The So-Called Death of Arabic, But I (Sort of) Mean it This Time

Finally, The National has a piece about the (so-called) death of Arabic that really gets me.

I was unmoved by stories about Arabic’s declining use in the Emirates and Qatar; I ignored Bahaa Taher‘s woe-is-Arabic sighs; I felt superior to Lebanese university students who didn’t know their alef, bey, teys.

After all, I see the world from Egypt. Here, the elites may converse in English and put their children in “language” schools, but Arabic is still the language of life, literature, and bad television soap operas.

But, as I said, The National finally found a way to get to me. Today’s piece by  Achraf El Bahi evokes a continuing post-colonial trend of seeing English—and even more so, French—as more erudite, classier, more beautiful, more useful languages than Arabic. These (in some countries more than others) are becoming the everyday languages, while Arabic is left with the working class and the classroom.

All languages change. Oftentimes, this change appears to us oldsters as a decline. This linguistic divide is much more worrying to me—in its possibilities for misunderstanding and mis-translation—than any supposed decline.

On a personal note: My six-year-old son brought home two Goha graphic novels from his Arabic teacher, which he has delighted in reading (or reading with a parent). Highly recommended.

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6 comments

  1. oh, my, the decline of arabic certainly seems to be the, eeerm, saveur du jour …

    while i agree that the rift between the classes as far as language use is concerned is something to worry about, it might be worth remembering that this is neither something limited to arabic not is it new. after all, for years and years the language of the egyptian elite was turkish. in the tzarist russia they spoke french. (ok, maybe that’s a bad example, given how it ended) even in europe today — despite millions spent on translation — if you want to have your research recognised, it must be published in english. as a native speaker of a small language, trust me, i know what this means and it does bother me.

    and yet, and yet … i must disagree with is the whole “nobody speaks arabic as their native tongue” lament. nobody speaks the standard form of any language as their first language, everybody has to learn it. standard language is a code, a code doesn’t come naturally. (saussure, anyone?) as i said before, telling people that they can’t speak their own language is not exactly going to make them want to use it.

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  2. It’s clearly too late to join in this conversation now, but as I’m writing something about the whole “demise of Arabic” meme, I thought I’d respond to Bibi’s point:

    nobody speaks the standard form of any language as their first language, everybody has to learn it. standard language is a code, a code doesn’t come naturally. (saussure, anyone?) as i said before, telling people that they can’t speak their own language is not exactly going to make them want to use it.

    I think it’s worth pointing out that some languages exhibit a much closer relationship between the “standard code” and the codes of informal (usually spoken) exchange, than other languages. Let’s take this comment as an example. At this moment, I’m purposefully trying to write as I speak, and I think that the result would more or less pass muster in most written publications. In other languages, the difference between codes might be a bit more distinct, particularly if we consider the fact that there are multiple codes in play.

    But the point is that the difference between Modern Standard Arabic and any given dialect of Arabic is much more dramatic than the situation of my particular dialect of American English. So while it is true that “everyone has to learn” the standard form of their language, some have a lot less learnin’ to do, and that’s precisely the problem, in the case of Arabic. We’re talking about different morphological structures, different syntax, different grammatical rules about number, tense, negation, you name it… not to mention the case system.

    Clearly, if there were compelling reasons for kids to master MSA (like getting a well-paying job and being able to access rewarding reading material), they would do it. But in that case, I wouldn’t say that they had simply learned the “standard code” of their native language. Rather, I think one could make a persuasive case that these kids were, for all intents and purposes, bilingual.

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