An Odyssey of Words: Evolution of the Arabic Language in the 20th Century

Georgine Ayoub

Spoken by more than 250 million individuals today, the Arabic language is the only language among the Semitic languages that has undergone a constant expansion for nearly three millennia. The last 150 years have been among the most decisive years in its evolution.

The history of this language in the 20th century is closely connected to the history of Arab societies. The expanding demographics, the large migrations from the countryside to the cities, and the formation of metropolitan areas brought about interactions among people that had lived isolated from one another. Moreover, the importance of the media and the impact of Western civilization have more recently introduced tremendous changes, the effects of which will be felt for a long time in the Arabic language. Let's look at how these non-linguistic forces work change within the language.

Every language is a field of forces where the same principles work simultaneously for change and for loyalty to the past. Change and continuity, according to noted linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, are founded on one of language's properties: the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign. The two forces seem to have worked in a peculiar way during the last millennium in the history of the Arabic language. The principle of continuity seems at work only in the classical (or literary) Arabic, while the principle of change and variation between local idioms seems to be at work in Arabic dialects.

The First Half of the 20th Century

However, this model has been significantly modified during the 20th century, when literary Arabic became transformed from a language of the elites, mainly used in the fields of religion and jurisprudence, to the language of the masses. This change affected not only literary Arabic but its relationship with Arabic dialects, which in turn were changed under the influence of powerful social factors.

The 20th century began under the slogan of the language. The emergence of nationalism, whether it was Pan Arab such as in Syria and Lebanon, or regional such as in Egypt, was invariably linked to the language. In order to reclaim the medieval Arabic language known as al-Arabiyya , a modern form of literary Arabic evolved - commonly known as standard Arabic, which distinguished itself from the al-Arabiyya at the lexical, syntactical, and stylistic levels.

The first half of the 20th century was a continuation of the spirit of the Nahda or renaissance. The Arab press played a decisive role in the renaissance of the Arabic language as Ibrahim al-Yazigi noted towards the beginning of the century. Continuity and change, purism and modernization were not perceived as contradictory. For instance, al-Yazigi devoted his article, "Language and Time" in Al Bayan literary magazine (1898) to enumerating the morphological processes that permit the creation of new words. But at the same time, he was also a pioneer in vilifying common language errors in the press.

The simultaneous attempts of renewal and attachment to the canons of the language characterized the position of the Arab academies, particularly the Damascus Academy (founded in 1919) and the Cairo Academy (founded in 1932), both of which played an important role in what appeared to be the most urgent task in the beginning of the century: the modernization and the expansion of the lexicon. The 19th century had made literary Arabic a language of political and social debate, thanks to the reform movement in Egypt and to the Christian Lebanese intellectuals who wrote important dictionaries according to contemporary methods. However, a lot more work remained to be done.

Influenced by the French academy, the Arabic academies of Cairo and Damascus aimed to preserve the purity of the Arabic language as well as adapt its lexicon to modern scientific and technical needs, a concern that has dominated the Cairo Academy since 1960. The difficulties in coining precise political terminology which marked the 19th century gave way in the 20th century to more daring innovations in the expansion of the lexicon. For instance, in a society governed by a religious law known as sharia , the verb sharra'a , to mean civil legislation, was adopted after great initial reluctance. In other instances, in the second half of the 19th century the Young Turks had borrowed some Arabic terms to designate Western political concepts like hukumat (government) or jumhurriyya(republic). These terms came to be used in Arabic discourse early in the 20th century.


