Franco-Arabic and the Secret History of Writing

One of the best things about the further “reading” on my LIS master’s is that this doesn’t just include dry academic text books and reports, but also news stories, documentaries and even YouTube videos. One excellent resource that students were recommended for our Story of Documents class was Dr. Lydia Wilson’s BBC4 series The Secret History of Writing.

The first episode, in particular, which deals with the Rebus Principle and the birth of alphabets was mind-blowing. I couldn’t have been more surprised to learn that ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are “sleeping” in the very letters I am typing out now. I’ll never look at the letter A again without thinking of the Egyptian hieroglyph for a bull.

And the same applies to the other language I speak: Arabic. Both Arabic and Latin type have the same origin. In the third episode, Dr. Wilson delves into the rise of Franco-Arabic or Arabic chat (personally, I’ve always heard it called Arabizi). Arabic text written using Latin type, but with a few small addition. For example, ع‎ (ain) becomes a 3 and the ء (hamza or glottal stop) becomes a 2. Is this the future of Arabic?

As a former Arabic translator, I’m not sure how I feel about all this. Arabic is a wonderful but complicated language. I’m not sure if the Latin alphabet is able to encompass its linguistic complexities, even if this is only used for simple communication purposes. Things like how nouns and adjectives are declined according to case, gender, and even number could easily be lost in transcription.

Moreover, there isn’t any one, single Arabic. Arabic is a diglossia, featuring “high” and “low” versions. Franco-Arabic is, so far at least, mostly used for ease of communication. It originated in online chat and today is mostly used for text messaging. But everybody speaks a different version of this “low” form of Arabic. Regional dialects can vary significantly, not just in terms of what words are used, but also how the same words are pronounced.

Simply saying, “How are you?” could vary from “Ezzayak?” (Egyptian), “Kayf al-Hal? (Gulf Arabic), “Ish lawnak?” (Levantine) or Kidera? (Moroccan Arabic). And I’m sure I’m missing a lot of other examples.

In any case, I decided to give Franco-Arabic a whirl, and so the below is my transcription of the beginning of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s famous poem Mural. Immediately, even the title of the poem causes a problem. In Egyptian Arabic, the Arabic that I speak, the ج is pronounced with a hard g sound. But in Gulf or Levantine Arabic, it would be pronounced with a softer j sound. So, is it Gaddariya or Jaddariya? Well, that depends on who is speaking.

Haza huwa ismak
8alit imra2a
W ghabat fi al mumur al lawlabi
Ara al sama2 hunak fi mutanawal al aydi
W yahmaluni ginah hamama bay9a soub
Tafoola ukhra. W lam ahlam b2nee
Kunt ahlam. Kul shay2 waq3. Kunt
A3lam inani alqi b nafsi ganiban
W ateer. Sawf akoon ma sa2seer fi
Alfalak al akheer. W kol shay2 abyad
Albahr alm3laq foq saqf ghamama
Bay9a. W illa shay2 abyad fi
Sama al mutlaq al bayda2. Kunt, w lam
Akun. f2na waheed fi nawahi ha zehe
Alabadiya albayda2. Gi2tu qabeel miy3di
F lam yazhar malak wahid l yaqool li: 
(Maza fa3lt, hunak, fi al dunya?)
W lam asm3 hetaf al tayibeen, w la 
Aneed al khati2een, ana waheed fi al baya9, 
Ana waheed…

And here is the translation:

Mural by Mahmoud Darwish
This is your name /
a woman said
and disappeared in the spiralling corridor
I could see the sky over there within my grasp.
A dove’s white wing carried me toward
another childhood. I wasn’t dreaming
that I was dreaming. Everything was realistic. I knew
I was tossing myself to the side
before I flew. I would become what I want
in the final orbit. Everything was white:
the sea hanging above the roof of a white
cloud was nothingness in the white
sky of the absolute. I was
and I wasn’t. I was alone in the corners of this
eternal whiteness. I came before my time and not
one angel appeared to ask me:
“What did you do, there, in life?”
And I didn’t hear the chants of the virtuous
or the sinners’ moans, I was alone in whiteness,

And so, what have I learned from this little exercise? Transcribing into Franco-Arabic did not come naturally to me, not at all. I had to stop many times and think, should I use a 2 here? Should this d become a 9? I could have transcribed this excerpt into Arabic in half the time, although admittedly, a younger person, who uses Franco-Arabic on a daily basis, might not have faced this obstacle.

I think the biggest thing I have learned is that the Arabic alphabet will survive. We should not fear that Franco-Arabic would or even could replace it. Arabic has proven wonderfully persistent. And yes, there are obvious cultural and religious reasons for this. And yes, this persistence does have its downsides, as with Arabic’s resistance to the moveable type revolution. But ultimately, I think that Arabic, this complicated language with its extra vowels written counter-intuitively from right-to-left, is here to stay.

That’s not to say Franco-Arabic is going anywhere, either. This is clearly not a flash in the pan. It will continue to grow as more and more people use it to chat and WhatsApp and text. And isn’t that – everyday communication – ultimately what language is for?

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