Elias Muhanna: Arabic’s Not Dying, It’s Being (Re)born

Arabic is spoken here. And elsewhere, too.

Elias Muhanna, the blogger behind Qifa Nabki (which usually discusses Lebanese politics, but every so often talks linguistics), has an article in today’s The National about the so-called death of Arabic. Muhanna agrees that there are special issues in Qatar, the UAE, and Lebanon. But elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world, Arabic is…flourishing.

Muhanna notes that with literacy rates (and populations) on the rise, more people know fus’ha (literary) Arabic today than at any other time in history.

Paradoxically, it is this situation – a burgeoning community of users – that is producing what many today regard as the symptoms of Arabic’s decline.

Mahmoud al-Batal, who directs the Arabic Flagship Program at the University of Texas, tells Muhanna that with the proliferation of satellite programs and websites, this doesn’t just affect fus’ha:

The communication revolution is making it possible for us to be connected not only via formal Arabic but through the dialects as well.

I think al-Batal exaggerates a bit when he says that the problem is “the teaching of Arabic is still in the Middle Ages.” I would not say my son’s Arabic instruction has been Middle Age-ist. He completed Grade One last year, and had somewhat (but not entirely!) boring Arabic workbooks as well as a couple of Goha comic books. They did too much copying and too little reading, thinking, or discussing (if any). They did do a little singing. My son loved the singing.

So it’s not exactly cutting edge, but neither is it quite from the Middle Ages.

But I do agree with this friend of Muhanna’s:

“We were never encouraged to make fusha our own,” muses a friend who completed his secondary education in Lebanon. “We didn’t use it to discuss things that we were interested in, like music or movies.”

In any case, Muhanna argues that we shouldn’t cling to standardized Arabic:

…as potent as the ideology of a single unifying language has been for centuries, there are growing indications that it may finally be falling by the wayside.

In either case, with a growing literate population and different communications media, it will be time to get creative.

If you’re interested in fus’ha v. colloquial Arabics: