Is Arabic a Dying Language?

From where I sit, in Cairo, the question seems a bit laughable. Dying? True, English is a “higher status” language here. Often, when I read a menu, I will find something like this: الآيس كريم

Arabic spoken here...for now.

That particular word (ice cream) has legitimately made its way into the Arabic language, but you can also find the transliteration of cheese instead ofجبنة and so on.

Still, Egypt is a country where life and literature are conducted (by and large) in Arabic.

Of course, if I squint at the question sideways, I can say: Sure, sure. After all, I’m dying. You’re dying. We’re all dying!

But scholars in the Emirates mean this in a much more urgent way—and perhaps this is part of the reason why so much Emirati money is being laid down for culture: book prizes, poetry channels, literary fairs. In the Emirates, Tom Hundley writes, Arabic is “no better than the third most-spoken language” after English and Hindi. And since Arabs are a minority in the laborer-laden Emirates, that’s hardly a surprise.

But apparently even Emiratis aren’t interested in their language. Hundley reports that last fall, only five new students enrolled in UAE University’s Arabic language and literature program. And most university students, he says, take their instruction in English.

Hundley says the Emiratis are aware and concerned:

A new national plan, unveiled earlier this month and aimed at 2021, the United Arab Emirates’ 50th anniversary, highlights the concern:

“Arabic will re-emerge as a dynamic and vibrant language, expressed everywhere in speech and writing as a living symbol of the national Arab-Islamic values,” the plan said. But it offered few specifics on how this would occur.

Hundley said that some have called for laws enforcing the use of Arabic. But he quoted Professor Kamal Abdel-Malek, a professor of Arabic literature at the American University in Dubai (AUD) as disagreeing with this sentiment:

“We shouldn’t end up with language police,” he said. “Laws cannot maintain the vitality of a language. I don’t think you force people to preserve a language.”

Agreed. (Although I might like to read a novel where this was happening.) How, then, are we to preserve languages? Perhaps, as the Emiratis are doing, with more money for culture? After all, the death of a language is no small thing: a number of social scientists liken the deaths of languages to the deaths of species. Could we end up in a world with only a few languages, and thus fewer ideas, fewer ways of structuring existence?

Maybe, yes; although I doubt Arabic itself will be dying any time soon. Touch wood, masha’allah.


  1. too funny. as a translator from arabic to one of the smaller european languages (slovenian, 2 mil. speakers, also endangered, of which we are duly reminded by poorly edited tabloids), how long will it take for me to become unemployable, what do you think?

    so glad i found your blog!

  2. let me please try again…

    we have an arabic language that is alive and well in the uae.. we bebber it with hindi and persian.. and liberal amounts of english.. but it’s still grammatically 100% arabic.. and we’re so proud that we can be so flexible and skilled in adapting these words into our language heheheh

  3. Language is dynamic. Always has been, always will be.

    But perhaps if there was a focus on creating an accepted written form of the spoken Arabic(s), the language would have a better chance of surviving and thriving!

    I don’t know about university students, but I know young students would love to read a story written in the language that they actually speak.

  4. I don’t really know, Bernie, since I’m not a sociolinguist.

    Species have always died, but scientists are concerned about the mass species die-offs of late, much larger die-offs than in the past.

    Languages have always died (and been replaced), but scientists now seem concerned about mass die-offs of late, much larger than in the past.

    What does it herald for art and culture and humanity? Got me.

    It makes me curious, anyhow.

  5. Classical Arabic language, is a language that no one speaks & only survived as a written language, by repressive laws, enforcement & denigration.
    Yes, Arabic is dead. Accept the reality as it is. No need to live in a virtual truth! Islamists & pan-Arabists really hate to hear anyone admitting that, accusing them of treason.

  6. I’m from North Africa and I admit that Arabic is allready dead in here.

    1. The Maghreb, I assume? It would be hard to call Arabic dead here in Egypt….

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