The Death of Arabic is Lebanon, Con’t

What did the Lebanese civil war do to the Arabic language?

[tweetmeme] As some friends and fellow bloggers filter back onto the glorious Beiruti beaches for the summer (bitter?) and munch on fattoush and tabouleh, I am reminded of a post I wrote a while back concerning the staying power of the Arabic language in Lebanon.  A reader contributes some thoughts:

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.

I think the idea of codifying the Lebanese dialect is interesting, though it would officially separate Lebanon from other Arabic countries.  Egypt has perhaps the most frustratingly unique dialect – more so than Lebanon – but it is not codified and foosha Arabic is still well understood among its general populace.  Obviously Egypt has a strong colonial history, like Lebanon, yet the country has maintained its ability to converse in foosha (though you are immediately identified as a foreigner if you speak foosha).  Is this do to the rejection of the West in the post-independence period?  Is it due to the pan-Arabism of Nasser?  I think the commenter hits the nail on the head by mentioning the devastating linguistic effects of the Lebanese civil war.

Photo from Alswalf

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