Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Hi Maha. You raise very interesting questions about language and identity and suggest that some type of language policy might be a solution. Inevitably, the impetus behind national language policy is national identity. When these efforts succeed – and this is usually not the case – it is due to overbearing central government control.

Usually, central power sees such policy as vital to their continued control over a territory or population. The two most obvious examples I can think of is the creation of modern French, from around 1870 to the First World War (1914-1918) – throughout the Third Republic. This period is brilliantly described by Eugene Weber in his book Peasants into Frenchmen, the modernization of rural France. The other example is the creation of modern Turkish following the Kemalist revolution and the break up of the Ottoman Empire, beginning about a century ago. In both of these cases, success was utterly dependent on overbearing government control.

Arabic, as a significant world language, is, of course, a direct result of the advent and spread of Islam. Simply being the language of the Quran is not enough to explain this. Latin did not spread from the Vulgate, and Hebrew and Aramaic did not spread from the Torah and the Mishna. The spread of Arabic was equally due to the declaration of Arabic as the official language of the Ummayad State by the Caliph Abdul Malik ibn Marwan – the same man who commissioned the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Until then, the official language of the Ummayad State had been Greek, that state having simply taken over control of the former Byzantine civil service in Palestine, Syria and Anatolia.

Once Arabic became politically central, the language of administration, law, and religion, it began to spread from the initial Arab settlements to surrounding areas occupied by the non-Arab majority. This process of “Arabization” may be what lies behind the perception you note today that an Arab is simply someone who speaks Arabic, which superimposes culture over ethnicity. The Quran also makes a distinction between settled Arabic speaking folks /a3rab/ and desert Arabs /a3raab/.

But, as we have seen in English, media and culture provide another powerful and standardizing force and this model could also apply to Arabic. This standardization is not by design, however, but is a by-product of people talking to each other in new ways and by using new technologies. By new ways I mean that increasing acceptance of social differences, and a willingness to transcend these barriers, means that people who did not speak to each other before, now do. In the US, radio and television had a major impact on the emergence of a national “standard” of American English which was supported by high levels of social and geographical mobility and later, routine communication among far-flung folks using the Internet.

So, I think that what you’re looking at now – the emergence of a similar standard of Arabic that can be used in a wider range of contexts from informal to academic – really depends on people just beginning to explore their language in this way. Success here, too, may depend on the same two factors: submergence of social barriers and acceptance of diversity, and access to communication channels, and lastly, on something that we take for granted in the West – protected speech. That is, the ability to say what we believe without fear of reprisals whether those be personally or politically directed.

I know for a fact that people in the country where I live feel more at liberty to speak in English than they do in Arabic. Different rules apply to each language. This impedes their ability to express themselves clearly in Arabic. Of course, Arabs have always been very good at expressing themselves obliquely. The medieval poet, translator, and political commentator Ibn al-Muqaffa did this in his translation of Indian Fables, Kalila wa Dimna. When the animal stories were perceived as being negative commentary on the government of the time, Ibn al-Muqaffa – whose name means the one with the cut-off (hand), found his missing hand joined by his missing head. But he is remembered today while his murderers are long forgotten.