Lebanon is a small country.
In fact, the CIA describes the nation to be “about one-third the size of Maryland” (see Area Comparison map). The “open-culture” mantra of Lebanese society makes it relatively more susceptible to change and adaptation. French occupation. Large numbers of Arab and Armenian refugees. The spread of the English-dominated Internet and social media. All of these factors pervade this small piece of land. The United States, in comparison, is an entire continent, so while it is multilingual, the language distribution has a larger effect on a smaller country. This gives rise to one paramount question:
Can Lebanon’s future generations, or its current one for that matter, speak real, classical Arabic anymore?
Well, at least there are no dying languages in Lebanon, right? Not yet, anyway.
A Little Bit of History
The Arabic language is the most ethnolinguistically vital of the three commonly used languages in Lebanon, the other two being French and English. According to the Lebanese Constitution: “Arabic is the official national language”, while, “a law shall determine the cases in which the French language can be used”. The act of instating Arabic as the official language helped to re-established Arab culture after the end of French rule in the 1940s. While Arabic is very important to its people, it is mainly the elder Lebanese generation that does.
Arabic is a deep-rooted language that has been spoken for hundreds of years all over the Middle East. The Arabic language connects Lebanon to its Arab Middle Eastern and North African neighbors. Classical Arabic is universally understood amongst the Lebanese population. This is especially true as it stands that Lebanon is home to a heavy relative percentage of refugees, including Armenian, Palestinian, and more recently, Syrians. Due to the historic influx of Armenian refugees into Lebanon, the Armenian’s status today “is in vigorous use, with literature in a standardized form being used by some though this is not yet widespread or sustainable” (Ethnologue). While this is true, its spread is in a dispersed fashion without much significance in official economic, formal, or political Lebanese affairs. The same can be said for Kurdish.
A Little More History
Arabic has different dialects in every region of the country, including Northern Levantine (see Levantine Arabic map and key). Each village, town, or area in Lebanon has a different dialect that allows one to determine which part of the country an individual is from based solely on the dialect of Arabic spoken. According to the Ethnologue, Arabic stands at a status of 3 in its linguistic analysis of Lebanon, meaning that “the language has been developed to the point that it is used and sustained by institutions beyond the home and community”. Supported by the formal government, mass media, and business, Arabic reigns at the top of the Lebanese language pyramid. Language expert, Professor Mohamed Said, said, “‘Classical Arabic is the language of communication, literature, science, philosophy, the arts – it is something that unites the Arab world’” (Shawish). It is in this way that Arabic unifies, on a smaller scale, the different sects in Lebanon by simply fostering common ground, regardless of religion, belief or political affiliation.
In 1923, the League of Nations granted France the Mandate over Syria and “the Lebanon” (“French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon”). Lebanon, being under French rule for quite some time, became more Eurocentric even after its independence from France. France was the epitome of development and the higher power, and, of course, the more wealthy. When the French first entered what was then Greater Syria (today, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, the Israeli Occupation, and Syria) the ultimate purpose of Mandate powers was to create a system/reconstruct Ottoman society to a more liberal, and eventually Eurocentric one. As a result, French culture and language are still a fixed feature of Lebanese culture and language today, even long after French occupation.
What the Past Has Done to Today
Although Arabic defines Lebanese culture and tradition, the French have left their mark on Lebanese culture as well. The French language is a feature that embodies sophistication. French has the charm and class appeal that many of the bourgeois, upper-class Lebanese (or those who aspire to be so) seek to embody through their speech. Jay Cheshes of the New York Times found a “more organic sense of [French] history…east of the city center, in the bourgeois neighborhood around the French embassy compound, home to the Université Saint-Joseph, Hôtel-Dieu de France Hospital and Grand Lycée Franco-Libanais — all French institutions active since the late 19th century” (Cheshes). French in Lebanon is strongly associated with the educated affluent. The French ambassador in Lebanon, Patrice Paoli, says, “[French will] always be here, but we’ll never again tell the Lebanese people what they must do.”
