“Wayn el-red cross?” Where is the red cross? he asks in a mix of Arabic and English. I point to the building just in front of us: “Oh. It’s just straight ahead right next to those vans.”

The man pauses and repeats his question. I reply in English once again, but this time I notice his perplexed look. He doesn’t know English. So why did he decide to say red cross instead of its Arabic equivalent saleeb al-ahmar?

The coexistence of multiple languages in Lebanon – Arabic, English, and French – could be seen as one of the factors leading to the decline of Arabic, the official language of the country. Arguably, there are many other reasons for this decline – including the fact that the Arabic learned inside a classroom would never be used colloquially. That is, unless you want to be the laughingstock of the whole town.

There's also a common joke among the expat community here. The Lebanese tend to be trilingual; they know a mixture of Arabic, English, and French — and yet somehow — they have mastered not one of these languages.

A huge generalization, I know. But let me back this up with a shocking number: According to A Separate State of Mind, out of more than 61,000 brevet students, only 33.7 percent managed to get the required 30/60 to pass their Arabic exam!

Even my Professor of Arabic, originally from the United States and of European descent, admittedly confessed that he probably knew Arabic much better than the population’s majority. And what’s worse, he warned us against eliciting help from local Lebanese on our Modern Standard Arabic homework.

If you'd like solid proof that the Arabic language is in decline, look no further than to the latest mobile application — Touch Lebanon’s Leb Keys — where you can “unleash your inner Lebnéné.”

This application allows users to communicate and text in Latin Arabic – using Latin letters coupled with numbers – to converse in Arabic. The non-existent sounds in Latin text are replaced with corresponding numbers (for example, the guttural 'h' letter is replaced with the number seven).

In 1922, the French Orientalist Louis Massignon headed up a project to try to push the Arabic script to Latin script. His attempt ultimately failed.

Fast forward to almost 100 years later; I think were Massignon living today, he’d be proud with our “progress.” His idea of a Latin Arabic script has most certainly swept over into today’s digital community. It’s just only a matter of time before this resonates offline, as well.

Tu2burni, ya 3arabi.

[Images via here, here and here.]

Articles & Media

3 photos


Avatar 1
Post to facebook
Avatar 2

...ya 3arabi! Anyways... We've been hearing of the decline of Arabic and Lebanese for the past three generations now. I'm guessing it's even true of the generations before that. In the same vein, as a Lebanese living in the UK, I can safely say I am better at written English than the Brits. It means nothing other than the fact I was schooled in English-as-a-foreign-language, and so had to learn the grammatical rules behind it all. Same goes for my French.

Haifa Cortbawi Ungapen on Jul 15, 2015 via mobile web