A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, August 13, 2010

There's Hope for Arabic Yet

You'll recall that on several occasions here we've linked to aspects of the ongoing debate in the Arabic world over whether the rise of English and other languages and of colloquial speech (and the occasional leader such as King ‘Abdullah II of Jordan or Sa‘d Hariri who stumblewhen speaking the literary language) mean that Arabic is a dying tongue. You can find many of these earlier links by checking out my Arabic language tag.

Anyway, to bring a little sanity to the debate, let me refer you to a column by Elias Muhanna (AKA the Lebanese political blogger Qifa Nabki, but here a columnist writing a lead article in the Review section of The National) arguing that The Death of Arabic is Greatly Exaggerated. (He also links to it at the Qifa Nabki blog, with a post starting out in Arabic noting that it has nothing to do with Lebanese politics, and joking that he got carried away, presumably by his passion for Arabic.)

He does it better than I can, but it doesn't take a lot of reflection to know that much of the "death of Arabic" stuff is nonsense: literacy is more widespread today than in earlier eras; though the Arab world may still produce fewer books than other regions, it produces more than it did a few decades ago, and websites, satellite channels, Facebook postings, Twitter tweets, etc. mean that Arabic has never been written so much as today. Muhanna cleverly quotes Ibn Manzur, author of the massive lexicon Lisan al-‘Arab, (which is the Oxford English Dictionary of Arabic, the gold standard) who in the 1200s was lamenting that Arabic was being eroded away. The central role of the Qur'an has kept Arabic, at least in its literary form, less susceptible to change than most languages, but of course the spoken language has diverged. You can equally find medieval and early modern writers in any language or culture agreeing with the critics of today: the young people are disrespectful; manners are no longer observed; the language is going to hell in a handbasket, etc. etc.

Let me add something to what he has said: it's singularly appropriate that someone who blogs as Qifa Nabki is writing about the Arabic language. Those of you with more than casual Arabic already will recognize that his blog takes its name from the most famous and recognizable poem in the Arabic language, rather as if he'd called it something like Arma virumque cano, or perhaps "Twas brillig and the slithy toves." "Qifa nabki" (let us stop and weep) is the opening of the Mu‘allaqa of Imru'l-Qays, one of the standard seven pre-Islamic odes (qasidas) preserved as the dawn of Arabic poetry, and the most famous of them. The whole poem in the original Arabic is here. A 1917 English translation (not the best but online) is here. You can hear it recited in Arabic here (MP3). I'm just doing my best to promote classical Arabic.

Also, "Let us stop and weep" is a pretty appropriate name for a Lebanon blog.

Anyway, read his piece if you have any interest in or love for the Arabic language. Or want to learn more.


457 plans said...
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Unknown said...

Thank you so much for the additional information you gave.

I think it should also be noted that there are more and more non-Arabs who are interested to study Arabic today. In America for instance, we say "Arabic is the new Russian" after more and more Americans realize its need after 9/11.

wekjhkasd7 said...

We just did a translation of Egyptian columnist Fahmy Huweidi's recent article describing the state of Egyptians' Arabic as "A Linguistic Massacre."

An interesting counterpoint to Nabki. You can check it out here: