November 9, 2010
Why was there an Arabic day on twitter yesterday? #ArabicDay

Why was there an Arabic day on twitter yesterday? #ArabicDay

During a meeting with an Emirati young free-lance journalist, it struck me as being potentially true: Arabic language is threatened by the weakness of its presence and usefulness on the web. I thought this reality to be limited to Lebanon, where due to the private schooling system, teaching of Arabic is notoriously unfit. Visibly it wasn’t. Here I was at the Sharjah International Book Fair, talking to a local journalist, who wrote in English and was frustrated about lack of Arabic content on the web.

The issue of Arabic use was already brought up on several occasions, at different levels. I often heard complaints about the absence of a variety of fonts that could be used in graphic design and web interfaces to result in something pleasing to the eye (more on this on Nadine’s blog ‘Arabic type‘). And beyond aesthetics, Arabic is often simply not practical to use in softwares like Word for example or Powerpoint. Small repetitive inconveniences make of writing in Arabic sometimes a real hassle: punctuation signs or numbers, for example will sometimes force you to go to the beginning of the line, preventing you from continuing your sentence naturally – so much time wasted just trying to get the cursor at the right place! However trivial this may seem, it sure says a lot about Arabic on a daily basis: if the use of Arabic was more crucial in today’s pragmatic and digital world, solutions would’ve been found for these rather simple problems.

Beyond the absence of adequate tools, what the Emirati young free lance journalist was upset about was the lack of quality content in Arabic on the web. You can have a real hard time finding relevant information in Arabic when you need it. It seems like most working-browsing people, and these two activities are more and more tightly linked in today’s world, are condemned to search for relevant information in English. Obviously, a lot of relevant information on the Arab world is not always available in English, and this leads to journalists poorly informed on whatever Arabic subject they were researching, like our free-lancer friend, and more generally, to poorly informed Arab workers-browsers.

The paucity of information feeds into the absence of Arabic in the everyday life of the young new working-browsing generation, and both these factors may be suspected of leading to the slow death of the language by asphyxia. Arabic is mostly used on paper and for some reason, a non negligible portion of the working-browsing population rarely uses Arabic naturally for daily correspondences. This contributes to dragging us into a vicious circle where the less Arabic is used, the less Arabic is used.

In the absence of adequate and wide spread solutions to the impracticality of Arabic on technological devices, the young new mobile users had spontaneously invented a new language for text messages around the year 1999 (check Yamli though). If you’re an Arab, you simply know how to pronounce ‘2’, ‘3’ or ‘7’ if they occur in a word. This latinization of Arabic substitutes some letters that do not exist in the Latin alphabet, with numerals chosen for their visual similarity to the original Arabic letter. First invented for mobiles, this language spread to all sorts of electronic communication devices, until it finally made its appearance into the real world.

At a wedding party this summer in Lebanon, the lyrics of an Arabic song were distributed to the guests for a sing-along moment of ‘intense joy’. The lyrics of the song were spelled out in this new-age 2-3-7 alphabet. The bride’s sister who had written the song’s lyrics confessed that she was afraid people wouldn’t know how to read the Arabic alphabet, or would find it too effortful – and we’re talking about a Lebanese wedding, which means that over 500 guests were suspected of not being able to read Arabic fluently enough. You might argue that this remains a private event, and that 500 people on a population of 4 millions, is not a very significant number. Fair enough. That same summer, in Beirut, I picked up a printed flyer in the street, it promoted a festival about heritage and folklore and was ironically titled ‘3ALA DA2ET EL DABKE LA2OUNA’ – you would need to know Arabic to understand this sentence, so do not be surprised if you don’t.

Why not use the proper Arabic language? I thought to myself in frustration. A linguist friend to whom I told this story got very excited. He thought it was just so great, creative and amazing that people found a way to overcome obstacles and spontaneously communicate. His reaction puzzled me. As much as I had been amused by the emergence of this language, I was not in admiration. Was I wrong to think that this was a symptom of the Arabic language’s decay? Was I wrong of thinking of it as decay instead of simply change? Was I being too stiff and authoritarian when it came to language? Why did it matter so much to me?

Reading an article on language policy debates, and the link of language to identity made me realize that this question was not a simple one to answer. There is a thin line between caring about a language, trying to make sure that it is not neglected, and being a purist with fascist ideas about how, where and when, what language should be used. This blog post is after all written in English, so as to address a non Arab audience among other reasons. Nevertheless, by not providing adequate tools for Arabic to be at least as practical as any other language in today’s modern active life and by not providing enough quality content in Arabic on the web, we are not giving people the choice.