‘Lubnaan’: the case for a standardized Lebanese language

“[…] a day will come when literary Arabic will vanish from Lebanon […]” — Said Akl

Renowned Lebanese writer, poet, journalist, intellectual and political figure, Said Akl (1911-2014), predicted as early as the 1960s the abandonment of literary Arabic from public use in Lebanon. A self-proclaimed Phoenicianist ideologue, he believed in a form of Lebanese nationalism which emphasized on the unique character of Lebanon and the Lebanese people and refused the notion that the Lebanese are Arabs. Instead he claimed that the Lebanese are descendants of the Phoenicians.

The establishment of a Lebanese alphabet based on the Latin-script and the subsequent standardization of the Lebanese language as a replacement to Arabic (and its script) proved popular with some anti-arabists (mostly christian nationalists) at the time, but dismissed by pan-arabists as baseless; some even ridiculed Akl. Little did these people know that he was in fact not wrong in his prediction. The 21st century has shown us that the demise of literary Arabic in Lebanon is imminent — and necessary.

This article will base its argument on the founding of a standardized Lebanese language (with a Latin-script) as vital to creating unison among this divided society, threatened with the prospects of civil war, demise and failure. This endeavor is necessary for the survival of a secular and egalitarian Lebanese state.

Opponents to the establishment of a Lebanese language often cite ‘nationalism’ as the drive force behind these calls, and hence, rule out any possibility of standardizing spoken Lebanese. The irony of these people is their commitment to Arabic through their adherence to Arab nationalism, which is itself a form of ‘nationalism’ — the very ideology they criticize.

Whether the Lebanese are descendants of Arabs or Phoenicians, is irrelevant to the argument. It is a matter of survival and not racism. We are not better than the Arabs, nor are we better than the French or the Americans. It would also be a shame to deny our Phoenician heritage. The argument that our endeavor is ‘islamophobic’ is appalling; we are neither alienating ourselves from the greater Muslim world, nor from the West. Our goal is not to isolate ourselves from others, but to unite amongst ourselves as a people.

Lebanon might have “strong links to the West” as the Constitution claims, but is this phrase really necessary to include in the most important document of the Republic? It might also have “an Arab face”, but does this deny the Lebanese a standardized language?

Mostly visible in education, some prefer the use of Arabic but others prefer French or English. Schools teach the curriculum established by the government in either of the three languages; it all depends on the school or even on the respective subject taught in that same school. To add to this dilemma, not speaking one or the other is becoming a recurrent theme in the country’s new generation of citizens and in the greater diaspora. People are confused and stressed (though they might not admit it) due to the difficulty of juggling literal Arabic and spoken Lebanese, all the while dealing with either the monolingualism of some and the code-switching of others. Lebanon must be more inclusive.

Arabic will still be used in Lebanon, but not as an official language. The Lebanese language must be used not only in the press and on television but also in schools across the country. The colonial legacy of French and English, and the subsequent reliance on code-switching in spoken Lebanese is abominable and nothing to be proud of. We shall teach and learn Arabic, French and English as foreign languages (probably giving Arabic a higher status), and maths, social sciences and natural sciences will be taught in Lebanese.

We need to understand as a people that the need for a standardized Lebanese language is already being felt with the advancement of the internet and the popularization of ‘texting in Lebanese’ on social media, with the mixing of the Latin script with numerals. Lebanese is being transformed from a rich language to a weird form of writing where people do not show consistency in their spelling and sentence structure — they even make up words !

An academy of the Lebanese language will be given the duty to take on the task of implementing, organizing and standardizing this new language for the sake of achieving a higher level of functional literacy. The continuation of an unfortunate functional illiteracy is a danger to our desperate need to see ourselves as a people united under one Lebanese identity. Thus, the vernacular must be standardized.

To conclude, we are not creating a language, but standardizing the Lebanese already spoken in Lebanon. What was envisioned by Said Akl and deemed impossible by many, is what we shall make into a reality today. Language is important for unity especially in these times of revolution.

Photo: Said Akl, from France Info Culture (with AFP)

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