Saturday, August 13, 2011

Language and what is happening to it

The friendly young man opposite me plans to enter a private college and that’s why he wants to brush up his English.

To make him talk, I ask him about his hobbies. As so many young people nowadays he answers „chatting with friends in internet.“ I want to know if he uses English for chatting. He answers with a distorted smile, that he uses „Franco-Arab.“ I knew what he meant but I didn’t know the expression.

When using „Franco-Arab“ or „Arabish“, Latin letters are being used, yet the writer expresses himself in Arabic. In doing so, some phonetics, that are not existing in any Latin language, are of course missing (e.g.: ع). These phonetics have to be expressed with cyphers (e.g.: 3). For non-Arabic speakers this looks rather strange (e.g.: ana raye7 el gam3a el sa3a 3 el 3asr; origin: Wikipedia). Frequently, one or several words are even written in English, mixed with the transliterated Arabic. Something similar is happening on Egyptian TV: performers switch in the middle of a sentence between English and Arabic.

Egyptians were of course once more the first ones to make a virtue out of necessity. The originally Western technology for internet and mobile phone communication was not applicable for any other characters than those of the Latin languages. That means that first Arabic, Farsi, Hindi etc. were excluded from this invention.

On the one hand, I think this is a clever development. It shows how inventive people can be and that they are able to help themselves. It also shows that languages are lively and are developing themselves continuously.
On the other hand: what happens when we do not use our original language anymore? Do we unlearn it? In doing so, do we not also lose our identity?
That might be different in Western Europe from the Arabic speaking world. I grew up with books: as a child, I carefully tore page by page from old books to my Mum’s horror. Later, I dreamt with picture books and eventually I made it for reading – and never ever stopped again. Soon, my love for writing was added. However, this was not really difficult because my parents read and I grew up among mountains of books.

On the contrary, reading books has been neglected for decades in the Arabic speaking world (generally spoken and with the exception of the Qur’an). Arabic is a tremendously difficult language and to teach and to learn it needs a lot of energy and devotion. In addition, people here grow up with a dialect – so why by all means should they learn classical Arabic? Arabic poetry and literature is among the most beautiful that exist. Is it still being read? Only from few, because it dates from earlier times and is not compatible with our modern times.

Slowly, however, this seems to be changing and efforts are made to pitch reading books to the young people. Young authors are attracting attention and their books are translated into other languages.

Meanwhile, chatting is also possible in Arabic, the technology has been further developed. Yet, using it might be uncool for the youngsters. Somehow, we seem to sit in a uniform pulp: all over the world people drink coke, swallow fast-food and communicate in a slang riddled with English. Do we change our identity with it like a coat or do we just get adapted to new facts? What do you think about it?

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