An Arabic Language Revolution

Moran Levanoni examines the changes in contemporary Arabic writing as a result of the widespread use of social media platforms in the Arab world.

An example of the character گ being used to represent the consonantal “Ch,” according the usage of the Bedouin dialect. From Twitter.
An example of the character گ being used to represent the consonantal “Ch,” according the usage of the Bedouin dialect. From Twitter.

The Arabic language has traditionally been divided into literary Arabic (al-Fuṣḥá), which is considered a prestige dialect subject to strict rules, and spoken Arabic, “‘Ammiyah” which in fact is a catch-all for a loose grouping of many dialects, whose rules and vocabulary vary and develop continuously.

The accepted division identifies seven dialects based on the geographical distribution of native speakers. However, the actual number is even greater; there are dialectical differences between city-dwellers and villagers, between Bedouins and Christians, and other similar variations.  This phenomenon was first conceptualized by Charles A. Ferguson in 1959 as “diglossia” or “double language,” and later described by French linguists who studied North African Arabic.[1] The penetration of mass media, such as newspapers, radio and television, created a novel combination of literary Arabic and spoken Arabic. However, the real revolution in Arabic should be attributed to the expansion of the digital space, especially the use of online social networks where, for the first time in the history of spoken Arabic, the various dialects are being written rather than being limited to speech as they were in the past.

For many years, official media outlets used standard Arabic, which is similar to literary Arabic but is actually a middle language (“Wusta”) that combines the literary and spoken languages. It is known as either “Educational Spoken Arabic – ESA” or “Modern Standard Arabic – MSA.”.[2] This language was considered the official language for use by the media, because it is considered suitable for listeners throughout the Arab world. However, as number of media outlets grew, and the use of field reporters and live interviews increased, spoken Arabic often became the accepted language used by the media, including broad use of local dialects.

This phenomenon has become even more widespread with the growth of online networks, which are not subject to any of the rules or regulations that apply to establishment media. This became apparent when the popular uprisings that began in Tunis spread to the streets of Cairo, Sana‘a, Tripoli, and Damascus. Young people and students were the driving force behind these uprisings, and they also transmitted news from the heart of the demonstrations. Equipped with smart phones, they broadcast live reports in spoken Arabic directly to social networks and satellite television networks. This phenomenon also spread among professional broadcasters who, over time, relinquished the official language, and began, in the heat of battle, to broadcast more frequently in spoken Arabic.

The use of a local dialect also tells something about the user’s group identity. For example, users who wish to emphasize their Bedouin origin tend to use the consonantal “Ch” instead of “K”, and also use the sign گ, which comes from Farsi and does not exist in Arabic.[3] Another example is the tendency of Lebanese to pronounce the letter “Q” as a consonantal “A.” Thus, a user who writes “Man bido yishrab ahwah” (meaning, “Who wants to drink coffee”), instead of using the usual spelling “Man bido yisrav qahwa (قهوة)” is likely to be indicating that he is from Lebanon or from the Galilee region of Israel, where the same dialect is spoken. However, in the Bedouin dialect used by the residents of the southern Arabian Peninsula, the consonant “Q” becomes “G,” so that the word “qahawa” is written as a “gahwah” (جهوة).[4] In addition to consonants that are unique to a particular dialect, users employ distinctive words that are specific to their dialect. For example, they might word “shalun” (شلون), or the more common form, “ayash lonk” which is generally used to ask “How are you?” (Originally, it meant “what is your color”),  as common in the dialect of Syria and northern Iraq.[5]

Similar to changes that have occurred in Hebrew usage as the use  of digital communications has expanded, Arabic has acquired new means for expressing emotions in writing. Comparable to the Hebrew חחח [lit. ”ha ha ha”] Arabic users write “هههههههه hahaha” and use emoticons. In addition, some expressions include deliberate spelling errors, especially repeated letters for emphasis. For example, the Arabic word for “amazing” will be written in as “حلوووووو” (“aaaamazing”), and the response to a flattering selfie might be written: منوووووور (beeeautiful, literally, “illuminated”).

As spoken Arabic became a written language, another unique phenomenon arose: “Arabeezee” (a portmanteaux combining the word “Arabic” and the Arabic name for English, “Inglizi,” which is likely the result of using English keyboards. In this phenomenon western numerals are used to represent Arabic letters that do not have an equivalent in English. Most often the substitutes are selected on the basis of the visual similarity between the numeral and the Arabic letter. For example, the numeral “3” is used for the letter “ayin - ع” and “7” is used for “ḥet - ح” so that the word “Hezbollah” is spelled “7zballh.”[6]

Perhaps naturally, technical terms taken from the world of digital media have been borrowed by Arabic in transliteration. For example, the word “group” is written in spoken Arabic as “قروب” or “جروب” - “qrwb” or “ǧrwb‎,” and the word “admin” is written as “ادمين - ādmyn.” Similar words are “clip” (“قليب - qlyb”); WhatsApp (“وتصاب - wtṣāb”); Skype (“وتصاب - sqāyb”), and mail (“مايل - māyl”) for e-mail. These words are used in conjunction with the appropriate Arabic possessive suffixes and other grammatical forms. For example, “مايلي - māyly” means “my e-mail” or the verb “وتصابنا - wtṣābnā” means “send us a message using WhatsApp.”

“Conservative” circles consider the adoption of spoken Arabic for online correspondence a threat to Standard Arabic. In May 2013, the Arabic Language International Council convened in Beirut for the second time, under the title: “The Arabic language is endangered, we are all partners in its preservation.” The invitation read “We appeal to all users of the social networks and electronic sites to recognize the problem and challenges facing the Arabic language, encourage dialogue and raise awareness of the enrichment and preservation of the Arabic language.” A working paper, “The Problems of Arabic Language among Social Network Users: A Comparative Study of a Sample of Facebook Users,”[7] submitted to the conference by Nasser al-Din Abd al-Qader and Maryam Muhammad Saleh reported that 75% of social network users wrote in spoken Arabic rather than literary Arabic as generally accepted.

In recent years, all aspects of the Arabic language – pronunciation, syntax, grammar and vocabulary – have undergone rapid change. These changes are mostly the result of exposure to digital space and the increasing use of spoken Arabic for the sake of correspondence on social networks, and are a matter of concern for conservatives interested in the preservation of the Arabic language. It seems that this is but one stage in a long process that the Arabic language is undergoing, one which may blur the traditional division into literary and spoken languages, and transform them in a continuum that varies according to the register of the user’s speech. It is also quite possible that the future will see the emergence of local Arabic languages that are supported by their unique grammar and characteristic spelling conventions, something that did not exist previously.

[1] Charles A. Ferguson, “Diglossia,” Word 15, no. 2 (1959): 325-340.

[2] Jonathan Owens, “Arabic sociolinguistics,” Arabica 48, no. 4 (2001): 419-469.

[3] @Roaroos,, 7 October 2018.  Last accessed 12 January 2018.

[4] Eman Mansour,, 21 January 2017.  Last accessed 12 January 2018.

[5] Abdulsattar Sharaf,, 30 March 2013.  Last accessed 12 January 2018.

[6] @LbTouufik,, 26 January 2018. Last accessed 12 January 2018.

[7] Available here. Last accessed 12 January 2018.