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The Death of Arabic is Greatly Exaggerated

ننتقل الآن الى موضوع لا علاقة له بالمحكمة الدولية أو حزب الله أو بالسياسة اللبنانية بشكل عام ، بل وهو موضوع اللغة العربية المهملة المنسية الموشكة على الانقراض

Oops. Got a little carried away there.

In case some of you are feeling a little bit overloaded on Lebanese politics (in which case, your QN membership is hereby revoked), take a look at my cover story about the future of Arabic in this week’s Review, of which I’ve pasted a few paragraphs below.


The Words on the Street

By Elias Muhanna — The National

In the late 13th century, a North African judge and chancery official named Ibn Manzur, who served in the imperial administration of the Mamluk sultanate, was putting the finishing touches to the greatest Arabic dictionary ever compiled. Spanning 20 volumes, Lisan al-Arab (The Arab Tongue) represented the pinnacle of a centuries-old lexicographical tradition, and would not be surpassed in size and scope by another dictionary for 500 years.

Ibn Manzur was driven by a belief that Arabic’s position as the ultimate language of social prestige, literary eloquence, and religious knowledge was under threat. “In our time, speaking Arabic is regarded as a vice,” he wrote in his preface. “I have composed the present work in an age in which men take pride in [using] a language other than Arabic, and I have built it like Noah built the ark, enduring the sarcasm of his own people.”

If Arabs living at Ibn Manzur’s time didn’t speak Arabic, then what language did they use? The Mamluk territories of Egypt and Syria lay at a continental crossroads attracting immigrants and invaders from around the world, but this did not change the basic reality that Arabic remained the lingua franca of a vast area stretching from the Iberian peninsula to the Indian subcontinent. A preeminent vehicle of culture, the language was studied in places as far afield as medieval Europe, where scholars sought access to the scientific and philosophical patrimony of Ancient Greece through the intermediary of Arabic commentaries.

(Keep reading)

Update: Here are some responses to the piece from The Economist‘s language blog, Michael Collins Dunn, and M. Lynx Qualey’s ArabLit blog.
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47 thoughts on “The Death of Arabic is Greatly Exaggerated

  1. I think Ibn Mansur was just paranoid. lol.
    Don’t take me seriously on this one, I’m just kidding. Not easy to switch my thoughts from Lebanese politics to Arabic Language.
    Good luck with this one QN.

    Posted by prophet | August 12, 2010, 6:41 pm
  2. qn,
    Could it be true that the death of the Arabic language is greatly exagerated but yet it is far from being a healthy robust language either?
    Fusha cannot be very healthy when the average number of years of schooling in the Arab states is under 4. That simply means that literacy is high since it is based on such a low standard but
    the ability to understand and use fusha is extremly low.
    Add to that the fact that practically all nes inventions and ideas in almost all fields of knowledge have seen the light in languages different than Arabic and one finds the reason that it is difficult even for the educated to communicate effectively in fusha since most of these new words and ideas have not been translated into Arabic. Even in such popular fields as economics and environmentalism it is very difficult to deliver a half hour presentation in Arabic for the inability of the language to accomodate the new ideas.A simple example might help illustrate this. Many consider the Cairo 1994 conference about women and population to have been a watershed mark in the issue of population growth. Most of the preliminary work was done in NY, at the UN headquarters. The whole program rests on the idea of women empowerment which proved to be very difficult to translate into other languages including Arabic.
    I believe that the third weakness of the current Arabic language is the tendency to use more the vernacular. The more we use it the more it becomes obvious that we do not have as much in common. The vernacular could lead to the same fate that Latin had. Some have argued that had it not been for the Koran then the Arabic language would by know have evolved into a large number of languages, just like Latin.

    Arabic is not in danger of disappearing anytime soon but the fusha is understood only by the educated and it has failed to keep up with the developments in most fields.The vernacular is healthy within each region but the more it develops the greater become the regional distinctionc.

    Posted by ghassan karam | August 12, 2010, 8:21 pm
  3. Ghassan,

    My Professor once told me that that the fact that there’s an inherent weakness in Arabic to be able to keep up with the new innovations and be able to express them, is just a myth. Throughout history the “de facto language of science and philosophy”, was never related to the “hardness” or “expressiveness” of the language. The only fact that determined which language is that of science is the nation which produces the greatest number ideas and innovations. At one time it was Greece, then it was the Arabs (don’t forget that Persian and Indian scientists used to write their research in Arabic: Ibn Sina, Al-Khawarizmi). Returning to the present. We’re seeing a big rise in the number of Chinese publications and research. So, once they produce more ideas than the US, why would the Chinese still write in English? And why would English be the language of Science when most science comes from China?

    Posted by Habib | August 13, 2010, 2:38 am
  4. Ya QN,

    5 masha’allah points for that one!

    On a not-quite-related note, whatever happened to that Mughniyyah-Assassination-Investigation that HA promised us over two years ago?


    Posted by MSK* | August 13, 2010, 4:34 am
  5. As a fairly proficient non-native speaker of Syro-Lebanese ‘amiya’ and as someone who has gingerly tried to master ‘fusha’ I think that the ‘barriers to entry’ for fusha are prohibitively high. For me amiya was relatively easy to pick up, its sentence structure, grammar, and the fact that it is spoken by everyone make it an unimposing language to learn and talk. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I have learnt the language completely by ear.

    When I embarked upon trying to learn fusha I found myself flummoxed – the grammatical complexity, depth, nuance, and lyricism of the language makes it an extreme challenge (and achievement) to learn let alone master. Added to which because it is not spoken conversationally there are very few fora in which one can practice without having to actually ‘study’. This for me took the enjoyment out of learning the language, because first and foremost it is communication that is the attraction of learning a language.

    Perhaps more significantly for many people, including myself, learning languages aurally/orally is the only way. While others are able to learn using their visual memory, this is not a capacity that I have. Consequently with limited opportunities to hear and speak fusha those who do not learn languages relying on visual memory but on aural memory are severely hampered.

    In Europe up until the Reformation language (in this case Latin) was used by the elite as a tool of exclusion and control. The translation of the Bible into the vernacular was one of the driving forces of the reformist spirit. It is quite easy to see how the democratisation of language in this way is linked to successes and developments (at least by our own standards) of the so-called European Enlightenment and beyond.

    It is not completely beyond the pail to suggest that Arabic-fusha allows for a similar degree of control and exclusion in the present-day Arab world. To my mind, the very fact that literature is not in the vernacular alienates people from culture, politics and the like. It is perhaps no coincidence that in Lebanon, where the vernacular is much more common even in ‘official’ settings that culture and politics are more vibrant amongst the non-elite, unlike in Syria for example where a conference in amiya is almost unheard of.

    To initiate the move towards to vernacular in the Arab world may result in considerable loss in cultural historical terms, and will no doubt upset my pan-Arabists, religionists and nostalgics, but I think that the benefits could outweigh these losses. A vernacular that is spoken, but also written and read will open up literacy, writing and reading and the cultural sphere in general to a much wider range of people. At the moment the chasm of linguistic mastery between the boy selling ‘Chiclets’ at the traffic lights and the graduate of Al-Azhar is so wide as to be almost unbridgeable? If the vernacular were treated with the respect that I believe it deserves then Mr Chiclets is a potential budding author, without it he is just a kid who speaks ‘dirty Arabic’ that can be summarily ignored as illiterate. Does the use of the vernacular not also broaden political and social engagement and interaction of normal citizens, admittedly on the national rather than regional level? Could this not serve as the basis of a cultural and political renaissance of the region as a whole?

    Of course many of the governments of the Arab world are just as uninterested in this process as their counterparts were at the time of the Reformation in Europe. Much of the Reformation was shunted along by popular uprising. It won’t have gone unnoticed either that this process of moving to the vernacular was also a key factor in the eventual secularization of the state apparatus of Europe (not what the Reformation had intended at all). So this process in the Arab-world clearly won’t just have governments to contend with!

    Having re-read this I can’t helping thinking this is perhaps just wishful thinking of a bitter foreigner who after years of trying still can’t master the language?

    Posted by The Medlar | August 13, 2010, 5:47 am
  6. QN, I think your article is very sensible. It seems to me that realistically, what could happen is that the more people from different parts of the Arab world communicate with each other, the more they could tend to develop a shared variety of Arabic, i.e. a koine, which could have an informal register based mainly on the current dialects, and a formal register based more on fusha. There’s a theory that koine formation has already happened at least once in the history of Arabic: fusha developed as the “poetic koine” of the pre-Islamic Arabs, so that tribes who spoke different dialects could understand each other’s poetry.

    On Ghassan’s point, I had an interesting discussion with Brian Whitaker about technical Arabic over on his blog. Brian took the position that Arabic is less adaptable than English to the needs of modern communication (e.g. in science and technology), because it’s less capable of coining new words. I argued that the shortage of technical vocabulary in Arabic is a social problem, not a linguistic one: there are currently powerful social incentives for using English in technical contexts, and weak incentives for using Arabic. When specialists do coin new technical terms in Arabic, they do just fine, and the supposed weaknesses of Arabic turn out to be illusory in practice.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | August 13, 2010, 6:03 am
  7. Very interesting article. I’m really jealous of your ability to tackle such a huge topic in such a small article while keeping it informative and thought provoking.
    But I can’t leave this comment on such a positive note, so let me add two things: you didn’t mention that people across the Arab world are increasingly becoming proficient in arabic vernaculars (At first they were mostly restricted to Egyptian arabic, but now Lebanese, Golf and Tunisian are becoming more familiar to many).
    And do something about your transliteration of fusha! MSN arabic has solved the problem by introducing the 7. But we could do better and try to promote the maltese ħ. It’s a lovely letter, don’t you think? Fusħa.

    Posted by worriedlebanese | August 13, 2010, 7:38 am
  8. Habib/Benjamin,
    The point about the inability of the fusha to habdle all of the newly coined terms and phrases in all fields and not only technical areas is explained by the fact that all of these developments are taking place in non Arabic speaking nations.As a result to be conversant in many of these specialized fields the language of communications often turns out to be English. Has anyone tried to read an explanation of the receny financial meltdown written in Arabic? Most of the required terminology is either totally non existant or not commonly used which makes it useless anyway. This problem is dictated by the realities of where innovations are taking place and is not Arabic specific but it weakens the use of the language among the well educated. (There are many Economic Journals in Italy that are published in English only).
    Fusha is not keeping up especially because of the effort of the purists to coin an Arabic equivalence for everynew term and phrase. That has often met with disaster, all over the world. Afterall the French hold a “briefing” and travel during the “week end” that is much more preferable than to go to a deli and order “Al shater wal mashtoor wal kamen baynahoma” the arabic fusha’s equivalent for sandwich?
    Language is a living thing and fusha is not. The vernacular does just fine and I agree with The Medlar, the more widely used it is the easier it becomes for the walls that keep many from reading and following the news to fall. The price of that could be the fragmentation of the language into a half dozen vdifferent ones.
    BTW, I have some Morrocan and Algerian colleagues but we find it easier to use English to talk about everyday affairs than fusha that sounds very pretentious.Obviously we cannot use the vernacular since they are quite different.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | August 13, 2010, 8:02 am
  9. Ghassan, I think that the problem of purists coining unwieldy expressions, as well as the problem of fusha sounding “pretentious”, are both symptoms of the lack of scientific knowledge production in Arabic. In any language, unwieldy and pretentious-sounding expressions disappear, and are spontaneously replaced by more convenient ones, when enough people are doing cutting-edge research, teaching, publishing and having scientific conferences in that language. Everyday usage mercilessly eliminates awkward expressions and replaces them with better ones, either by borrowing words from foreign languages or by coining new ones, whichever is more convenient in each particular case.

    For example, the consensus of Arabic speakers has determined that مسرح is a convenient way to say “theatre” (even though Arabic calques of “theatre” and “spectacle” were proposed in the 19th century), and that ثقافة (coined in about 1920) is a convenient way to say “culture” (even though a calque would have been possible), while “Internet” has been conveniently rendered by the calque إنترنت. This happened spontaneously because many people were frequently talking and writing about these topics in Arabic. If more people write and talk about quantum mechanics or sociology in Arabic, the same thing will happen for technical terminology in those fields. And I think this will happen only if social incentives to do so are created, like career advancement opportunities for academics who publish cutting-edge research in Arabic, present it in Arabic at conferences, etc. And then it will probably sound less pretentious, too.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | August 13, 2010, 8:24 am
  10. Why not let Lebanon be?

    Change is one thing no one can stop. Lebanese will be a mixture of Arabic/French and English. Call it evolution.

    Posted by What's the matter with olives? | August 13, 2010, 8:34 am
  11. Lots of things to respond to here, so instead of doing it systematically, I’m just going to jump in…

    Worried Lebanese,

    Lousy transliteration is one of my pet peeves, but the National is not about to start letting us use macrons and underdots. 🙂

    Ghassan, Benjamin, et al

    I agree that the problem of new vocabulary has nothing to do with linguistic issues, and everything to do with social issues.

    Ghassan, much of what you are saying is correct and can be boiled down to the simple fact that fus7a is no one’s native language. However, one of my points in this article is that fus7a has never been anyone’s native language; it has always been a literary language.

    What’s different today is that more and more people are starting to gain access into the speech community of the language, and while it is far from being anyone’s mother tongue — or even a literary register that is not so far removed from what people speak everyday — it is strictly true that it has never been as “healthy” as it is today.

    The question is, what do we mean by “healthy”? To me, the fact that, as Ben pointed out, words like “Internet” are simply being transliterated and adopted in Arabic is not a sign of its weakness.

    Looking ahead, there are many possible scenarios when we consider the future sociolinguistic state of the langauge. The two extreme poles are as follows:

    (1) Fus7a becomes completely obsolete and each country adopts its own vernacular as the official spoken language (as in the case of Greece in the 20th century, which dropped Katharevousa and adopted Dhimotiki)

    (2) School curricula across the region are radically overhauled and fus7a is taught in a brilliant new way such that, over a century or so, the dialects disappear and everyone speaks fus7a.

    Neither of these two scenarios seems very likely to me. What actually ends up happening depends on the future economic development of the region and the language planning policies that are adopted.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 13, 2010, 8:55 am
  12. When a Spaniard talks to an Italian, can pretty well understand each other even if each one speaks their own language; they spontaneously find a linguistic common ground. The same thing happens when an Egyptian talks to a Levantine speaker. The more educated the speakers are, the more they tend to use fus7a vocabulary with 3ammiyya syntax anyway. Between Egyptian and Levantine Arabic, the syntactic differences are minor anyway.

    I know Egyptians with university degrees who can’t speak fus7a or tell the difference between correct and incorrect fus7a grammar, but they can read it just fine anyway. If they wrote books in a formal variety of Arabic in which they feel comfortable (i.e. basically their own 3ammiyya with fus7a vocabulary), those books would probably be easily understandable by a lot of people across the Arab world.

    Recently I read the chronicles of the famous 18th/19th-century Egyptian historian Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, and was interested to see that he wrote mostly in a rather colloquial style, including 3ammiyya words such as بتاع, with many “mistakes” in the case endings, and generally didn’t seem to care much about using “correct” grammar. If it was good enough for al-Jabarti, why shouldn’t it be good enough for people today?

    From time to time there have been proposals to simplify fus7a grammar, e.g. the elimination of the case system, the dual, the feminine plural, the simplification of the numbers, etc. Who will dare to write books, today, in such a simplified language? Maybe if a few writers take the plunge, others will follow.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | August 13, 2010, 9:34 am
  13. Is it not a bit ironic that the fate of the Arabic language, is being discussed, in English?

    Posted by Youssef | August 13, 2010, 10:14 am
  14. I think that fusha can never die totally in the Arab countries irrespective of what happens to the vernacular.
    I do not want to venture into a field that I do not know much about but my “amateurish” and shallow reading of the Quran in addition to the opinion of many more knowlegable people than I in Islam make it clear that fusha is the language of the revelation and must never be changed. This is the school of thought that regards the Quran as eternal and not created.If that is so then the case of fragmentation similar to what happened to Latin will not be 100% succesful. I am afraid that this fact carries many implications for the Arab countries; the vernacular is on the ascendant but fusha cannot be allowed to die and so all Arabs will have to learn two languages unless the vernacular (QN’s 2nd option) is to die , which is very highly unlikely.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | August 13, 2010, 10:20 am
  15. Youssef,

    I don’t think it’s that ironic. This very question has been discussed to death in Arabic for over a century. It’s not like the debate about Arabic is only taking place in English.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 13, 2010, 10:47 am
  16. Latin was a sacred language, too, but that didn’t stop medieval Europeans from increasingly writing in “bad Latin” and finally in French, Spanish, etc. Perhaps something similar is now happening in Arabic. The language of the Quran hasn’t changed, but it’s not the only variety of Arabic that’s used for written communication. The Internet is full of texts written in “sloppy Arabic”, i.e. some approximation of fus7a with little regard for the difficult grammatical rules, and plenty of borrowed words like “Internet”. Egyptians are publishing books in 3ammiyya. Meanwhile, authors of texts in impeccable fus7a, like this excellent book on cognitive linguistics, are inventing ingenious new ways of using Arabic morphology to coin new technical terms. Perhaps all these tendencies will converge to create a new written language, with a somewhat more 3ammiyya-like syntax and a rich technical vocabulary of borrowed words as well as new coinages.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | August 13, 2010, 1:28 pm
  17. Benjamin,
    There is though a basic difference between Latin and Arabic. Latin was never viewed as the language of revelation while Arabic is. The revelatory aspect of the Quran is a crucial one and God/Allah revealed it through Gabriel to the illiterate prophet in Arabic. This does not mean that at some point the Quran will be accepted in different languages but up untill know it is not. Arabic appears in 11 ayat in the Quran. In yusif 12:2 forexample: “We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an in order that ye may learn wisdom.” A believer will not be able to disregard this.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | August 13, 2010, 2:16 pm
  18. Why do you all ignore the Syrian example in this? The Syrians have done something right to make Fus’ha easy and accessible to Syrians. Think what you may of the Syrian education system, but Syrians can probably use Fus’ha with much more ease compared to some Arabs in other Arabic countries.

    I enjoyed reading the piece in The National, but the author lost me towards the end. I disagree with the conclusion and with the premise of Kristen Brustad’s opinion on this as quoted in the article. “linguistic democratisation” is not the solution, and especially not for native Arabic speakers.

    The solution is in teaching Fus’ha the way it should be taught. The Syrians have a good thing going in that area in my opinion, and their example should be examined and perhaps followed. Yes. I agree that Arabic is healthy, but in a different way. Isn’t the Fus’ha-speaking Al Jazeera Arabic the most watched news channel in the Arab World? Don’t all its competitors in the Arab World and the West use Fus’ha to speak to Arab viewers Don’t all respectful media portals in the Arab World write and publish in Fus’ha? What version of Arabic do you all read in the ubiquitous Arabic-language newspapers that are published in or outside the Arab World?

    The brilliance of the Syrian example is that Fus’ha and the spoken dialect co-exist seamlessly in communication both in daily life and in instruction, but when it comes to published material and curricula, Fus’ha is what rules.

    For clarification, I was born in Syria. I lived there most of my life. I studied medicine in Arabic in Syria before moving to North America in the late 90s.

    Posted by Sate Hamza | August 13, 2010, 4:25 pm
  19. Ghassan, I wasn’t suggesting that the Quran should be rewritten in some other sort of Arabic. I was saying that I don’t see any religious reason why other sorts of Arabic can’t be used for written communication today.

    None of the Quranic verses that mention Arabic say that the Arabic language must not change, or that the only acceptable variety of Arabic is the variety used in the Quran. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem translates 12:2 in this way:

    We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran so that you [people] may understand.

    The meaning seems clear: the Quran was revealed in Arabic so that it would be understandable to its initial audience, who understood Arabic. Similarly, 41:44 says:

    If We had made it a foreign Quran, they would have said, ‘If only its verses were clear! What? Foreign speech to an Arab?’

