Approaches To Language Policy In The Middle East: Politicizing Fusha & Making Of An Endangered Language

Renowned British linguist, academic and author of A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (1980) David Crystal says a language dies when no one converses with it (2000). Taking Arabic as an example is the native tongue of an estimated 200 million. Thus, one can safely assume it is far from meeting the same fate as those that were once enriched, vibrant, and widely spoken languages (Latin and Ancient Greek to mention a few). But if history had taught us anything: it is that change is the only permanent thing, and while Arabic might be the fifth most spoken language in the world, this might be one instance where numbers tell but a tiny sliver of the tale at hand.

In the late 13th century, Ibn Manzur, a chancery official in the imperial administration of the Mamluk sultanate, compiled a 20 volume long Arabic dictionary. Lisan Al-Arab (The Arab Tongue) was a massive production, which no other work exceeded in size or scope for at least 500 years to follow (Muhanna, 2010).

In his preface, Ibn Manzur wrote “I have composed the present work in an age which men take pride in using a language other than Arabic, and I have built it like Noah built his ark, enduring the sarcasm of his own people” (as cited in Muhanna, 2010, para 2).

If people in the heyday of the Islamic empire didn’t speak proper Arabic, what are we speaking today? If Ibn Manzur feared the mutilation of a language that was in fact the lingua franca of religion, science, literature, trade, and more importantly communication. What will become of it fifty years from now?

Crystal cited a number of factors to consider when measuring how endangered a language is and considering the vast differences between the colloquial form of Arabic and the classical one. I will adopt Benjamin Disraeli’s concept of “two Nations” and claim the presence of two languages under the banner of Arabic. How do we decide which one is endangered and to what extent is it in danger: Crystal says it depends on such factors as the attitudes of the whole community towards the language, and the level of impact by other languages which may be threatening it.

Fusha nowadays is considered outdated and dull. Younger generations take pride in learning foreign languages as opposed to mastering their own. Lebanon for example has Arabic as its national language, but due to French colonization after World War 1, consequently dominating the educational scene, which only the wealthy could afford, the social elite started integrating French into their speech to signify their membership in the upper class. On the other end of the spectrum, and because of the complex history of Arabs in Lebanon in addition to the impact of what is called “Phoenicianism”, Arabic became somewhat a tainted language (keeler, 2010).

Similarly, Egypt was colonized by Britain for seventy years (1882‒1952). The latter saw what Standard/Classical Arabic symbolized and they tried to weaken it (Shivtiel, 1999), first by introducing English and French as mandatory subjects in the education system, then attempting to raise the status of Egyptian Colloquial Arabic at the expense of Fusha by emphasizing the distinctiveness of the Egyptian people as descendants of the great Pharaonic civilization rather than part of the Arab Islamic world. According to Egyptian linguist and Sociologist Reem Bassiouney, that was an attempt to isolate Egypt and thereby tighten the grip of occupation, economic, intellectual, and otherwise (2009, p. 645). The plan worked for some time, as intellectuals started questioning Fusha. Salama Musa actually declared it dead, while Lutfi Al-Sayyid suggested creating a middle language between the standard and colloquial (Suleiman, 1999, pp. 37-53).

Going back to Lebanon, Shigemoto asserts the role of language in the making of ethnic identity. He says” attachment to language is as strong as people’s regard of themselves as a social group. A negative ethnic identity contributes to the low prestige of the ethnic group’s language which, in turn, makes it more susceptible to shifting to a high prestige language, such as English” (p4). In a country where approximately 40% of the population are considered “francophone” (Lebanon, n.d), usage of Arabic generally and formal Arabic specifically is more likely to decline in favor of the “cooler” substitutes, English and French.

This in turn stresses the central argument which is the danger of Fusha meeting the fate of Latin, Sanskrit, and Ancient Greek – taught in schools and universities, exist in its written form but seldom used in communication. In other words, dead.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Lebanon and Egypt are not referenced here solely as instances of what happens when language is politicized, but also for the noticeable shift in attitude towards preservation/wakening of Fusha.

By the 1930s and later, a process of revival and Arabization began to take place in Egypt: Taha Hussain was calling for teaching Standard Arabic in language schools, Mohammed Hassanein Haykal became Minister of Education and made Arabic a mandatory subject in private schools. President Jamal Abd El Nasser stood at the United Nations summit on September 28, 1960, and declared “ we believe in a single Arab Nation” (Bassiouney, 2009, pp. 654-656). Fusha was once more a symbol of identity, united- ness, and prestige that had been bottled up for years1.

Fe’il Amer (Act now) is a non-governmental organization founded by a group of Lebanese thinkers and writers to help return Standard Arabic (or Arabic altogether!) to its former glory. Head of organization Susan Talhouq says their aim is to bridge the gap between youth and linguistics. Moreover, she adds “the preservation of a language guarantees the survival of those who speak it” (Arabizi, 2010, para 3). Fe’il Amr is one initiative among many scattered around the Arab world in hope of saving Prophet Mohammed’s spoken language.

However, it is going to take more than initiatives, and slogans. Reviving Fusha needs a complete shift in the way Arabs view themselves, their past, and their place in the world today. It requires the realization that for centuries their language has not been used solely as a tool to communicate, but also to manipulate. Letting go of the past, and rediscovering value in what it means to be Arab, might just one day take Fusha out of the endangered languages race.

References

  • Bassiouney, R. (2009). Arabic Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Beirut: Fi’l Amr- action taken to promote Arabic. (2010, April 11). Retrieved October 28, 2011, from Arabizi- How we use Arabic today http://arabizi.wordpress.com/2010/04/11/beirut-fil-amr-action-taken-to-promote-arabic/
  • Crystal, D., (2000). Language Death. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Retrieved October 28 2011, from http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam032/99053220.pdf
  • Keeler, C., (2010, March 7). The Death of Arabic In Lebanon. Retrieved October 28, 2011, from Notes from a Medina http://notesfromamedinah.com/2010/03/07/the-death-of- arabic-in-lebanon
  • Lebanon. (n.d). retrieved October 28, 2011, from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanon
  • Phoenicianism. (n.d). retrieved October 28, 2011, from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenicianism
  • Shivtiel, S. S. (1999). Language and Political Change in Modern Egypt. International Journal
  • of the Sociology of Language, 137(1), 131-140.
  • Shigemoto, J., (1997). Language Change and Language Planning and Policy. Honolul Hawai’i: Pacific Resources for Education and Learning. Retrieved October 28, 2011 from http://www.prel.org/products/products/language-change.pdf
  • Suleiman, Y. (Ed.) (1999). Language & Society in the Middle East & North Africa: Studies in
  • Variation & Identity. Richmond: Curzon.
  • Lane, James (2 June 2021). The 10 Most Spoken Languages in the World. Babbel. Retrieved
  • 13th January 2022 from https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/the-10-most-spoken-languages-in-the-world
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