The Middle East is anxious about what’s perceived as a decline in Arabic:
[C]alls to forestall the language’s demise are accompanied by cautionary tales about parents who encourage their children to learn other “more useful” languages like English and French, only to find that they can scarcely recite the Arabic alphabet when they get to university. Meanwhile, teachers across the region warn about the rise of “Facebook Arabic,” a transliterated form of the language based on the Latin script. Exemplifying their concerns are the oratorical fumbles of some of the region’s younger political leaders like Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon, whose shambling inaugural address to the Lebanese parliament provoked much local tittering. Not everyone is amused: Fi’l Amr, a language-advocacy group, has launched a campaign to raise awareness about Arabic’s critical condition by staging mock crime scenes around Beirut depicting “murdered” Arabic letters, surrounded by yellow police tape that reads: “Don’t kill your language.”
Really, though, it’s not actually Arabic that’s suffering, but a particular grapholect, fusha, the Modern Standard Arabic that closely resembles the classical Arabic of the Koran. And fusha has always been more of an imagined commonality binding together the Arab world than a reality.
In a very basic sense, there is no such thing as Arabic; or, at least, there is no single language that all Arabs speak, read, write, and understand. Instead, Arabic is, like English and many other languages, a constellation of various national dialects, regional vernaculars, and social registers bearing different degrees of resemblance to each another. What sets it apart from a language like English is its diglossic nature, whereby the language of literature and formal address (newscasts, political speeches, religious sermons, and so forth) is markedly different, on multiple structural levels, from the language of everyday speech.
You can overstate this, but it’s a little bit like 19th-century Western Europeans watching literacy numbers boom while wringing their hands over the fate of Latin.
As recently as 1970, three out of four Arabs over the age of 15 were illiterate, according to Unesco. Two decades earlier, illiteracy among women was close to 90 per cent. Even in a country like contemporary Egypt – which has long prided itself, as the old saying goes, on reading the books that Iraq writes and Lebanon publishes – less than two-thirds of the population can read. To speak, therefore, of helping restore Arabic to its former glory, or of helping it to “reemerge as a dynamic and vibrant language” as the government of the UAE has recently committed itself to do, is to ignore the reality that Arabic – both in its classical and modern standard incarnation – has never had as many users as it does today. Even taking into consideration the sway that English holds in the private and educational sectors of various countries in the region, or the important position that French occupies in France’s former colonies, it is impossible to pinpoint another moment in the history of the Arab world when so many people could communicate (with varying degrees of ability) in fusha.
This article I’m quoting was written by my friend Elias Muhanna, who blogs about Lebanese politics as Qifa Nabki, and published in The National, then picked up by The Economist. Whoo-hoo! Comp Lit PhDs FTW!