Today's Arabic

I wrote a piece recently for Al Fanar -- a new English-Arabic portal about higher education in the Arab world -- about concerns over the "loss" of classical Arabic, supposedly threatened by the spread of foreign language schools, the Westernization of young Arabs, and the historical phenomenon of diglossia

Is the Arabic that young people speak today — grammatically “incorrect,” full of dialect, foreign words and neologisms — a threat to linguistic heritage and cultural identity? Or is it the natural development of a vital, globalized vernacular?

During the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, there were two slogans: الشعب يريد اسقاط النظام ("The People Want the Fall of the Regime") was in Fosha, or classical Arabic and -- as that language does -- it traveled across borders, from one Arab country to the other. But in Egypt there was also another slog: ارحل يعني امشي ("'Depart' means get out!") which "translated" the Fosha word for "leave" into the Aameya one. The revolution spread alongside a classical slogan, but they also saw an eruption of colloquial Arabic, indispensible to satire and subversion, to "telling it how it is," into the stultified public discourse, and I think that will remain the case (look at Bassem Youssef, look at mahraganaat music). 

That said Arabic-speakers don't want to lose contact with Fosha -- the language of the Koran and of literary heritage -- and there are very strong religious, political, cultural arguments against doing so. Ideally, young Arabs could master the entire colloquial-classical spectrum, plus a foreign language or two, and be all the richer for it. The fundamental challenge is not linguistic but has to do rather with low literacy and low-quality education. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.