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Illustration by Tom Abi Samra

Is it Lebanese, or is it Lebanese Arabic?

The vehement debate persists as we fight for dialects to be on the same level as Modern Standard Arabic, and argue if some languages are just dialects or independent languages on their own.

Mar 2, 2019

What is it that I speak — Lebanese Arabic or simply Lebanese? The response I would expect to receive from both kinds of people, those with roots in the so-called Arab region and those without, is that I speak Lebanese Arabic, just like Egyptians speak Egyptian Arabic, Syrians speak Syrian Arabic, Emiratis speak Emirati Arabic and so on.
A vehement debate exists about the classification of these languages — are they dialects of Arabic, or are they separate languages? Arguing for one side or the other is inherently political, even if it is unintended. On an ideological level, rejecting Lebanese, for example, as a dialect of Arabic could imply that one is rejecting Arab nationalism, a movement that picked up steam in the mid-19th century in the Levant and was later popularized by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s. This ideology advocates for the treatment of Arab states — which are assumed to share a history, politics and a cause — as one nation. Although the prominence of pan-Arabism has declined since the 1950s and 1960s, Arab solidarity seems almost embedded in our thinking about language and culture.
Some scholars such as Franck Salameh, a professor of Near Eastern studies, argue that prior to the Muslim conquest of the Levant, non-Muslims existed in the region, namely the Byzantines — the term often used to refer to the Romans of the Levant; hence, they reject the Arab label imposed on many Christians throughout the region, for they are not genealogically Arab — “someone who can trace his or her ancestry back to the original inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula or the Syrian Desert” — as the Muslim conquerors of the Levant were.
Ironically, using the Arab League’s 1946 definition of an Arab — “a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples” — one could justify some scholars’ rejection of the Arab label, for they reject Arab nationalism and hence are “not in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arab speaking peoples,” let alone the issue of the language’s classification as Arabic or not.
Politics aside, however, there is a linguistic argument to be made. Slavomír Čéplö, a philologist and dialectologist, delineates in a series of tweets the history of Arabic and its development. Historically, people in Arabia spoke various dialects, one of which was the dialect of the Quran. Here, dialect is defined as “a variety of a language specific to a region.” Given the Quran’s status as a religious book, special care was taken as to prevent its spoilage, and so the dialect with which it is written became what is now the untouchable Classical Arabic. Meanwhile, other dialects spoken in the region continued evolving.
The only reason we classify Lebanese as an Arabic dialect is the lack of political infrastructure for it to ‘qualify’ as a separate language, especially with the stigma associated with challenging Classical Arabic. To clarify, in the words of Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, a “language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” While Danish and Norwegian speakers can converse fairly well with one another, with some hiccups along the way — much like Lebanese and Emirati speakers would — Danish and Norwegian are classified as languages while Lebanese and Emirati as dialects. To conclude, Čéplö introduces another sociological definition of dialect — that which differentiates between “high” and “low” varieties of a language. This definition applies to the classification of Arabic: the dialects are the low varieties, the informal and peasantly, while classical is considered the high variety, formal and sophisticated.
Briefly, one opposing argument revolves around the idea that historically, Aramaic precedes Classical Arabic and so a lot of the words that we attribute to Arabic are in fact attributable to Aramaic. In a Medium post entitled “No, Lebanese is not a “dialect of” Arabic”, Nicholas Taleb posits, “Lebanese is influenced by Arabic (as well as other languages, such as Aramaic and Canaanite/Phoenician, plus its own local evolution), but it is not a version of Arabic.”
One can reconcile both Čéplö’s and Taleb’s arguments, and that is done eloquently by Ahmad Al-Jallad, a philologist, in yet another Twitter thread. He says, “Historical bilingualism explains how Aramaic syntactic constructions and Arabic verbal morphology can exist in a single variety. … But historically, Arabic, both vernacular and literary, were sociolinguistically dominate and so overtime [sic] marked Aramaic features were perhaps reduced such that the present-day vernacular may have far less Aramaic in it tha[n] a variety spoken centuries ago. … But let me stress: I don’t think this means we call Lebanese "Arabic". In the end the name of the language is up to its speakers.”
But why does this matter?
It matters because of diglossia; Arabic is a diglossic language, which means that the high and low varieties mentioned above are both utilized in society depending on the context. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) — a slightly modernized version of Classical/Quranic Arabic — is the high variety. It is the language taught in schools, used in most literary production, and used in newspapers and other formal settings. There is a two-fold argument for teaching this variety of Arabic: firstly, it is what is taught in all Arabic-speaking countries, so is seen as a necessity to communicate with other Arabs, a necessity that I conjecture descends from the pan-Arabist ideology. Secondly, it is considered formal and professional in comparison to the informal and flippant dialects. Consequently, the use of dialects is highly discouraged in formal settings, especially classrooms, but since MSA is never used outside the formal, it is unfamiliar and uncomfortable to use.
Since everyone uses their dialect in everyday interactions, it is often the dialect that is the person’s native tongue — it is the language that is most familiar, the language that feels like home. But since the dialect is the low variety of the language, there is no official/formalized way of writing it; nonetheless, different people adopt various ways of writing informally. A popular system is one which was propelled by some intellectuals, such as Lebanese poet Saïd Akl, who propose the use of the Latin alphabet in addition to numerals to write dialect/Arabic words; it is how most people text in their dialect. With that said, it is not standardized and so one word may be spelled in many ways, all of which could be understood. But this lack of standardization further renders the dialects informal.
The problem with diglossia is that it is a lose-lose situation. Students, for the most part, are discouraged from using their dialect — their mother tongue — at the expense of learning MSA, which is unfamiliar to them. So, they neither use their dialect rigorously because it is discouraged nor do they use MSA because it is unfamiliar and taught archaically. Add to this concoction, the remnants of the colonial era in many parts of the Arabic-speaking world — heavy English and/or French instruction — and you have a confused child attempting to grapple with his native dialect/language, MSA, and the Western language(s) of choice.
Accordingly, we must fight for dialects to become level with MSA — they are not inferior. We must use dialects in the news; we must teach dialects in schools. And this cannot happen before we make a distinction between dialect and Arabic, e.g. Lebanese vs. MSA. While I respect Čéplö’s nuanced elaboration on the definition of dialects as not necessarily inferior but as simply varieties of languages from the same region, a dialect is inherently seen as a subcategory of the main language. We do not live in an academic bubble, so we cannot rid societies from connotations of words. Therefore, movements such as Bel-Lebnééné — which translates to “In Lebanese” and is a Lebanese language blog — are emerging to promote the use and formalization of local languages. The philosophy is simple: by celebrating and writing down our dialects as distinct languages, we learn to appreciate them and learn their nuances and rich vocabularies — for example, did you know there are at least 22 ways to say “slap him” in Lebanese?
Tom Abi Samra is Multimedia Editor. Email him at
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