A language is alive—it’s a breathing, blooming entity that metamorphoses as worlds turn. Often, we turn to the literary when charting these changes, but language goes where the people are. Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Morocco, Hodna Nuernberg, writes about the changes that the Internet—blogs, texting, social media—is catalyzing in transliterated versions of spoken Arabic around the world.
According to the United Nation’s 2016 Measuring the Information Society Report, approximately 47 percent of the world’s population are internet users, and nearly 3.6 billion people are expected to rely on messaging apps as a primary means of communication by 2018. Thanks in no small part to the pervasiveness of computer-mediated communication, we are reading and writing more than ever—in fact, Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University and principal investigator for the Stanford Study of Writing, speaks of a literacy revolution in which “life writing” (in the form of texts, tweets, emails, status updates, or blogs) accounts for a massive 38 percent of the average Stanford student’s written production.
For many of us, the distance between our spoken language and its written form is small enough as to seem nonexistent, so converting our speech into print is a fairly straightforward process. But this isn’t always the case.
Classical Arabic, a major world language used in twenty-five nations across two continents, is a codified, written standard that is rarely ever spoken, aside from a few highly formal contexts like judicial proceedings or the delivery of a written speech. Although the relationship between Classical Arabic and its spoken dialects is the subject of much passionate debate, the fact remains that becoming a proficient user of Classical Arabic (a language whose grammar has changed little since the early nineteenth century) requires sustained, rigorous study—even for native speakers of dialectal Arabic.
A shared linguistic identity is a cornerstone of the Arab world, a region whose borders were drawn by the pens and rulers of European colonialism. Classical Arabic’s ability to unite where the (not always mutually comprehensible) dialects divide is of capital importance. It is also—both in its origins and social function—a sacred language: most Muslims agree that the Quran is a direct transcription of the Word of God. As such, the relationship between form and meaning is in no way arbitrary, and it is widely understood that the Quran would cease to be the Quran in any other language. The preservation of a “pure” form of the language is, therefore, crucial to the religion’s continued existence.
Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel-prize winning Egyptian author, famously declared, “The colloquial is one of the diseases from which the people are suffering, and of which they are bound to rid themselves as they progress. I consider the colloquial one of the failings of our society, exactly like ignorance, poverty, and disease.” Despite a long and celebrated tradition of poetry written and recited in dialect, Mahfouz’s dismissal of the dialects as worthy of serious literary production coincides with the hegemonic view that would restrict all literary use of dialectal Arabic to quoted dialogue.
The epicenter of the Arab world’s long-simmering debate over the place of dialectical Arabic in prose can be found in Egypt. As the most populous Arabic-speaking nation and a major exporter of cultural goods, Egypt’s dialect, called Amiyya, is almost universally understood—meaning that books written in the Egyptian dialect can travel beyond the domestic market. Nael ElToukhy, an Egyptian writer who spoke with Asymptote about his efforts to secularize Classical Arabic in a 2016 interview, sees the internet – and blogs in particular – as reshaping the dialectal/classical debate. Because internet writing eludes institutional control, bloggers can (and do) freely mix dialectal and Classical Arabic. Inspired by this mixed language, ElToukhy and a new generation of Arabophone authors are beginning a process of “Colloquialising Arabic Literature” (as Marcia Lynx Qualey put it in her essay for Mashallah News).
But even the most banal and non-literary writing—the text message, the tweet, the social media update—is undergoing a process of metamorphosis. Although decidedly less glamorous than the novel, the mobile phone, the major medium of contemporary “life writing,” has the potential to transform the way we think about language and writing.
Given the impracticality—or impossibility—of typing Arabic characters on mobile platforms, a crowd-sourced system of transcription, called 3arabizi, has emerged as a spontaneous response to technological constraint. Also referred to as “Arabish” or “francoarabe,” this Latinized character-encoding system allows its users to communicate in the hybrid language of their daily lives, mixing dialectal and Classical Arabic along with English and French.
Users of 3arabizi have developed notations, called arithmographemes, to represent sounds that do not exist in Latin script (for example, the letter ‘ayn, a voiced pharyngeal fricative, is transcribed “3” as in 3arabizi). There are no hard-and-fast rules for transcription, but this brief (and rather nonsensical) Facebook exchange between four students at the University of Algiers follows widely accepted usage (the italicized words are in Algerian dialect, the boldface words are from Classical Arabic, and the rest is French or English):
AL : Tu danses ou koi ?
(AL: are you tripping?)
AL : wled ain taya ya benti
(AL: children of ain taya oh my daughter)
HW : ou mazalna wa9fine… slamet redjlik
(HW: we’re still standing… watch out for your legs)
DD : lol
AL : chhel raho 3ajbni le ninja hadek
(AL: I love that ninja)
DD : je te presente amar de dos cete fe notre sortie pr info
(DD: let me introduce amar officially fyi our trip’s over)
OT : Benti el WADI
(OT: My daughter of the RIVER)
Although decidedly unliterary, 3arabizi is more than a simple transcription of Arabic words into Latin characters—it is a means of diminishing the distance between the language of everyday experience and that of the written word.
Writing on the process of cultural hybridity, Homi Bhabha developed the notion of the “third space” as “a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation” that allows for the “inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity” and the emergence of new positions and identities. In the Arab world, the internet is increasingly creating a linguistic third space where informal, daily language can find its written form. And as this language becomes more visible, and eventually more widely accepted and represented, 3arabizi’s bottom-up nature will help ensure that many voices—and not only those of the cultural elite—find their way into the conversation.
Of course, 3arabizi is not without its critics, and pronouncements of its role in the imminent destruction of the Arabic language are routinely issued. And yet, if we accept Bhabha’s claim that “blasphemy goes beyond the severance of tradition and replaces its claim to a purity of origins with a poetics of relocation and reinscription,” 3arabizi can be understood as relocating (linguistic) identity from a monolithic “Arabness” to a more local one (Algerian, Egyptian, Saudi, etc.) capable of acknowledging the inherently hybrid nature of identity and contributing, in its own humble way, to new and revolutionary writing practices.
 I use the term “Classical Arabic” to designate what is often (in the Anglophone world) referred to as “Modern Standard Arabic.” This latter term has no commonly-used equivalent in Arabic.
 To get a sense of the tenor of this debate, the eleven pages of reader comments left in response to Robert Lane Greene’s 2013 article for The Economist, “A language with too many armies and navies?” are instructive.
 There have been calls to simplify and modernize Classical Arabic, but such proposals for reform often construed as immoral. Take, for example, the following denunciation, printed in Egypt’s Islamic Standard newspaper in response to Sherif al-Shubashy’s 2004 appeal for the creation of a new “middle” Arabic: “Shubashy has taken his turn aiming another arrow at the heart of the Arabic language. Yet, the powers that seek to destroy our language have in fact another goal in mind: The ultimate aim of their conspiracy is none other than the Holy Quran itself, and to cause Muslims to eventually lose their identity and become submerged into the ocean of globalization.”
 Even with the development of easy-to-use cellular Arabic keyboards, it still often costs more to send texts in Arabic because fewer characters are permitted per message.
 Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
 Op. cit.
Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg holds an M.A. in Francophone World Studies and an M.F.A. in Literary Translation, both from the University of Iowa. She is a 2017-2018 Fulbright grantee to Morocco, where she will teach English at University Mohammed V’s École Normale Supérieure and serve as an Editor-at-Large for Asymptote. Her translations from French, Arabic, and Spanish have appeared in Asymptote, QLRS, Two Lines, Anomaly, Poet Lore and elsewhere.
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