Al Arabiya has a great article about the fall of Arabic among Lebanese. Lebanon, which was under French mandate from the 1920’s until independence in 1943, teaches students French, English and Arabic from a young age. French and English are seen – and have been seen for years – as the languages of the elite and the educated. Throughout the Middle East, classical Arabic has evolved into various dialects. The Arabic on the streets in Cairo is different than in Damascus and Muscat. And, while the dialects are different than the classical Arabic used in political speeches and the newspaper, some dialects are much closer to ‘real’ Arabic than others. In Lebanon, the dialect has evolved so far from classical Arabic, it is closer to an international hybrid language.
“Arabic is still very much alive as a language, but young people are moving farther and farther away from it,” said Suzanne Talhouk, who heads the organization “Fael Ummer” (Imperative) which is running the campaign.
“Some of our youngsters are incapable of writing correctly in Arabic, and many university students we interviewed were not even able to recite the alphabet,” Talhouk told AFP.
Urban youths are often unable to hold a conversation in one language, causing amusement but also irking those around them with such home-grown expressions as the popular farewell: “Yalla, bye.”
“At my school it’s more cool to speak French. Arabic is looked down upon,” said high school student Nathalie.
I was in Lebanon last summer studying classical Arabic (foosha) and the Lebanese dialect (ameeyeh) and found the general population of Beirut to be much more proficient in English and French than foosha. While the inability or unwillingness of Beirutis to speak to me in foosha was frustrating, it did provide a very interesting insight into the collective mindset of the Lebanese people and their preference for French and English.
[tweetmeme] There are obviously many reasons for the fall of Arabic among Lebanese, but a couple really stick out as obvious/interesting. The French colonial legacy and the status of Beirut as the gateway to the Middle East in the 1950’s and 1960’s brought a need for English and French. The integration of English and French greatly influenced the evolution of the Lebanese dialect. Secondly, the conflicted and complex history of Arabs in Lebanon includes an intriguing Phoenician shadow that, to some, made Arabic a tainted language.
Since Lebanon was run by the French, the Lebanese elite used the French language as a way to signify their membership to the upper-class. Similarly, those who provided services were forced to adapt their Arabic in order to understand and be understood by the French and English speaking foreigners and Lebanese. Indeed, even after independence, in wealthy West Beirut cafes were filled with more English and French than Arabic. With them, the French brought the lasting presence of French education – something that was typically available for only the wealthy. This is portrayed in the film “West Beirut,” where the main characters are students in a French school at the outbreak of the civil war, demonstrating the prevalence of French education long after independence.
After independence, Beirut was more or less an international city of escape. Wealthy Europeans would stop at the city during long Mediterranean cruises to enjoy the food, history and beach clubs. The service sector in Beirut was primarily composed of poor Muslims who did not speak English or French. Thus, most Lebanese were forced to adapt their language to fit the international character of the city. Until the outbreak of the civil war, French and English presence in the country was great, while Arabic was seen as the poor man’s language – a phenomenon that is also occurring today in the Emirates.
While I was in Beirut, I distinctly remember a taxi ride I took. The driver spoke fluent foosha (the classical Arabic) and when I mentioned my surprise at his ability he noted that he was Syrian and, thus, knew Arabic. According to the driver (I have not followed this up with more research) the Syrian education system is completely in foosha and, consequently, all educated Syrians can speak the classical language. In Lebanon, noted my driver, this is not the case. Arabic education in Lebanon is conducted in the local dialect.
Furthermore, there was a prominent faction of society that claimed that Lebanese were not Arab, but rather descendents of the Phoenicians – an argument that still exists among a minority of Lebanese. The argument was that, as Phoenicians, the Lebanese should not be learning the Arabic language, but the Phoenician language (Lebanese dialect). Thus – again, according to my driver – formal Arabic education during the Lebanese civil war was passed over by many as a recognized denial of true Lebanese roots. Many Lebanese would study ameeyah and not foosha to show solidarity with their Phoenician history. The validity of this argument is questionable, but it is certainly interesting.
So today, Lebanon is left with a dying language among the future generations. Even though there is an effort to reintroduce formal Arabic to the Lebanese population, “Yalla, bye” is far more common than “Ma saalema.” Interestingly, the gap between foosha and ameeyah is not only a Lebanese problem – though it is most pronounced in Lebanon. I work with someone here in Saudi Arabia who speaks classical Arabic nearly fluently, but no dialectical Arabic. For him, what is spoken on the streets of Jeddah, Cairo and Damascus is not Arabic, but simply Arabic’s uneducated cousin. Nearly every day, I hear him lament that no one here in Jeddah can understand his Arabic because they do not know ‘real’ Arabic. Jeddah, like Beirut, has a large international population – generally from Sudan, the Philippines and Egypt – which forces the evolution of Arabic.
Yet there is a major difference between Beirut and Jeddah, beyond the fact that the Gulf dialect is generally closer to classical Arabic than the Lebanese version. Though my friend uses hyperbole, of course, when he claims that no one understands his Arabic, he also complains that no one can understand English either – a problem not found in Lebanon.
Photo from Al Arabiya