    Again, the logic here seems clear: Arabic was the most sensible choice for a revelation given to an Arab prophet, to be communicated to an Arab audience. It doesn’t follow, however, that Muslims, or anyone else, should use exactly the same language for writing novels or scientific texts today. On the contrary, 12:2 could be taken to imply a lesson: “Write in a language that your audience will understand”. One could then conclude: if my audience understands ammiyya, I should write in ammiyya.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | August 13, 2010, 6:19 pm
  20. Benjamin,
    We are on the same side, at least on this issue 🙂 Personally I do not have a problem with translated Qurans or even with ones written in the vernacular of various regions.
    The same logic applies to the Bible. Most people that I know find the modern versions clearer and easier to understand than the King James variety.
    My only point was that based on my own experience as an Arab I find it very difficult for the proposition that Arabs will easily give in on this interpretation that what is of essence is the message and not the language that is used. Afterall the same message would be as powerful in a large number of tongues. I would even suggest that the most resistance will come from the clergy whose power will deminish when people find out that they do not need their services , at least not to the same extent as before. A more linguistically accessible quran is very empowering.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | August 13, 2010, 6:38 pm
  21. Sate3 Hamza has written an interesting response to my piece, which you can read here:

    Sate3, thanks for taking the trouble to articulate what you found problematic about my argument (and the arguments of some of the people I quoted.) I’m going to respond to you here.

    First of all, fus7a is not the only variety of Arabic that is encountered on al-Jazeera. Sure, that’s what the anchors speak and what most of the program hosts use, but the various experts who appear as guests on different programs are not always using fus7a. As I mentioned, the most common variant — at least in the context of conversations and not formal addresses (which are basically just read off of the teleprompter) — seems to be what linguists are increasingly referring to as “Educated Spoken Arabic”, which is a kind of hybrid of MSA and one’s native dialect.

    Secondly, you write: “And I cannot even start to imagine how mediocre a curriculum of any subject in school will be in an Arab country if they start incorporating material from the spoken idioms in the formal language of instruction. “

    Why would the incorporation of spoken material render a curriculum mediocre? By most accounts, education is already pretty mediocre in the vast majority of Arab countries, and it’s already conducted in fus7a. What does the language used have to do with the quality of education?

    In all cases, what Drs. Brustad, al-Batal, and Maamouri were arguing was not to dump fus7a and replace it with the vernacular in schools, but rather to incorporate more colloquial into the teaching of fus7a as a pedagogical tool.

    You say that Syria already has the answer for this. What is it? I know very, very few Syrians my age who are even 10% as comfortable in fus7a as they are in their spoken dialect, and most of them are more at ease reading French or English than fus7a. It’s important to note that this is already a major improvement over the state of affairs 50 years ago. But the fact remains that fus7a remains, for most Arabs (even “literate” ones), a language in which they are not completely at ease.

    A friend of mine recently confided that he had been the top Arabic student in his high school, and he now could scarcely remember the Arabic alphabet, and would not be able to apply the i3raab to a sentence if you asked him to. I suspect that most people are like him, and not like you (I’m assuming that you are as comfortable in fus7a as you are in English and Syrian dialect).

    Anyway… my two cents.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 13, 2010, 7:32 pm
  22. Elias, thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog posting.

    I agree that the guests and the the experts who appear on al-Jazeera programs don’t always use Fos’ha when talking on the programs, but those same experts use Fos’ha in their writings and in their publications. And from what I can tell, most speakers on the pan-Arab television channels like al-Jazeera seem to sometimes be using a more moderate dialect (if not using Fos’ha) as opposed to their hard-core regional dialect in their country of origin. If a Moroccan expert is going to speak to the Arab viewer with the same dialect that (s)he uses to talk to his/her Moroccan peers, not many people will be able to understand him/her. The important thing is that Fos’ha remains the standard in the editorial line of the pan-Arab channels (and other pan-Arab media) as a whole, and Fus’ha is certainly (and correctly so)almost the exclusive version of Arabic used in the corresponding Arabic channel websites. When is going to quote the the guests and the experts, I don’t think they would publish their statements in the spoken language form. The “Educated Spoken Arabic” is a phenomenon I am familiar with, but I do not support making it the “Educated Inspired-By-The-Spoken Written Arabic”, as an alternative to writing in Modern Standard Arabic.

    Regarding the language of instruction in the Arab World, you said it. “What does the language used have to do with the quality of education?”. Exactly. If the education is mediocre in the Arab World, as you say, where is the proof that the reason is that it is conducted in Fus’ha Arabic? Isn’t there the possibility that other factors are in play here? Could we be going here after the wrong culprit?

    As to the idea of incorporating “more colloquial into the teaching of fus7a as a pedagogical tool.”, I am not totally opposed to that principal, but I see a big problem in conducting it in the published curriculum. The teacher in class can use colloquial speech to communicate ideas with the students even when teaching Fus’ha, but to publish instruction in colloquial is what I do not support. The problem with colloquial is that it is a fluid version of Arabic that is so variable even in the same regions in the same country. Which version are you going to use in Syria, for example? The Damascene dialect, the Southern Syria (Sweida) dialect, the Aleppine dialect, the Homsi dialect, the Coastal dialect or the Eastern (al-Jazira) dialect (just to mention some examples)? The teachers in their localities can speak in whatever dialect suits their students, but to standardize and incorporate the spoken language in the formal written curriculum is not practical, nor is it necessary, in my opinion. Just for comparison and as an example, where in the United States are the local dialects (or slang) incorporated in the formal written curriculum? Does that mean that teachers never use slang in class to communicate an idea occasionally with their students?

    When you say: “I know very, very few Syrians my age who are even 10% as comfortable in fus7a as they are in their spoken dialect, and most of them are more at ease reading French or English than fus7a.”, this is definitely not my experience. I know of no Syrians in Syria who are more comfortable reading English or French than Arabic (and written Arabic in Syria is definitely Fos’ha). We definitely seem to live in parallel worlds. I know of no Syrian (leave alone Arab) who does not know the Arabic alphabet. Moreover having a functional or practical knowledge of Fus’ha Arabic (i.e. being able to use the language correctly) does not necessarily mean that you have to be highly knowledgable in the intricacies of I’raab (case endings). One can acquire the correct use of many things in the language by practice (and that comes — like any other language — by using the language). As for the proficiency of people in language in general, why is it different for Arabic in comparison to English, for example? .. I know English-speaking people who seem to be speaking perfect English, but they are not good writers. There would be a gap between their spoken English and the English you see written by good writers in English-language publications like the New York Times (to mention an example). Not all English-speakers have the same talent in writing English formally, and that is not very surprising.

    Posted by Sate Hamza | August 13, 2010, 10:44 pm
  23. I hate to quibble, but hasn’t it always been Cairo that writes and Baghdad that reads?

    Posted by sean | August 14, 2010, 12:02 am
  24. Sate, the comparison with English doesn’t work well, because English is not diglossic. In the US and Britain, there are regional accents, but few examples of “regional dialects” that differ substantially from the standard written language. When most American or British children start to learn to read, the language they encounter in books is almost exactly the same as the language they have always heard from her parents at home.

    On Al-Jazeera, the newsreaders speak perfect fusha when they’re reading the news from the teleprompter. But as soon as they have to speak spontaneously in fusha (e.g. when the newsreader asks the correspondent a question, or when the correspondent answers the newsreader’s question by giving more details on the story), my impression is that they have to make a considerable effort to try to speak correctly. Often this means slowing down a great deal, or using a style that’s closer to ammiyya. They don’t seem to feel entirely at ease speaking in fusha. And these are professional fusha speakers. If even they have this much difficulty speaking fusha spontaneously, how much difficulty does the average person have?

    If you compare this to the situation on American or British news channels (or on Al-Jazeera English), there’s a huge difference. The presenters and correspondents on American or British channels are perfectly at ease speaking English spontaneously, because they’re speaking their native language, the language that they used at home as children.

    most speakers on the pan-Arab television channels like al-Jazeera seem to sometimes be using a more moderate dialect (if not using Fos’ha) as opposed to their hard-core regional dialect in their country of origin.

    So why not write books in this “moderate dialect”, too? Why not teach it in school? Wouldn’t that be easier for readers, writers and schoolchildren?

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | August 14, 2010, 4:53 am
  25. Dear Elias,
    Thank you for tackling the issue and raising interesting points.

    As a mother of two Arab-American teens, I’ve struggled for many years to maintain their interest in learning Arabic. The language is rich and beautiful. The teachers and curricula are dreadfully out of date and lacking in substance and spirit.

    While my children have learned spoken and written Arabic, they will never appreciate the beauty of Al-Mutanabi, Nizar Kabbani or Ibn Sina’s works. Nor will they use its rich vocabulary to express thoughts of passion on nature, love, faith, or science. They cannot name any fish, plant or animal species in Arabic. They don’t understand the difference between “Hob, Gharam, Hiyam”, let alone have an Arabic conversation about internet technologies.

    Sadly they have acquired the “Fast Food” version of Arabic and their children after them will probably be less fortunate, unless a dramatic revolution takes place in the Education system across the Arab world.

    Posted by rama | August 14, 2010, 6:01 am
  26. Benjamin,

    In response to your question, “So why not write books in this “moderate dialect”, too? Why not teach it in school? Wouldn’t that be easier for readers, writers and schoolchildren?”, I think the problem with that proposal is that there is no one standard way to write in that “moderate dialect”. There is no one “moderate dialect”. The call for this is akin to a call for chaos in Arabic language expression in my humble opinion. There will always be a need for a ‘lingua franca’ in the Arab World, and we already have that. The weak capabilities of individual anchors or hosts on platforms even of the caliber of Al Jazeera Arabic is not a strong enough argument against the use of a simple version of Modern Standard Arabic in communication (especially written communication). Again, I refer to the Syrian example. Why do anchors on Syrian TV seem to be at ease in using Fos’ha in speaking? Why do Syrian actors also seem not to have a problem in communicating in Fos’ha? I was just watching an interview, for example, with Syrian actor Abdul Rahman Abul Qasem regarding a Syrian drama series that uses the local Homsi Syrian dialect. He was talking about the series to the TV anchor in easy, simple and flowing Fos’ha, and he was doing it spontaneously. He could have spoken in colloquial Syrian if he wanted to. And this repeats in Syrian media all the time. Syrians in my experience are always comfortable in communicating in Fos’ha and they sometimes do that spontaneously. And even when communicating in colloquial dialect, you find them sometimes reverting to using Fos’ha to express some things, seemingly because Fos’ha is more expressive for the topic they are addressing. But again, whatever the dialect an Arabic speaker decides to use, does not change the fact that the various dialects do not lend themselves well to standardized written expression, thus rendering their use for that that purpose improper in my opinion.

    In all of this discussion, I get the impression that people are arguing against Fos’ha as if it was necessarily a complex and obscure version of Arabic. The use of the language today in my personal experience, as I see it for example in all the media I alluded to previously, just argues otherwise.

    Posted by Sate Hamza | August 14, 2010, 7:26 am
  27. Sean,

    You left out ‘Beirut that prints’

    this might have been true some time ago, but i doubt it is still the case anymore. The Iraqis are too busy dodging bombs to be doing the reading on behalf of the Arabs.

    Posted by Youssef | August 14, 2010, 7:38 am
  28. Sate,

    Actors, TV news presenters and other media professionals are probably not representative of the general population. They are professional speakers, and have perhaps received special training in order to be able to speak fusha with ease. It would be good to see some scientific research on proficiency in fusha among Syrians in general, compared to the general population in other Arab countries. An article published in an anthropology journal in 2000 says:

    Syria is often invoked as the country with maximum success in mass
    literacy in Classical Arabic, but relevant studies seem to be lacking.[1]

    If Syrians in general are truly proficient at fusha, it would be very interesting to know how this has been accomplished.

    As you’re probably aware, the situation in Egypt is very different from what you describe. It’s very rare, in my experience, to find an Egyptian intellectual who is comfortable speaking fusha. This is reflected when Egyptians participate in debates on Arab satellite TV: while a Moroccan participant will speak fusha, an Egyptian participant typically speaks only in Egyptian dialect. Moreover, this seems to cause no problems in practice.

    I think the problem with that proposal is that there is no one standard way to write in that “moderate dialect”. There is no one “moderate dialect”. The call for this is akin to a call for chaos in Arabic language expression in my humble opinion. . . . the various dialects do not lend themselves well to standardized written expression, thus rendering their use for that that purpose improper in my opinion.

    Why do you see a need for a single standardized written language? Isn’t the purpose of language to enable people to understand each other? If a Jordanian can understand Egyptian dialect, and an Egyptian can understand Jordanian dialect (at least when it is somewhat formal, or “moderate”, as you put it), why shouldn’t each person speak and write in their own dialect?

    Moreover, hasn’t this already been happening for a long time? Egyptian films are popular all over the Arab world. Throughout the twentieth century, most Egyptian writers have written narrative in fusha and dialogue in ammiyya. Therefore, it is necessary to know Egyptian dialect in order to understand most modern Egyptian literature. Where is the “chaos” in this? Why should Egyptians struggle to master fusha when everyone already understands their dialect anyway?

    [1] Niloofar Haeri, “Form and Ideology: Arabic Sociolinguistics and Beyond,” Annual Review of Anthropology
    29: 61-87 (October 2000)

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | August 14, 2010, 9:08 am
  29. Sate

    You wrote: ” If the education is mediocre in the Arab World, as you say, where is the proof that the reason is that it is conducted in Fus’ha Arabic? Isn’t there the possibility that other factors are in play here? Could we be going here after the wrong culprit?”

    Obviously, there are many factors in play. But one of the major factors, at least as far as the linguists, educators, and literacy experts I’ve spoken to, is the fact that students come to school and encounter a very different language than they speak at home. This, in and of itself, is not an insurmountable obstacle at all. However, when you add to the mix the way that fus7a is taught in most schools around the Arab world — where there is no effort to make it a language that students can really engage with — then this is where the problems arise.

