Is Arabic dying?

"Arabic will die out if it is locked up in classrooms." That was the provocative headline of an article by Achraf El Bahi in The National a few days ago. Lamenting that "proficiency in Arabic, proper grammar, conjugation and a broad use of vocabulary are seen as the sole purview of language geeks," the article says:

"Fluency in French and English in the Middle East and North Africa has come to imply intelligence, erudition and even affluence, even if that person struggles with Arabic. 

"Many Arabs feel that speaking modern standard Arabic, the form of the language taught at school, is something of a burdensome, if not embarrassing, endeavour. It is not the local dialect that they use at home and on the street, which they speak with ease."

Such complaints are not at all uncommon. Last year, for example, the Arab Knowledge Report noted the comparative dearth of Arabic content on the internet and called for a "revitalisation" of the Arabic language.

El Bahi's article has provoked comment from a number of bloggers. Michael Collins Dunn, writing for the Middle East Institute's blog, says

"I suspect that this article somewhat overstates the case. Yes, many Arabs do not have a fluent command of Modern Standard Arabic, for the well-known reason that it is no one's native tongue ...

"But it seems extreme to suggest, as the editorialist does, that Modern Standard Arabic will die out if not emphasised more. The fundamental thing that has bound the various dialects of Arabic together, so that they do not separate as the Romance languages did from their Latin roots, is the Qur'an and the fact that the dialects are not themselves normally written (except for occasional plays or political cartoons). While that has impeded the spread of literacy, it has maintained a certain unity for the Arabic language, intimately tied, as it is, to Islam through the Qur'an."

That Arabic is the language of Islam is certainly an important factor in helping to preserve it, but the same was once true of Latin. Thanks to Christianity, Latin survived for several centuries after the fall of the Roman empire but the Latin Bible did not ultimately save the language from fragmenting into French, Italian, Spanish, etc.

I think a stronger argument in favour of Modern Standard Arabic today is that it provides a practical means for Arabs from various countries to communicate with each other (albeit in rather limited but important circumstances, such as the news media). I can't see the need for that declining and, with the growth of modern communications, it might even increase.

There is a problem, though. I've heard Lebanese editors grumbling, for instance, that journalists who can write "good" Arabic are in short supply. And who can blame students if, with an eye on their future careers, they put more effort into mastering English than Modern Standard Arabic?

The other problem is that Arabic is not particularly well suited to creating new words. "If you’re an Arab," El Bahi writes, "ask yourself: how do you say 'zipper' in your supposed mother tongue?" 

The Ruh of Brown Folks blog retorts that El Bahi ought to know better:

"The word for "zipper" is سحاب in Modern Standard and سوستة in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. More to the point, it's completely irrelevant whether Arabs know how to say "zipper" in their mother tongue, or just use the English word. Zippers are called "zíper" in Portuguese and "jippa" or "fasuna" in Japanese (from "zipper" and "fastener," respectively). German, Italian, French, and Spanish all have official, native words for "zipper," yet a variant of "zipper" or "zip" is popularly used in those languages as well. Are they all also in danger of dying out?

"The fact is that most major world languages, including Spanish, French, and yes, Arabic, don't have a native word for many such everyday items as "telephone" and "television". Instead, they've simply borrowed the English word, and they're no worse off for it. More than 60% of English vocabulary is of foreign origin (including such basic words as "table", from French), yet somehow English appears to be surviving."

Borrowing from other languages is OK, up to a point. In comparison with many languages, though, Arabic does seem less capable of devising new words that sound authentically Arabic. Of course there are some but the three-letter root system restricts the scope for doing this and the precise meaning may only become apparent (even to Arabs) through repeated use in a specific context.

For example, sahhaab ("zipper") – used mainly in Syria and Palestine, according to Wehr's dictionary – comes from the root s-h-b which has connotations of withdrawing, dragging or unsheathing. It's quite a neat word for "zipper" when you think about it, but the connection is not immediately obvious.

Modern Standard Arabic may be fine for literature and talking politics but it rapidly becomes inadequate when the vocabulary starts getting technical and loan-words are needed by the bucketful – so many that Arabs often give up and use English instead.

Some years ago, when I was doing an Arabic course in Jordan, the class was taken to see a man who was researching solar energy. After a few sentences of Arabic he switched to English. The teacher stopped him and explained that the point of our visit was to gain practice in listening to Arabic. 

"I'm sorry," said the man, "but I can't. I don't have the words for it."