The Death of Arabic in Lebanon

Due to the prevalence and importance of English and French, classical Arabic is becoming rare in Lebanon

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

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6 thoughts on “The Death of Arabic in Lebanon

  1. After you posted a link here in a comment on my MEI Editor’s Blog I updated the post with a link, but also included my own favorite personal best: a Lebanese businessman (and this nearly 40 years ago!) using three languages in only four words: “Pourquois are you za’lan?”

    I’m glad to discover your blog.

  2. chris, the french language legacy in lebanon predates the mandate period, though you are right about its perception as a “prestige” dialect.

    one factor you don’t mention, which i suspect may be the primary reason for lebanon’s unique situation today (where young people can’t speak arabic properly, and even dialect has become as you say “an international hybrid language”): the civil war.

    During the war, many families fled to nearby countries such as cyprus, the gulf, greece, etc.. Because parents couldn’t or didn’t want to put their kids in the local school system in these countries, given language and cultural differences, these kids tended to go to the local american/british/french schools. They thus grew up with an international education and international friends, maintaining arabic (lebanese dialect) only through home life and interactions with the lebanese community.

    Unlike those who left for places like the US, canada and western europe, where they were more likely to be integrated and thus stayed on after the war’s end, the lebanese who emigrated within the greater “neighborhood” mostly came back over the course of the 1990s. Those who didn’t (mostly in the gulf) almost all send their children back to (french or english language) university in Lebanon. In both cases, there has been little need for the returnee children, surrounded by peers from similar circumstances, to go to the trouble of learning proper Arabic — so they haven’t.

    at this point, fusha is probably a lost cause for the general population. a more productive focus would be on the rehabilitation and codification of lebanese dialect, which i believe is how some of these new campaigns are proceeding. as much as i hate to admit it, because i, from the bottom of my heart, hate hate hate transliterated or “sms” arabic (doing away as it does with the root system at the heart of the language), promoting arabic written in latin script may facilitate these efforts.

    as we’ve seen with numerous language conservation campaigns around the world, foreign influences — especially today — are often simply un-purgeable. rather than fighting english and french, lebanon should embrace and promote the “international hybrid language” that lebanese arabic has become.

  3. I don’t think the problem is exclusive to just Lebanon, although Lebanon definitely showcases a distinct linguistic identity crisis, if you will. Modern Standard Arabic on whole is possibly a problem throughout the Arab world, from Morocco to Yemen—in that it can an be as much of a foreign language to Arabs themselves as Classical Latin is to a Catalan, Italian, or Portuguese speaker. Outside the realm of talkshows, music, dubbed Turkish soapoperas, and households… عاميات or Arabic dialects/patois are looked down upon as reflecting a lack of education. Yet, were a person to use MSA in a colloquial context, it sounds akward… and even snobbish.

    The Lebanese co-exist with and meld with English, French, and Levantine Arabic, reflecting upon their history, education, and sense of personal and collective identity. The point is, I don’t know many who see or want to see themselves as Arab, whether Muslim, Druze, Christian, or irreligious. MSA ties the Lebanese with a pan-Arabism not shared by everyone living in or outside the country’s boarders. I don’t see Arabic as dying in Lebanon, but I do see it as evolving and perhaps needing to seek redefinition—akin to Maltese possibly.

  4. I hope the Arabs in Lebanon wake up and realize that it is not snobby to seak French and that they should take pride in properly learning sir own language. Et exists a concerted effort to weaken Lebanon. Rather than be a leader in the world, we are pushed to being patron states of France and other foreign powers. Whether we were Phoenician or not, today we are Arabs and should speak proper Arabic and connect with the 300 million Arabs around us. The more we divide, the weaker we become and more susceptible to outside influence, not the positive I fulence that takes hard work to achieve but the influence that is easy for us to imitate. Arabs in Lebanon can speak whatever they Western language they want. They can dress western, say yallah bye or hi, the are still Arabs. Rather than standing firm In their own culture and spreading it around the world, they are kissing up to anyone that will have them. Why are we so proud of being Lebanese again? What is so great? We are even denying our own history. Lebanon is great because of its recent Arab history. Otherwise we would not even exist. I read arguments that we should use Latin, e same as France should switch to Arabic. The entire world uses Arabic numerals but we Lebanese think we should switch to Latin characters for writing our own alphabet. This is because the majority of Lebanese are uneducated from poor backgrounds and they want to be something they are not. The masses want to speak a token patois or Ebonics like the uneducated blacks in the US and we are actually writing about it. What a shame. Hopefully we will wake up and realize no matter how much we try to imitate our masters, they won’t accept us and rather will respect us when we stand tall and tell them who we are.

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