A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Arabic Still Dying After All These Years? A New Lament

Longtime readers may recall that a couple of times a year at least, some Arab intellectual or literary figure laments the death (or moribund status) of Arabic, usually either because young people are speaking colloquial instead of fusha or because they're mixing it with foreign languages. You can find some of these earlier posts here. One of the better responses to this frequent theme was Elias Muhanna's 2010 "The Death of Arabic is Greatly Exaggerated."  He pointed to this quote from the lexicographer Ibn Manzur:
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.”
"The present work" refers to his massive 20-volume Lisan al-‘Arab, most extensive of the great medieval Arabic dictionaries. Ibn Manzur died in 1312 AD, so Arabic's death throes have been around for a while.

I presume the languages threatening Arabic then were Persian and Turkish.

But fear not! Arabic is still going downhill fast, as Lebanese novelist Iman Humaydan tells Beirut's Daily Star, in "Lost in Translation: Connecting Youths with Arabic":
“The Arabic tongue is deteriorating, not only because of globalization and the mainstream English language, but because the educational system in the Arab World is connecting the language to social values that are no longer convenient for the youth,” said Lebanese novelist and writing instructor Iman Humaydan.
Humaydan has presided over students from at least nine different Arabic countries -- with different cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds -- in an attempt to reintroduce the Arabic language to the classroom.
Many of her students were initially resistant to the Arabic tongue, with students refusing to participate at first because they believed that they were entering an purely English writing program.“What really was a serious issue was to make these students believe that their mother tongue is capable of reflecting their inner selves,” said Humaydan.
The novelist and writer expressed her view that orthodox educational methods have associated the Arabic language with religious values, and other conventional norms derived from old Arabic literature.
According to Humaydan, by eliminating contemporary Arab writers from the school curriculum and simply exposing youths to the same conventional references and teaching methods have, in turn, contributed to the death of the Arabic tongue.
I have no doubt that her comments reflect her own teaching experience, but this chorus has been echoed so many times that it seems repetitive, and many countries have sought to counter the trend. But I suspect the lack of emphasis on contemporary Arabic authors is as much a political as a pedagogical concern. And the colloquial forms are alive and well on social media, but the literary disdain for the spoken lahajat (lahja‘ammiyya, darija, etc.)  is also often present in these discussions.

Marcia Lynx Qualey at Arabic Literature (in English) offers some further context at "The Fragility of a Deteriorating Arabic?":
Humaydan, an award-winning novelist whose beautiful novel Other Lives was recently published in translation by Michelle Hartman, recently taught a seminar in Arabic at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program for teens, Between the Lines. . .
The “Between the Lines” workshops, which took place between June 21 and July 5, were for students from across the region. They were divided in to two sessions each day. The morning session was in English, and the afternoon creative-writing seminar was in the student’s “native” language. (Although in the case of Arabic, of course, the seminars likely had a focus on Modern Standard Arabic.)
If you’ll be between the ages of 16 and 19 next summer — or know a talented writer who will be — you can check the Between the Lines website in January 2015 to apply for the next session.
A video from last year’s Between the Lines seminar:
Of course, the video is entirely in English. Still, I think reports of the demise of Arabic are greatly exaggerated. And personally,  I would also re-link to this post at the Arabizi blog which I've cited before: “'We must make space for non-standard Arabic if we really care about FuSHa': Interviews with Spoken Arabic language teachers." 

And to drive the point home, "Arabizi" is a transliteration which, while not invented for it, has spread widely as a means of transliterating for social media in the Roman alphabet.

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