Can Arabic Language ‘Translate’ into the Modern World?

By 
Elie Chalala
On the left, "Letters 1" and on the right, "Letters 2" by Syrian artist Etab Hrieb.


The Arabic language has always been a source of pride for a majority of Arab intellectuals. Yet, traditional celebrations of the language have been politicized at the expense of organizing professional conferences to address the challenges that have been facing the Arabic language, especially its failure to keep up with the technological revolution.

Since 2010, World Arabic Language Day has been observed annually on December 18th, the date of which Arabic was first recognized as the sixth language spoken in the UN in 1973. The holiday celebrates the Arabic language spoken by almost 422 million people. A billion and a half Muslims around the world also use Arabic in their religious texts. 

This year’s celebration, tilted “Arabic Language and Artificial Intelligence,” offered a seminar on the current state and future of the Arabic language, which was welcomed by many as a practical step to meet the challenges confronted by the language.

With the global recognition of the Arabic language comes the persistent question: why is Arabic struggling to hold its own among native speakers, with the lack of fluency blatant in radio broadcasts, newspapers, and television?

Globalization, whose features include “the era of American English, of the Internet, Facebook and others” has exposed the Arabic language’s weakness in adapting to change, wrote Abdo Wazen in Independent Arabia.  The day-to-day usage of Arabic among youths is riddled with mistakes that have become even more commonplace and exacerbated by the large scale reach of modern technology. The question then becomes how Arabic can move away from its resistance to change in the coming years, breaking away from tradition, conservatism, ideas of authenticity, and the rigidity of its grammatical rules.

According to the London-based Al Arab Newspaper’s Sharif al-Shafiey in “The Arabic Language Locked in Dead Conferences and Deficient Visions of its Jurists,” languages should not be treated as immortal, holy entities, locked into tradition and prevented from changing. Conservative tendencies result in a language distant from modern technology and present-day knowledge. It makes the speakers of that language similarly distant and disconnected. English,  which dominates the online sphere, has little room for content in other languages. As also cited by Shafiey, Arabic makes up only 3% of global content, much of it lacking in diverse ideas, while being abundant in misinformation and “fake news.”

The road towards reform is a struggle in itself. Conservatives speak of false threats against the Arabic language to justify keeping it rigid and unchanged. They advocate against reforming the language, claiming that any attack on the language is an attack on Arab identity itself. Moreover, they consider dialect a threat to classical Arabic at a time when colloquial language is on the rise, both on the streets and on social media. Amid these changes, conservatives reject the integration of the vernacular into the Arabic language. This attitude has created a rift between Arabic speakers and their language, as they are forced to borrow words from English which have no equivalent in Arabic dictionaries, creating an even greater dependency on foreign languages to convey meaning. This, combined with the hegemony of English on the internet, has pushed Arabic speakers to defer to English as their main language for communicating.

It is equally important to change the attitude, widespread among many intellectuals, to lay the blame of grammatical errors on the journalists, broadcasters, and even scholars who commit them, rather than the language itself. As Wazen ironically points out, “Linguistic errors fill our newspapers, books, and our ad fronts…The strangest thing is that these errors reach the conference statements concerned with the language. How many writers are now hoping to write colloquially to get rid of the captivity of Arabic grammar? The number of those who favor foreign languages is infinite in most Arab countries.” 

In his “Reverence and Politicization of Arabic Language: A Cultural Civil War?” Hussam Eddine Muhammad writes in Al Sharq al-Awsat that Arabic has become a “foreign language” even to its native speakers, as the majority of people speak colloquial Arabic rather than classical Arabic. He examines the detrimental effects of politicizing languages, which could be used as a discriminatory weapon. Muhammad discusses Saudi Aramco, where its foreign staff, and even those who are born there, refuse to speak Arabic based on a prejudiced belief that it is inferior. The fact that politics and language are interlinked can be summed up by Muhammed Shaweesh, as cited by Muhammed: “If you tell me what your ideological background is, I can tell you what your position is on the Arabic language.”

Against all these challenges, how can the Arabic language move forward? The councils which claim to be “protecting” the Arabic language must open up to technological and modern revolutions. In the guise of searching for solutions, seminars and discussions instead praise the Arabic language, applauding it as the “identity of the nation, its cultural memory and the symbol of its immortality” and locking it into stagnation, writes Shafiey. He criticizes those “custodians” of the language for opposing equalizing the vernacular with the classic as advocated by major Egyptian intellectuals like Salama Moussa, Louis Awad, and Qasim Amin. Wazen claims that what Arabic needs most are academies dedicated to practicality – to opening the language to modernism and allowing linguistic experts to revise its extraneous rules, all the while preserving it. Rules should be updated to reflect the current age and younger generations. Reforming language conventions has been seen to work in other languages, and can be the final push Arabic needs. Japan’s efforts in 1853 to revise their language saw an increase of literacy to 99% today, as cited by Muhammad. A practical approach would serve the Arabic language best.

Ironically, that December 18th’s World Arabic Language Day is celebrated like a national holiday does more harm to the Arabic language than good. Both politicization and sanctification of the language are a disservice to Arab culture. Rather, this day should be devoted to finding solutions to bring Arabic – so distant and foreign – closer to those who live and speak it today.

This text is part of a work in progress to appear in the Arab Cultural Roundup Section of the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 78, 2020.

Copyright © 2020 by Al Jadid