18. New uses of colloquial Arabic: A quiet revolution?

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Eirlys E Davies
École Supérieure Roi Fahd de Traduction, Tanger, Royaume du Maroc


The speech-writing division

For many centuries, the language situation in Arabic-speaking countries has been characterized by diglossia: the coexistence of two varieties sharply opposed in both form and function. Standard or Classical Arabic, the high status variety used in formal contexts and writing, has remained almost immutable in form, and therefore serves a unifying function across the Arab world; the various colloquial dialects, in contrast, have evolved, diverged, borrowed from other languages, and been generally regarded as inferior, inadequate varieties incompatible with writing and sophisticated discourse. The gulf between the two varieties has traditionally posed considerable challenges for children starting school, who are expected to move quickly from the dialect they speak at home to the very different standard variety in which they must learn to read and write.

 There have been many attempts to reform this situation: some 20th century thinkers called for the use of colloquial varieties in education or even as national languages, others for reforms of the Arabic writing system, and even in some cases for adoption of the Roman alphabet. More recently, in Morocco, some canonical European literature has been translated and published in Moroccan colloquial Arabic (MA), in an attempt to demonstrate that MA can be a vehicle for more elevated discourse. However, these attempts by scholars, politicians and ideologists to change people’s language habits and attitudes have had very little impact. This may perhaps be related to the fact that they have all been very much top-down initiatives.

Computer-mediated communication and Arabic

Over the last two decades, however, a dramatic shift has occurred, and the apparently impregnable embargo on writing the colloquial dialects seems to be weakening. We are now seeing colloquial Arabic functioning more and more as a medium for written communication, and more remarkably still, it is being written using the Roman alphabet. What we will designate here as Romanized Arabic (RA) has now become an everyday medium of communication for millions of mostly young people across the Arabic-speaking world. And this development has sprung, not from the work of language planners or ideological preachers, but from ordinary people’s responses to changing communication needs, most notably to the rise of computer-mediated communication (CMC).

CMC has encouraged the use of the written medium where previously oral communication would have been used; for instance, people now send text messages instead of making phone calls. However, the ASCII code initially used for representing characters could handle only the Roman alphabet, so users of other alphabets were obliged to devise ways of representing their languages in Roman script. RA soon became the norm for communicating in Arabic on computers and mobile phones. The later introduction of Unicode means it is now easy to write Arabic script in CMC. But meanwhile, RA seems to have become an entrenched habit which has not been abandoned even though the original reason for its adoption has disappeared. Moreover, its use is now spreading beyond the domain of CMC which triggered it.

In fact, transliterating Arabic using the Roman alphabet was nothing new, for this has often been resorted to in contexts where users of Arabic are in contact with users of other languages. In Morocco, for instance, Arabic place names and personal names have standard Romanized forms, based largely on French orthographic conventions. The system adopted for CMC differs from this in its use of numerals to represent certain phonemes for which the Roman alphabet offers no obvious symbols.  And of course in the past some individuals did write in the colloquial dialects, for instance to send letters to poorly educated family members who could not understand standard Arabic. What is different about the current trend is the extent to which RA is now being used, not just for intimate communication with the uneducated, but for much more public messages, and for messages written and addressed to well-educated persons, who are quite capable of writing and reading Standard Arabic.

The spread of Romanized Arabic

The extent of this new trend can be illustrated by a brief description of Moroccans’ use of RA. It is now commonplace for Moroccans to communicate with friends and family via text messages, emails and Facebook posts formulated in RA. But they also use it in social media communications directed to a wider audience, including people not personally known to the writers, such as Twitter feeds and posts on many types of website, such as blogs, forums and classified ad sites. Many company websites also feature RA on their pages.

Advertisers in particular seem to have been quick to exploit RA, and not merely on line.  RA is now seen in billboard advertisements, in supermarket brochures and in advertisements in print magazines. Walking the streets of a Moroccan city, one may come across RA in posters advertising concerts or other events and in shop window displays. Early uses of RA in marketing tended to be associated with an appeal to the masses, as when it was first exploited by certain telecom companies targeting lower socio-economic groups, but now it is used to target more diverse audiences. It is seen in communications by both local companies and multinationals, is used by banks to label some of their products such as credit and transfer services, and sometimes even features in the promotion of luxury goods.

Beyond computer screens and print, RA can also be seen in handwritten messages, most notably in graffiti on walls in urban neighbourhoods.  In a survey of 248 Moroccan university students, conducted in 2015, over 30% also claimed to use RA for handwritten notes in class, either to record information provided by a teacher or for messages to be passed on to classmates. 15% reported using handwritten RA in other contexts, such as to leave a note for their parents before leaving home, to write a to-do list or a diary entry. While handwritten RA was admitted only by a minority of the respondents (compared with the 99% who reported using RA for phone and internet messaging), it nevertheless suggests that the use of RA is expanding far beyond its origins in CMC.