As aforementioned, it is the older generation in present-day Lebanon that identify distinctly as either more French or Arab in culture. More importantly, however, is what the younger generation has done. The Lebanese youth has assimilated to their unique linguistic state and developed a trilingual form of speech that incorporates Arabic, French, and English together. “French here is reeling from the onslaught of English”, says The Daily Star’s Paula Jahn, “an onslaught made even more relentless over the past few decades by the dominance of American culture that flows over the borderless Internet.” (Jahn). Phrases like “Hi, kifak, ca va?” is not an uncommon format, placing the English “hello” followed by the Arabic and French translations for “how are you”, has become a widely used greeting. “Urban youths are often unable to hold a conversation in one language, causing amusement but also irking those around them” (Jahn).
Where Did English Come In?
While English is not recognized as an official national language, it is widely used in Lebanon socially among the technologically advanced, and more commonly, amongst its youth. Mass media and educational institutions, in addition to popular culture, have made English a most sought after skill. The status of the English language in Lebanon, according to the Ethnologue, is in the same widely used category as both French and Arabic. While England did not physically take over Lebanon and change the politics and educational standards to English, it did not have to. English was spread through technology and educational institutions. English and French-curriculum based schools in Lebanon are widespread, and most parents enroll their children in such schools to give them a better chance of succeeding in society.
What Money Has to Do With It
The majority of the world looks to both Europe and America as the current and past superpowers; it follows that as a result, English and French are seen as the languages of success and power. From an economic standpoint, there is less respect for the Arabic language due to the poor economy (Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations). Young graduates cannot find work in Lebanon, and as a result, need to know foreign languages to prepare to emigrate from Lebanon and its economy. The rate of success in relation to Arabic is low. This stigma that what was once the language of science, invention, technology, and mathematics—the original language of knowledge at one point in time (Hassani)—is not “hip” anymore, or, as one high schooler puts it: “At my school it’s more cool to speak French. Arabic is looked down upon” (Jahn).
This trilingual society has taken what was once the dominant language and made it the language of the poor. College and high school students “who want to speak…[Arabic]…articulately, …cannot string a sentence together properly” (Shawish). The only place that standard, proper Arabic has is currently in the news, the radio, or other official media sources. What is left is a mix of the vernacular, Lebanese dialect of Arabic, somewhat of a slang, and French and English.
So, What Does it All Mean?
So while there may not be any dying languages in Lebanon, but there certainly are struggling, and one could even say an endangered one. The ethnolinguistic vitality of Arabic, in Lebanon, at least, may not be as keen as it might seem at first glance. The question we are left with now, is will Arabic survive at least two generations from today? This problem is not unique to Lebanon. In the whole of the Arab world, the Middle East is riddled with the desire to be like all the other “popular kids”, I mean, countries, more specifically, the Western/European ones.
I leave you with the words of Dr. Peter Ladefoged, one of the world’s foremost experts on endangered and disappearing languages
“A language is endangered when it’s no longer spoken in the home, in which case it rapidly fades away…
We say that a language is moribund when it’s no longer spoken, as native speakers, by children. When the only speakers are all the elderly people who are just dying off, the language is going to die unless something drastic comes along and makes a change in circumstance.” (PBS)
- Central Intelligence Agency: CIA World Factbook
- Cheshes, Jay. “Call It Beyrouth: Beirut With a French Accent.” The New York Times.
- “French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon.” The American Journal of International Law 17.3 (1923): 177-82.
- Hassani, Salim T. S., and Technology and Civilisation Science. 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World. 2nd ed. Manchester, Great Britain: Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation, 2007. Print.
- “In Multilingual Lebanon, Arabic Falls behind.” Daily Star. The Daily Star, 01 Mar. 2012.
- “Lebanon.” Ethnologue.
- “POV: Interview: Dr. Peter Ladefoged on Endangered Languages” PBS. The United States Public Broadcasting Service.
- Shawish, Hesham. “Campaign to save the Arabic Language in Lebanon.” BBC News. The BBC, 24 June 2010.
- “The Lebanese Constitution.” Constitute. Lebanese Republic Government.
- “UNHCR Global Appeal 2015 Update.” UNHCR. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2015.
- (Area Comparison map) “University of Texas Libraries.” Lebanon Maps.
- (Levantine Arabic distribution map and key) “Levantine Arabic” Wikipedia