    “The teacher in class can use colloquial speech to communicate ideas with the students even when teaching Fus’ha, but to publish instruction in colloquial is what I do not support. The problem with colloquial is that it is a fluid version of Arabic…”

    First of all, can we agree that colloquial Arabic is just as Arabic as fus7a? Take, for example, the following two sentences:

    ينبغي عليك أن تذهب إلى المدرسة
    لازم تروح على المدرسة

    Is one of these sentences more Arabic than the other? Are there any words in either sentence that are not Arabic?

    If we can agree on this principle, then it seems that your only real objection is the fluidity of the language. But, ya Sate, fluidity is a property of any living language.

    “Moreover having a functional or practical knowledge of Fus’ha Arabic (i.e. being able to use the language correctly) does not necessarily mean that you have to be highly knowledgable in the intricacies of I’raab (case endings). One can acquire the correct use of many things in the language by practice (and that comes — like any other language — by using the language). As for the proficiency of people in language in general, why is it different for Arabic in comparison to English, for example?”

    It’s not just i3raab. Basic conjugation is usually a problem as well. Rules governing numbers, the dual, and many other features of the language are routinely butchered.

    Yes, these can be learned by practice, but where do people ever have the opportunity to practice speaking fus7a? Receptive competencies are different than productive competencies. It’s one thing to be able to read a newspaper, but it’s quite another to be able to write a newspaper article, or even a grammatically correct Facebook message!

    What you seem to be advocating is the use of a simplified form of MSA, which is what many language activists are calling for. Take out the i3raab system, they say, which is structurally redundant anyway. Take out many of the most extreme exceptions that are needlessly complicated. Make the language easier to learn, so that it is not such a source of terror for so many young Arabs who feel ashamed that they can’t even “speak their own language”, whatever that means.

    But once you go down this path, it’s not that much further where you begin to start hearing arguments for increasing the use of the colloquials.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 14, 2010, 9:54 am
  30. Thank you so much QN for this last part you had answered the discussion nicely… as English my second language I can tell you that when I landed in the USofA I was shocked to hear the blacks English further more the mid west’s English!!! Better yet when I spoke to people in Hawaii it was even harder to understand them or them me… this is not counting the British and their many colloquial?! One could go on in all the languages I guess. I am not any linguist or clime to be well educated in the subject of language. In most of the countries I visited and watched and watched their TV I realized a lot English or French being used in the dialect ex. Hello hi ok so on…. From the Greeks to Indians Vietnamese south Americans the list is long including Arabs… only the Chinese you watch their local channels it is always 100% Chinese they have a word or character I do not know for every thing nothing carries into the language from the forgone words for example if they way America, it is “the beautiful country” I can not write it in the way they say it.. but so on they make the things that fit their language… I assume because they have been so closed to the world not much changes came upon them. Same for the Syrians they have the Arabic so much in control because the country is not as open to the world… the only reason the Egyptian was or is understood because for the longest time movies and TV shows you will find that is gone now with much more Syrian shows are finding their way to the market… one last comment, QN, you are right colloquial Arabic is just as Arabic as fus7a. once people think of the language as a culture and not religion or politics they understand each other as well as the other speakers of all languages. I do not see the King James English being changed for the rednecks in the US….. I do not think there is any need to change the fusha for few lazy people who do not find time to study it… Arabic is a beautiful language it is so rich and words and sentiments very poetic and has life no mater what the so called experts may say…

    Posted by kt | August 14, 2010, 5:34 pm
  31. please! don’t say “many other features of the language are routinely butchered”. say “certain conventions of fusha are disregarded when appropriate.” registers make language richer, and the more they’re seen as an essential part of it, the better chance the standard language has of becoming something to be embraced and used, rather than hated or feared.

    very good article, good discussion, and good points on education. having had the pleasure of working with some material that is used in egyptian prep schools, i can honestly say it made me feel stupid and cry.

    fusha is not uniform: spelling of certain words differs. certain lexical items pass as fusha in morocco, but aren’t acceptable in egypt. something that was the norm twenty years ago is now a recommendation. fluidity, yes.

    one last point: fusha is nothing like latin. but there are arabs who speak latin, so surely the rest can learn one measly conjugation and the rules to use three (3!!) cases. you know, if somebody explained them why it’s fun to have a meta-language, with words they’d actually want to use 🙂 education.

    Posted by bibi | August 14, 2010, 7:19 pm
  32. bibi

    if only “certain conventions of fusha [were] disregarded when appropriate”!! 🙂

    the examples i was referring to are not dropped consciously… they’re “butchered” because, more often than not, people aren’t comfortable with the grammar.

    but i agree with everything else you say.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 14, 2010, 9:40 pm
  33. Good article.

    Btw did you know that in Wikipedia there are now two languages? Arabic and Masri?
    Have look at this example:

    Posted by Ali | August 15, 2010, 2:42 pm
  34. Benjamin,

    I agree with your comments regarding the call for scientific research on the proficiency in Fus’ha amongst Syrians in comparison to Arabs in other countries. That would indeed be intersting. My anecdotal experience makes me somewhat confident that such research would corroborate the statement you quoted from the year 2000 Annual Review of Anthropology article.

    And yes, I am aware of the situation of Fus’ha amongst Egyptians. But I do not see that as a flaw in Fus’ha Arabic. I see it as the result of how the Egyptian educational system sets its priorities. I always get the feeling that there is less public emphasis in Egypt on pan-Arabism (and as result on Fus’ha Arabic), when compared to the situation in other Arabic countries, such as Syria (or even Libya or Algeria, to mention other examples). There is celebration in Egypt of ‘Egyptness’, if you will, more than there is of pan-Arabism. And that perhaps is reflected in how Arabic is used in public life and education in that country. Fus’ha Arabic, in comparison, is nurtured at a very young age in the Syrian educational system, and the emphasis persists throughout the stages of learning of Syrian students all the way until — and including — university education. All specialties and fields in the public Syrian universities (including higher education) are taught in Fus’ha Arabic. All the curricula are in Arabic. As I mentioned previously, I studied medicine in Syria in Arabic, for example (cf. medicine is taught in English in Egypt and many other Arabic countries). But not only that. Fus’ha Arabic is also celebrated in the media and in public life in Syria. Yes, you do see the local dialects celebrated in the widely popular Syrian drama works that have made the Syrian dialect(s) familiar to other Arabs, for example, but you also find Fus’ha Arabic widely used and supported officially in Syria in the media and in other public life activities. There is no online Syrian portal that I know of that writes in colloquial Syrian. And for the readers of this blog to see how (and what kind of ) Fus’ha prevails as a language of communication in Syria, all you have to do is look at some Syrian websites, as examples (such as or There is no way that any literate Syrian — who is living in or who grew up in Syria — would find difficulty in reading the sort of Standard Arabic used in the likes of the websites mentioned above.