The methods of innovation during the 20th century varied. Terms or concepts were transferred to the Arabic language - an example is the term aristoqratiyya , which is borrowed from the French aristocratie. In other instances, semantic components of terms were literally translated into their Arabic equivalents, a method called calque. One example of this is 'awlama , which means "globalization," a term that has gained wide acceptance in contemporary Arab social science. Yet another approach, neologism - inventing new words and expressions - was used in a number of ways, among which are: the analogical derivation such as suffixation of the iyya in order to form abstract nouns such as qawmiyya which means nationalism; the multiple Arabic schemes as the instrumental scheme used to form new words like mis'ad , meaning the instrument to elevate; the extension of the meaning of an existing word such as jarida which presently means newspaper; the composition that gave us some current words like raddfi'l , which means reaction, and which was formed of two nouns, radd and fi'l ; and the integration of new notions passed often from the simple transfer of a foreign word to the formation of a new word better integrated in the structure of the language. For instance, the word communisme was transferred into Arabic in the 19th century, but was Arabized into shuyu'iyya in the 20th. Some borrowed words produced new derivations: for example talfana(to call on the phone) from tilifon (telephone).

We must go back to the 10th century to find a similar expansion of the Arabic lexicon, thanks to a wide movement of translation at that time. While Baghdad was the only center of translation in the 10th century, in the 20th century translation has been undertaken at multiple centers in the Arab world. Notwithstanding these multiple centers, we note a real uniformity of vocabulary in scientific disciplines such as medicine, physics, and finance, while the national terminologies, particularly the governmental ones, have remained distinct, and often reflect the history of the individual countries.

Because of its oral nature, it is difficult to trace the development of the Arabic dialect in the first half of the 20th century. However, the available grammar shows that the linguistic change was fast, as we notice when we compare the grammar of the Lebanese dialect written in 1928 by Michel Feghali with the grammar of the Syrian dialect written in 1964 by Mark Cowell. Uniformity and simplicity characterize the changes to the syntax and phonology of the language. As Cowell highlights, the change that started around the mid-20th century shows the influence of the written language over the spoken. This facilitated the adoption of numerous words that affected both syntax and phonology. Meanwhile, the massive urbanization in conjunction with the rise of the media created a setting where regional words were abandoned and replaced by equivalent cosmopolitan ones.

The Second Half of the 20th Century

The breakaway from the Nahda characterizes the second half of the 20th century. The first concern was to find in the language means to express the self. The development of the novel, a major literary event of the 20th century, succeeded in transforming the language from being confined to law, religion, and politics into becoming the language of the every day. The concern with being grammatically correct was gradually abandoned, especially in Egypt, in favor of expressing the self free from rules. Because they are primarily interested in describing reality, authors in the last two decades have resorted to using European words borrowed by various dialects. They have also used the dialect vocabulary, and in certain contexts used dialect in whole passages. Since its expansion, and in order to get closer to the reader, the print press has undergone a similar evolution. On the other hand, undoubtedly, the audiovisual media have been decisive in creating new linguistic usages, where the spoken has become both formal and intelligible. Finally, the sociolinguistic factor has been decisive in the evolution of the language, primarily due to the varying degrees of language skills in literary Arabic. While the Arabic language has become both popularized and the official language of Arab countries, the methods by which it has been taught have failed to keep up with this evolution. Since language mastery was lacking early in the century, a passionate debate ensued, leading intellectuals like Taha Hussein and others to call for simplifying the teaching of both grammar and language. These debates bore no fruit, however, perhaps because they were not integrated into a coherent didactic vision.

The linguistic question in the Maghreb became a major issue in the second half of the 20th century. In the post-colonial period, the Maghreb states followed different policies of Arabization, a process influenced by each country's history, politics, and the importance of the Berber minorities. For example, Algeria and especially Morocco have large minorities of Berbers who are bilingual (Arab/Berber). Unlike in the Mashreq, the French language has rivaled the Arabic for prestige status. In the midst of this rivalry, those using literary Arabic became overzealous in adhering to the strict rules of the language, for example, employing case endings even in an oral discourse on the radio. Consequently, the switch from literary Arabic to the vernacular makes a striking contrast in the Maghreb. Unlike in the formal usage, in the colloquial it is common to hear a Moroccan or a Tunisian switch from French to the local dialect within the same sentence.

