Writing the Dialect: Arabic in the Online Era

In this globally connected “online age,” some 48 percent of the world’s population is online, with nearly 3.6 billion people relying on messaging apps as their primary means of communication, according to the International Telecommunications Union’s 2017 Measuring the Information Society Report. As a result, people are reading and writing more than ever – some have even referred to a kind of literacy revolution in which the written word (in the form of texts, tweets, status updates, and emails) is slowly supplanting oral communication in many daily interactions.

In this globally connected “online age,” some 48 percent of the world’s population is online, with nearly 3.6 billion people relying on messaging apps as their primary means of communication, according to the International Telecommunications Union’s 2017 Measuring the Information Society Report. As a result, people are reading and writing more than ever – some have even referred to a kind of literacy revolution in which the written word (in the form of texts, tweets, status updates, and emails) is slowly supplanting oral communication in many daily interactions.

For many of us, converting speech into writing is fairly straightforward – but in the diglossic societies of the Arabophone world, the process of giving a written form to spoken language is a complex and highly charged act. As such, the so-called literacy revolution brought on by computer-mediated communication is having a profound impact in the Arabophone world by creating a space for the inscription of informal, daily language in written form.

For a long time, linguists have looked upon Arabic as a textbook case of diglossia. Modern Standard Arabic, the official or co-official language of 25 nations located across two continents, is a codified, written standard that no one speaks natively. In fact, Modern Standard Arabic is rarely spoken at all, aside from a few highly formal contexts, such as in judicial proceedings, the delivery of written speeches, and in media or institutions of higher education. Vernacular Arabic – the spoken dialects – are used for almost all other spoken applications.

However, the omnipresence of “life-writing” (the texts, tweets, status updates, emails, and chat messages that are increasingly taking the place of oral communication) has led to the diffusion of many features of oral discourse into written texts, complicating the clear distinction between high and low linguistic forms and creating a hybrid language that mixes Modern Standard and vernacular Arabic.

The pressure to maintain a “pure” form of Modern Standard Arabic is twofold. On the one hand, a shared linguistic identity is a cornerstone of the Arab world, and Modern Standard Arabic’s ability to unite where the not-always-mutually-comprehensible dialects divide is of capital importance. On the other hand, Modern Standard Arabic is – both in its Quranic origins and its 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 sacred, 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 has, therefore, long been seen as crucial to the continued existence of both the “Arab world” and of Islam itself.

The relationship between Modern Standard Arabic and its spoken dialects is hotly contested. 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?” is instructive. Some argue that the difference between Modern Standard Arabic and its vernaculars is no greater than, say, that of Parisian French and the Québécois variety; others argue that they differ on fundamental syntactic grounds.

The distance between written and spoken Arabic is a major factor in the persistently low literacy rates across the Middle East and North Africa. In Egypt, for example, some 53.7 percent of adults and 68.3 percent of young people are functionally illiterate. Not only does becoming a proficient user of Modern Standard Arabic (a language whose grammar has changed little since the early nineteenth century) require sustained and rigorous study for all speakers, but it is also a highly formal language that many argue is not well-suited to casual communication. And yet, the life writing trend is very much present across the Arabophone world: Facebook alone counts some 156 million users in the region, Twitter more than 11 million.

While the widespread adoption of UTF-8, a character encoding system, and the 2003 Internationalizing Domain Names in Applications mechanism have made it possible to use Modern Standard Arabic online, many Arabic-speaking social media users – particularly in the Maghreb – make use of a hybridized form of the language that freely incorporates high and low registers along with French and English. Interestingly, this new chat language, often referred to as 3arabizi, is written in Latin characters.

The impulse to replace the Arabic alphabet with Latin characters is by no means a new one: In 1880, Wilhelm Spitta – the French translator of the Arabian Nights – proposed replacing Arabic letters with Latin ones, along with the wholesale adoption of Egyptian vernacular in place of Modern Standard Arabic. While Spitta’s proposal found strong support among contemporary European linguists, it never gained much traction among users of the language. But there have also been calls to adopt the Latin alphabet from within the Arabophone community: In 1943, Abdul Aziz Fahmi responded to the Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo’s call to “ease Arabic writing and grammar” by proposing a new writing system that would combine Arabic and Latin characters to write both dialectal and Modern Standard Arabic. His proposal was condemned as an attack on Arab identity (as a primarily linguistic identity, Modern Standard Arabic unites where the dialects divide).

Significantly, the emergence of 3arabizi has been a bottom-up process – rather than resulting from any official proposal, it began as a spontaneous response to technological constraints. Early adopters of the internet and other forms of computer-mediated communication discovered that ASCII (or the American Standard Code for Information Interchange) was the standard character encoding system on Web 1.0. ASCII was based on the English alphabet and did not support Arabic characters. Given the impracticality – or impossibility – of typing Arabic characters on mobile platforms, a crowd-sourced system of transcription began to emerge online, allowing its users to communicate in the hybrid language of daily life.

Users of 3arabizi 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 underlined words are in Algerian dialect, the boldface words are from Modern Standard 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

(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)

By as early as 2007, however, ASCII was largely overtaken by UTF-8, a system capable of representing every character in the Unicode set, including the Arabic alphabet. Perhaps surprisingly, despite the technical possibility of composing emails, status updates and text messages in Arabic characters, 3arabizi has not become obsolete. In fact, its use has even expanded beyond the domain of computer-mediated communication to handwritten texts, according to Raghda el Essawi, a professor at the American University in Cairo, who has found that many of her students now use the hybrid language to take lecture notes.

Ultimately, 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. This may help explain its continued – and even expanding – use, even as the limitations that sparked its creation have given way to more inclusive online formats.

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.

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.