    You ask “Why do you see a need for a single standardized written language? [—] why shouldn’t each person speak and write in their own dialect?”.

    Let’s see. Let’s first start by looking at a map showing the different dialects of Arabic in the Arab World: . To my mind, just looking at that map makes me think that your suggestion is impractical. Yes, most Arabs understand the Egyptian dialect when it is spoken, thanks to the popularity of Egyptian television and cinema works in the past decades, but Egyptian dialect does not come in one flavor? There is “Egyptian Arabic” and there is “Sai’di Arabic” and there are probably some variants of both. I do not see it as practical that you adopt a policy in which everyone officially writes in their own dialects. But even if you want to do that, you will need standardization. You cannot in any language have people just spelling words or writing sentences any way they like. If you look at how Arabs write in their spoken dialects in social media, you will see that their spellings are so variable, and your understanding of their text will depend largely on your knowledge of their dialect and your interpretive skills that will allow you to read correctly what the writer intended to say by their spelling (based on the context of the topic they are addressing). This is hardly a recipe for success. You will eventually need standardization in the written language, and good luck standardizing the writing of the soup of Arabic dialects we have in the Arab World. Moreover, what do the other Arabs, whose dialects are so unfamiliar to other Arabs, do? How are others going to understand them if they write in their own dialect (provided that they decide on which dialect or variation thereof to adopt, and that they standardize the writing in it)?

    My problem in accepting your reasoning is that I see Fus’ha Arabic in action elsewhere and all over the place. Fus’ha is the standard version of Arabic. Yes. Arabic is diglossic, but that is the nature of the language. If there are deficiencies in how some Arabs are learning or using the language, the flaw is not in the language, but rather in the people and in the educational systems. Fus’ha Arabic (and not any other dialect) is the officially recognized language in the United Nations and other international bodies. It is the language of media and literature. It is a beautiful and expressive language that is deeply rooted in Arabic culture and history. Abandoning Fus’ha Arabic and replacing it with the written colloquial or any beautified version of the latter to make it look and sound close to Fus’ha will not succeed. One reason for this may also be that religion is important in the traditionally conservative Arabic societies in most Arabic countries, and you would see, if you flip through the Arabic satellite channels in the current month of Ramadan, that Fus’ha Arabic is not only the language of communication of news and other educational and informational programming, but it is also the main version of Arabic used in religious programming and religious speech. That will definitely not change.

    Elias ..

    I enjoyed again reading your reply, and I think that I may have addressed some of the points you raised, in what I said above. You ask me about these two sentences and whether they are both equally Arabic:

    ينبغي عليك أن تذهب إلى المدرسة
    لازم تروح على المدرسة

    Yes, they are both Arabic. But to me, one is written in correct Fus’ha Arabic, and the other is written in inaccurate colloquial Arabic. I say inaccurate because Arabs do not in any dialect usually say that sentence exactly as it is written. In Damascene dialect, the sentence would be لازم تْرُوح علْ مدرَسِه .. In Lebanese, it may be ليزِم تْرُوح علْ مدرَسِي .. In Egyptian, it would be لازم تِرُوح علْ مدرسَه .. Arabs in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, may even say (and write) the sentence differently .. In many other examples, even the terminology used differs between the spoken dialects and even within similar dialects in the same general locality.

    Another thing I would like to say here is that not all Arabs really, need to be professional writers, who are proficient in writing excellent and perfect Fus’ha Arabic. Not all Americans, for example, are proficient in writing essays or novels in English. Why should our expectation be different for Arabic speakers?

    It may be too early to tell, but I would like to mention as an example, that the Arabic television series Thākirat Jasad (based on the book by Algerian author Ahlam Mosteghanemi) showing this month on some Arabic channels like Abu Dhabi TV, uses Fus’ha as its language (see for example ) and the series appears to me to be quite popular amongst Arab viewers. I wonder if there are many Arabs watching that series who find the language to be difficult. I strongly doubt it.

    Fus’ha is alive and well and is here to stay, and the only way forward, in my opinion, is to improve the systems and the curricula that teach it.

    Posted by Sate Hamza | August 16, 2010, 1:47 am
  35. Sate

    I haven’t forgotten you. I’m going to reply when I have some time later this afternoon.


    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 16, 2010, 10:43 am
  36. Sate,

    I doubt that attitudes towards Arab nationalism can explain language use in Egypt. In the early 20th century, the Egyptian intellectual Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid observed that the Egyptian intelligentsia wrote in fusha but spoke in ammiyya, and that he himself found it cumbersome to write articles in fusha, because he spent most of his time worrying about the case endings rather than about the content of the article. A hundred years later, the situation is much the same. In the meantime, Egypt had a regime in the 1950s and 60s that was strongly committed to Arab nationalism, but this does not seem to have had much of an effect on the everyday use of fusha.

    You note that “religion is important in the traditionally conservative Arabic societies in most Arabic countries”. Why has this not led to widespread use of fusha in daily life in Egypt? If Arab nationalism could be a motivation to speak fusha, shouldn’t Islam be an even stronger motivation? Indeed, while attitudes towards Arab nationalism have changed a lot over time, most Egyptians were devout Muslims a hundred years ago and still are today. If anything, Muslim piety has been increasing in recent decades in Egypt. But this has not led to increasing numbers of people speaking fusha in daily life.

    As for standardisation, let’s compare that map of Arabic dialects to this map of languages in Europe. Since the decline of Latin, Europe has not had a single standard written or spoken language. Yet I think you’ll agree that European education, publishing and scientific and cultural production are rather healthy. Many Europeans learn more than one European language, and many books are translated into different European languages.

    The question about standardisation is interesting. Sociolinguistics tells us that in practice, “standard” languages are simply the dialects spoken by dominant classes. In France, for example, most French people did not speak French until at least the late 19th century; instead, they spoke many different local dialects. French was the language of the elites in Paris. The educational reforms of the Third Republic forced all French children to speak French in school, and thus imposed a standard language which was in reality the dialect of the dominant class. Parents encouraged their children to learn French, because opportunities for social advancement were linked to proficiency in the standard language. Thus, the local dialects were almost completely eliminated. What are the chances of this happening across the Arab world?

    What seems much more feasible and probable to me is that the dialect of the urban elite in each Arab country could become a standard written language in that country. Egyptians could write in Egyptian Arabic, Tunisians could write in Tunisian Arabic, etc. Schoolchildren in Egypt could learn Tunisian Arabic as a foreign language, just as schoolchildren in France learn Italian as a foreign language.

    As for standardisation of spelling, let’s look at the situation in English. In fact, English spelling has changed a great deal over time, and there was very little standardisation until the 19th century; it was common for different authors to spell the same words differently. Even today, there are many differences between British and American spellings, and yet these differences cause no problems in practice.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | August 16, 2010, 11:47 am
  37. I should add: I love fusha, and I love speaking it, reading it and writing in it. Sometimes I try to imagine a world where mothers say to their babies أحبك يا رضيعي, and where the guy selling cabbage in the street in Cairo shouts كرنب يا أيها الذين يحشون. But I very much doubt that it will ever happen.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | August 16, 2010, 2:03 pm
  38. The Chinese “Academic ranking of World Universities” has issued its most recent list. I will be the first to admit that the idea of ranking institutions of higher education is not appealing and obviously these rankings cannot capture all of what makes an institution great. However a uniform metric by an interested observor , such as China, does give us a clue about what is considered to be high quality academic institutions in the world.

    The current list ranks 500 universities and the rankings are dominated by US institutions followed by the UK. A quick review of the top 100 universities reveals that there are 54 US universities, 11 from the UK , 3 from Canada and 3 Australian universities for a total of 71 . All of these use English as the language of instruction.
    The full list of 500 universities has 7 Israeli institutions on it but not a single one from the Arab world. This is another indication that although the Arabic language is no where close to dying yet it is not a healthy robust one either.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | August 16, 2010, 3:57 pm
  39. Ghassan,

    It’s not just universities. It’s book publishing and reading in general. The London Underground is full of people reading books. In contrast, it’s rare to see someone reading a book in the Cairo Metro. One occasionally sees a passenger reading the Quran. In one recent survey, book readers in Egypt “mentioned that they mostly read the Holy Quran. Frequencies of other books mentioned were minor and suggests that no strong preference of books after the Quran resonate among Egyptian readers”⁠. In the 1980s, Shaykh Muhammad Mitwalli al-Sha’rawi (1911-1988), one of the most popular Muslim preachers in Egypt, who served as Minister of Religious Endowments and hosted a live television programme on the interpretation of the Qur’an, stated on television that he had not read any book other than the Quran in the preceding forty years.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | August 16, 2010, 4:37 pm
  40. actually, there are two, king saud university in riyadh and king fahd university in dhahran, but they might be using english as the language of instruction. (which says more about the pushiness of english than anything else.)

    you know what? greece has two universities listed, too … see where it got them 😉

    high quality academic institutions are those that can hire nobel prize winners. have cairo university hire el-baradei after … oh, never mind, and pry zewail from caltech, it will be right up there with the best. nothing to do with the language (or else spanish and portuguese are dying!!!)

    and back to the language debate …

    Posted by bibi | August 16, 2010, 6:31 pm
  41. Bibi,
    I am glad that you corrected the record by indicating that both King Saud and King Fahd are on the list. I apologize for not noticing them earlier.
    But yet, if a university feels that it cannot offer adequate instruction in its native tongue then you must admit that is a reflection of a problematic state of affairs , to say the least.
    How soon are major contributions translated into Arabic in order for the students to stay abreast of the development in their chosen fields?

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | August 16, 2010, 7:59 pm
  42. Over at the Casbah, we just did a piece with a translation of Fahmy Huweidi’s take on the state of Arabic in Egypt. It’s an interesting counterpoint to this post, for sure:

    Posted by Wastafarian | August 17, 2010, 7:07 am
  43. This has been a wonderful exchange thus far. I’ve loved reading all of the interchanges between Sate, Benjamin, and everyone else, and I apologize for the late response to Sate, which is below:


    In response to my example about the two different Arabic sentences, you wrote:

    Yes, they are both Arabic. But to me, one is written in correct Fus’ha Arabic, and the other is written in inaccurate colloquial Arabic. I say inaccurate because Arabs do not in any dialect usually say that sentence exactly as it is written. In Damascene dialect, the sentence would be لازم تْرُوح علْ مدرَسِه .. In Lebanese, it may be ليزِم تْرُوح علْ مدرَسِي .. In Egyptian, it would be لازم تِرُوح علْ مدرسَه .. Arabs in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, may even say (and write) the sentence differently .. In many other examples, even the terminology used differs between the spoken dialects and even within similar dialects in the same general locality.

    I don’t think terms like “accurate” and “inaccurate” are very productive here. True, the colloquial versions are “inaccurate” fus7a, but one could say that the fus7a version is an inaccurate rendering of any form of spoken Arabic.

    Furthermore, just to play devil’s advocate, the fact that the colloquial sentence would be pronounced differently in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon is neither here nor there. The same English sentence would be pronounced differently by speakers in Chicago, London, Glasgow, and Sydney, even though the written form would remain static.

    Another thing I would like to say here is that not all Arabs really, need to be professional writers, who are proficient in writing excellent and perfect Fus’ha Arabic. Not all Americans, for example, are proficient in writing essays or novels in English. Why should our expectation be different for Arabic speakers?

    No one is arguing that all Arabs need to write perfect fus7a. But what percentage of Arabs would you say could even hold a conversation in fus7a? My guess is that, even among those who are functionally literate, the proportion of people who have functional productive competence (both written and spoken) is quite low. The reason that our expectation is different for Arabic speakers is that the linguistic distance between fus7a and the colloquial dialects is wider than the distance between standard English and most spoken forms of the language.

    But let’s leave all of this aside, and focus on the main point of our disagreement, as I perceive it.

    Even if we “improve the systems and curricula that teach” fus7a, which I think is a priority, where do you think this will eventually lead? Do you believe that fus7a will ever become a spoken language? Or do you think that it will continue to exist alongside the colloquial dialects, but that more people will be more proficient in fus7a over time?

    My argument is that even if literacy rates rise and more people develop competency in fus7a, they will continue to speak a different form of Arabic on a daily basis. Over time, what is more likely to happen is that there will be more interpenetration between fus7a and the colloquial dialects.

    And this is not a bad thing.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 17, 2010, 8:11 pm
  44. This is a very interesting discussion thanks you all it has been very educational too. my knowledge of languages is nothing in comparison to you guys but I do have couple of things I would like to share as a Levantine Arabic speaker that lived in the gulf for long time. I do relay on the Fusha a lot to explain some words to many different Arabs. I notice they do too. what I think is the dialects usually is harder to understand because of the speed they speak it in, when they slow down I do not find a lot of difference… yes, there are exceptions, when the locals of a particular area Arabise a foreign word if it is English or French. For example the word (dirwazi) it took a while for me to understand it comes from the English phrase (door ways), and many more…Well the westerners do have their fun ways of saying the Arabic words too…
    One last thing, in the last few ears with the rise of the Syrian shows from historic stories, about the macho Arab man and gorgeous looking females, I think the language is tipping to the more appropriate Arabic which is closer to Fosha.

    Posted by kt | August 22, 2010, 1:14 am

    An interview given by Franck Salameh on his new book. It’s certainly relevant to the topic of this discussion and, though quite long, worth listening to for a different perspective.

    The endorsements themselves, or rather who write them, might be enough to put some people off, but the arguments should be heard.

    Posted by SK | October 30, 2010, 8:45 am
  46. Dear QN, in 3 years do you think there is any update on that issue. I have read that UAE
    By the way :

    Posted by Karoum | October 15, 2013, 4:05 am

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