26 aprile 2010

A God-given way to communicate

Fears about the demise of Arabic are misplaced

published on: Economist

THE Arabic language is dying. Its disloyal children are ditching their mother tongue for English and French. It is stagnating in classrooms, mosques and the dusty corridors of government. Even such leaders as the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, and Jordan’s foreign-educated King Abdullah struggle with its complicated grammar. Worse still, no one cares. Arabic no longer has any cachet. Among supposedly sophisticated Arabs, being bad at Arabic has become fashionable.
That, at least, is an opinion prominently aired in the National, an English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi. It reflects a perennial worry in the Arab world about the state of the language. Classical Arabic, the language of the Koran, and its modern version, Modern Standard Arabic, known in academia as MSA, are a world apart from the dialects that people use every day. Spoken and written in the media and on stuffy occasions, this kind of Arabic is no one’s mother tongue. It is painfully acquired through hours of poring over grammar textbooks and memorising the Koran. Could it one day become obsolete?
Arabic certainly faces competition. Clive Holes, a professor of Arabic at Oxford University, concedes that learning formal Arabic tends to be undervalued by students in the Middle East, many of whom increasingly see it as divorced from success in the real world, especially in the international sphere, where English prevails. A lack of investment in education by Arab governments means it is often badly taught. In the Gulf countries Westerners and Asians, neither with much Arabic, far outnumber native speakers.
But that hardly means the language is dying. Arabic is the essence of Arab identity. Arabs are inordinately proud of their linguistic heritage. Handed down by Allah, many believe the Koran must be read only in the classical mode in which it was written. Even non-Arabic speaking Muslims force themselves to learn enough of it to read it. Stumble though they may, Arabs from different countries are enabled by MSA to communicate.
The popularity of a recent television programme beamed from Abu Dhabi in which people competed to see who could best recite traditional Bedouin poetry suggests there is plenty of appetite for Arabic in all its forms. In the absence of an authentic Arabic word, people may instead use an English word like “zip”, as the writer in the National laments. But such changes and borrowings are inevitable and may be quite healthy. Arabic will evolve from the prescriptions of the grammar book, taking in new words and discarding obsolete ones. But as Mr Holes points out, this is a sign of dynamism rather than demise.