One further point worth noting is that discourse written in RA by Moroccans is frequently combined with strings in French, in ways which mirror the patterns of codeswitching between Moroccan Arabic and French which are a common feature of conversations between bilingual Moroccans. Since RA is the written form of an essentially oral variety, this is hardly surprising. It also illustrates how the adoption of the Roman alphabet for colloquial Arabic makes possible further stylistic innovation; codeswitching involving Arabic script, written from right to left, and French, written from left to right, would be far more difficult.

Attitudes to the use of RA

Early comments on the phenomenon, by both scholars and laypersons, suggested that it was simply a fad, a fashionable way for young people to mark themselves out from the rest. It was natural that young people should be the first to experiment with RA, since they constituted society’s most computer-literate group.  However, it would seem that what started off as an innovation by the young is now making its way steadily into the habits of older people. In our 2015 study, 36% of the students claimed to use RA not only to their peers but to older people, mostly parents, aunts and uncles but in some cases even grandparents. The original users of RA are of course themselves growing older, and if the current trend continues, it may soon be a normal medium of communication across all age groups.

Reactions to the use of RA by the general public and the media have often been critical and highly emotive. It has been described as a malignant language, a crime, a threat to the Arabic language and to Arabs’ identity, and even as part of a war against Arabic. Such panic-stricken remarks are to some extent understandable. After centuries in which the colloquial varieties of Arabic have been considered suitable only for oral communication, with children having to learn SA in order to write, this sudden and very public intrusion of the colloquials into the sphere of writing may seem quite alarming, provoking fears that it might weaken or even supplant the revered and cherished status of SA. And given that alphabets are often perceived as strong symbols of identity, it is perhaps not surprising that many have seen the recourse to a Western writing system as a rebellion against tradition and a rejection of established cultural values.

A wider perspective

In fact, however, the use of RA in Arabic-speaking communities is no isolated phenomenon. In many other speech communities the spread of CMC has led to similar developments, with the use of Romanized versions of languages such as Greek, Russian, Cantonese, Farsi and many others. In some of these cases, like Greek and Cantonese, languages with a long established writing system and a prestigious literary heritage are now being written in a Romanized form in CMC by people perfectly able to use the standard system. The use of ‘Greeklish’ in CMC provoked media reactions similar to those noted above for RA.

In other cases, the development of a Romanized writing system actually offers access to writing for those who for one reason or another have not mastered the traditional writing system, For instance, those of Russian descent living in the USA may find a Romanized script allows them to communicate in Russian on line. Likewise, Sindhi speakers living in the West, with no proficiency in either the Arabic or Devanagari scripts used for this language in Pakistan and India respectively, have recently begun to communicate in Sindhi online thanks to its Romanized version. In such cases, far from harming the language, its Romanization may actually help keep it alive within a diaspora.

Finally, there are other cases where a language hitherto little used in writing is empowered through the development of a written form for use in CMC. In Senegal, for instance, French has long been the usual medium for writing, with Wolof as the oral lingua franca, but nowadays Romanized Wolof is extensively used in CMC.

Set against this wider perspective, the language-related anxieties of those who protest against the use of RA may seem less justifiable. Rather than a revolution specifically targeting Arabic language traditions, the adoption of RA may perhaps best be seen as simply the development of a supplementary tool. The students surveyed in our study did not agree that by using RA they were neglecting or harming SA; they felt that SA should be upheld and valued, and very strongly rejected the possibility of ever writing SA in the Roman alphabet. In fact, far from blurring the distinction between MA and SA, the strategy of writing colloquial Arabic in the Roman alphabet, while maintaining Arabic script for SA, could be seen as a way of emphasizing the distinction between the two, through a clear visual differentiation.

The recent shifts in the use of colloquial Arabic surveyed here are certainly just one example of a much wider trend for linguistic innovation which seems to have been sparked off by the new electronic media of communication. While the spread of printing in the sixteenth century ultimately paved the way for the standardization of orthography and grammar in many languages, the arrival of CMC seems to have had a more liberating effect, allowing the development of ways of writing which are free from the norms imposed in other contexts. These changes illustrate the power of bottom-up processes of change, which have in the case of Arabic brought about innovations that many would-be reformers of the past could only dream of. The extent to which these innovations will continue to spread and grow remains to be seen.