The Pew Research Center, the highly respected think tank in Washington that provides information on social issues, public opinion and demographic trends shaping the world, recently revealed in a report that Arabic was “the fastest growing language in the United States”.
The finding may not be far off-the-mark, as we see daily manifestation of it, say, in how last week, for example, the City of Dearborn in Michigan began to post ballots, voter registration and application information on its website in Arabic.
In history, Arabic of course had always been, save for Ottoman times, a major player in the linguistic dialogue of cultures. After the emergence of the Umayyad Caliphate in 661, it didn’t take long (a mere century) for the language to spread its wings from its place of origin in the Arabian Peninsula all the way west to the Iberian Peninsula and East to the Indian subcontinent — the domain of the Islamic Commonwealth of Nations — and become the lingua franca in which literary, scientific and academic tracts were often composed.
And in our time, Arabic is the liturgical language of 1.6 billion Muslims, spoken by 420 million people, including 290 million to whom it is a native language, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations — the others being English, Spanish, French, Chinese and Russian.
All well and good. But which Arabic, in our time, are we talking about? Native speakers of Arabic today communicate in two tongues. There is what I prefer to call Formal Arabic, otherwise known as Modern Standard Arabic or Modern Written Arabic, used textually in the world of academe, literature, media, law and government, a language that in everyday life is not “spoken” by, shall we say, anyone we know.
And then there is (again choosing my own preferred term) Oral Arabic, the Arab street’s semantic fashion of expression, the vernacular of everyday Arabs living and verbalising the concerns that animate their quotidian lives, a vernacular whose idiom and metaphor project the rhythmic intensity of the street, its beat, its cadence, its ebullience and its devotion to linguistic self-rule, unfettered by the rules of grammar.
All of which renders us, in the parlance of linguists, a diglossic culture, where two distinct varieties of the same language are used — in this case, the one set in its ways, as it were, impermeable to the idiom that speaks of the passion of the street, and the other linked organically to the transformative ebb and flow of lived reality.
What is passing largely unnoticed is that there is a revolution in progress in our region — that may take a century, perhaps two before it prevails — akin to the one that took place in the Middle Ages in Europe, when different varieties of the Latin vernacular, or Vulgate as it was known, spoken by peoples living in what we today call Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, morphed in time into four different official languages — though as daughters of formal Latin, from which they derived properties of their vocabularies and grammar.
And the forces propelling that kind of revolution in our region? Simply this: Formal Arabic has become too dry a well to draw on for ordinary Arabs who seek to articulate the principle currents of their emotional sense of self, much as formal Latin had become for speakers of the Latin Vulgate.
Consider this telling tale of how Oral Arabic is seen by ordinary Arabs as the one semantic medium truly expressive of the geography of their soul, a medium always adept at mapping the contour of its preoccupations.
In 2006, Egyptian writer Khaled al-Khanimi published “Taxi”, where the narrative is the stories of different Cairo taxi drivers he encounters. The first novel written in its entirety in the Egyptian vernacular and dedicated by the author to “the life lived in the words of the poor”, it sold 75,000 copies, while in Egypt a best-seller novel sells, at best, a mere 9,000 copies.
In that regard, it is no wonder that Dante’s Inferno, a best-seller following its publication in 1320 and today considered a masterwork not just of Italian but of world literature, was written, not in Latin, as would’ve been expected at the time, but in Italy’s native vernacular. Other noted Italian belle lettristes, all the way from the philosopher Machiavelli to the poet Petrach did the same, and their use of the vernacular in their work started a literary revolution that helped set the stage for the Renaissance.
Also in that regard, consider how the reason modern English, in particular modern American English, is so zestful a language because its spoken and written forms are akin — as these two forms of verbal address in any language should be.
Languages are indeed more than mere currencies of rational exchange. They are living organisms. Infinitely complex, but organisms nevertheless, imbued by their own life-force, and should genuinely speak to us, about us, from us, transforming and being transformed by our habitat’s energies of spirit.
Only Oral Arabic, I say, has the right resume for the job.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile