this problem: the guttural sound "ain" is reproduced with the letter 3, because it resembles the written Arabic – only back to front. The number 5 replaces the sound "khâ"; although it can also be a 7, which also represents the similar but actually rather different sounding "hâ".

For all those anxious at the prospect of negotiating all these potential pitfalls, Wikipedia has compiled detailed conversion tables. It is a wave primarily unleashed by the Internet, says 22-year-old Syrian Jamila, who can't remember the last time she used her Arabic keyboard to skype, tweet or write a text message. Arabizi is simply "smarter", she says. Although she doesn't really know what "easy" means: Neither her English nor that of her chat friends can stretch to that. Not that her enthusiasm at banging out texts on the keyboard "in English" is in any way diminished by this.

Mobile phones (photo: AP)
Arabîzî has long established itself as a regular multimedia language. "Many young people are not used to using Arabic keyboards anymore, and if they do, it takes them ages to find the letters."

​​ At this point some may be compelled to wistfully recall the times when the Arabic alphabet penetrated other languages, for example Persian, Kurdish, Turkmenish, Somali, Swahili, and particular Caucasus and Berber languages. An initial, massive decline was prompted by Kemal Atatürk, who abolished Arabic script and ordered that Turkish should be written using Latin characters from that moment on. Arabic-speaking countries were not unaffected, with colonial powers and globalisation bringing primarily English and French influences. The consequences: hardly anyone in Lebanon can complete an Arabic sentence without snippets of both these languages, and while the words "Milk Man" can be seen on milk cartons in Syria – still in Arabic characters, at least – Arabic is the number three language in the Emirates after English and Urdu. Islamists and nationalists frown upon these developments, and even the Lebanese linguist Nader Srage – not himself a proponent of either movement – is concerned at the fact that young people now only view Arabic as something to be learned for exam purposes. "They learn it like chemistry: so that they master it for exams and then forget it again," he says.

High Arabic in decline?

To understand how one's own mother tongue could be put on an equal footing with, of all things, chemistry, requires a brief overview of the many different levels of Arabic. Classical Arabic, with a complex grammatical structure based on the text of the Koran and established in the 8th century, is rarely used today. Instead, a diluted form of modern High Arabic has asserted itself, and acts as a connecting link between all Arabs – except on an everyday level, when communication is determined by regional dialect. This can vary greatly from country to country, to the extent that without knowing the lingua franca of High Arabic, an Iraqi would for example have difficulty communicating with a Moroccan.

Google shirt with Arabic script (photo: AP)
Withdrawal from the mother tongue: Transliteration programmes, such as "Ta3reeb" launched by Google, are currently on the advance

​​ The regional variants sometimes have very little in common with High Arabic, and do not have any codified written language at their disposal. Not that this prevents anyone from setting down his dialect in writing. Srage perceives all this as a sobering assessment of the state of the rich language that is standard Arabic: marked by an increased ignorance of classical grammar, a focus on regional dialects, and a decline in the general quality of the language. This withdrawal from the mother tongue is also revealed by transliteration programmes that translate Arabic words inputted in Latin characters back into the Arabic alphabet: programmes such "Ta3reeb" launched by Google in 2008, "Maren" introduced by Microsoft in Egypt last June, or "Yamli", launched in 2007 by the Lebanese entrepreneur Habib Haddad and which is, according to the web information company Alexa, at number 37,981 of the 100,000 most-visited websites in the world – with users in Morocco (10.2%), Tunisia and Algeria (9.4% each), but also in Germany (6.4%) and the US (5.7%).

Most of those users are aged between 18 and 24, male and educated. The latter statistic is the most telling one for Srage, who says that more and more Arabs are studying abroad or have already been confronted with subject tuition in English or French in their own home countries. "They are not used to using Arabic keyboards anymore, and if they do, it takes them ages to find the letters," he says.

Alienation or Avoidance?

But the linguist does not think Arabic is doomed. He says it is interesting to note that although the foreign language skills of these young Arabs studying for PhD, Bachelor and Masters degrees are being nicely honed, they don't greet each other with a "How do you do?", but adhere to the Arabic word "Kifak?" "It appears that they are actually preserving their language with the help of foreign alphabets," he says. Preserving it from total rigor mortis, says Jamila in Damascus, who covers her head like most young Syrian women. "After all," she adds belligerently, "when the Arab world harks back to Islam it is always viewed with suspicion. But are we then expected to speak the language of the Koran forever?" That may be all very well and good. But it could also mean that the Koran, brimming as it is with popular folk tales and proverbial inflections, a scripture that has untold influence on many different cultural levels, is losing its relevance to modern life, and being increasingly left to the Islamists. That would be a high price to pay for "Arabizi".

Mona Sarkis

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Nina Coon