In societies where a substantial segment of the population is literate, and two variants of language usage exist, the gap between the literary/written and spoken Arabic tends to diminish. With the gap disappearing, a continuum emerges, offering the speaker a rich array of possibilities. In many oral situations, the speaker uses a mixed language, neither purely literary nor purely dialectal, known as middle Arabic. This term designates a form of Arabic where both a departure from the classical norm and dialectal interferences are noted. Middle Arabic is an established form which can be found in texts starting from the 7th to the 20th century. The modern version of Middle Arabic establishes bridges between literary Arabic and dialects on one hand, as well as a closer understanding between the two large dialectal groups - the Maghreb and Mashreq. Dependent on the language skills of the speaker, the place, and the topic of discussion, a radio broadcaster may employ dialectal particles in literary Arabic texts, mainly to enhance better understanding and to create a bond with the listener. Similarly, the same broadcaster may use the passive form of the literary Arabic in a dialectal speech as well as case endings to impress his listener or to produce a certain impact. In the same sentence, the broadcaster may switch from a literary syntax to dialectal conjugation, while suppressing the most local expressions. This Middle Arabic does not constitute a variant of the language, for it lacks a grammatical coherence: we simultaneously find correct forms of the literary Arabic and deviations from these forms. We even find hybrid forms that are neither literary nor dialectal.

The deliberate use of dialect within the written text has resulted not in the dialect as a distant variant but as a level of literary Arabic. Whether in news broadcasting or the novel, this use appears every time the text is organized in reference to the first and second person, mainly in dialogue situations. When narration is needed, the literary Arabic is invariably used. In the press, the purpose of the text determines the appropriate grammar. On one hand, normative political speeches articulate their goals in a universal language, i.e. the literary Arabic. On the other, the comments in caricature or satirical drawings are exclusively expressed in dialect. The use of dialect permits an immediate reference to everyday life and produces a dramatic impact on readers. Apart from the dialogue in the novel, the use of dialect often appears in the conclusions of texts in order to identify moral themes and to establish an affective relationship with the language.

These linguistic practices denote new mental representations. From the first known texts of literary Arabic, an intricate relationship existed between the norm, the aesthetic, and "truthful" discourse. According to these early standards, there is neither truthfulness nor beauty in the spoken language if it does not conform to grammatical norms. Speech mistakes are not only linguistic in nature, but also have ethical and ontological implications: they are considered as hideous scars and a cause for perdition according to medieval texts.

The novel's contribution has been central to the modern understanding of language, for it has produced an inversion of values. Against the prevalent concept that language is timeless, unchanging, pure, and unequivocal, the novel affirms that language is time-bound, and that the mixed forms have ethical and aesthetic value. The novel also highlights the dignity of the dialect. Reflecting a plurality of language levels, the novel tries to escape the moralizing of the conventional literary language. However, two contrary tendencies still exist: the first insists on rigorous, pure, and sacred usage of the literary Arabic; the second rejects the literary Arabic in favor of the written dialect. The former tendency is much more powerful than the latter.

From its journey across the 20th century, the Arabic language carries two remarkable traits: never in the past have the written and spoken languages been intricately intertwined; never before have the centrifugal forces of standardization affected the dialects as much as now. However, the question remains, what will become of the Arabic language in the future? If the past century has sensibly modified the modalities of functions between literary and dialectal Arabic, present for more than one and a half millennia, multiple paths remain possible. The literary Arabic is a source of fascination because of its relation to the written and to the sacred. Both economic constraints and globalization favor literary Arabic, making a common language in a vast geographic area more advantageous than multiple languages. What will therefore be the modalities of the presence of literary and dialectal Arabic in the 21st century? Will a form of Middle Arabic be the future? Will the dialects become the national languages of tomorrow? These fascinating questions cause passionate debate. Some of these questions are Euro-centric, assuming a pattern of evolution similar to Roman languages derived from Latin. But neither the constraints of the time nor the social determinations of the language are identical to those of European languages, for the future of languages does not necessarily follow the same paths.

Translated from the French by Al Jadid editors

This essay appeared in Al Jadid magazine, Vol. 8, No. 40 (Summer 2002)

Copyright (c) 2002 by Al Jadid

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