Lebanon has a long history as a shipping and trading hub, leveraging its geographical location on the Mediterranean Sea and connecting mainland Europe to the Arab hinterland. It was several thousand years ago that religious texts referenced the peoples of Mesopotamia (in what is now modern day Iraq) first migrating and settling on the coastal lands of the area. These people were known as Canaanites. Later, the Phoenician civilization dominated the coastal lands of the Eastern Mediterranean and was centered around the present-day geographical borders of Lebanon. For a period, the Romans ruled over the area before the Arabs, and this was followed by a struggle over control of the region during a period known as the Crusades. Fast forward to the 1500s, and Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years until its collapse following World War I. From then until the Republic of Lebanon was established in 1943, the country was under the French Mandate. In the post-World War II period, following the lead of the politically and financially superior Americans, Lebanon, alongside many other countries, was integrated into the global economy. Throughout its entire history, it is thought that the maritime tradition has had as strong an influence on the country as religion, foreign control, or other cultural influences, and that the language spoken today in Lebanon is rooted deeply in its past.
Lebanon is, in a formal sense, very much an Arab country. Politically, it is integrated with the region through bilateral trade agreements and other pacts with neighboring countries, and is part of the Arab League, a regional organization fostering relations and common interests of its member states. Arabic is the language of formal settings and is the country’s national language, according to the constitution. However, the language spoken in everyday settings is not formal Arabic, but the local dialect of Lebanese Arabic. There is, according to Hsen Andil, co-founder of the new online collective Bel Lebnééné, a huge linguistic difference between formal Arabic and Lebanese, to the extent that they are two different languages. Bel Lebnééné aims to standardize a script for the local language and build a library of content. The collective aims to raise awareness and encourage Lebanese speakers to write and express themselves in Lebanese.
A common language
Andil and fellow Bel Lebnééné co-founder Mahmoud Rasmi suggest that the problem may be that Arabic as a language has not evolved; they have struggled in academic settings to convey technical subjects in Arabic, and instead have to revert to English. Latin and Ancient Greek was the lingua franca of academia until the start of the 20th century. Nowadays, English is the go-to language for the definition of terms of global capitalism. This is especially evident to journalists listening in on the English-to-Arabic translation at conferences where the speaker uses a term or concept in English, and the retranslation into Arabic does not come out very easily, meaning the concept gets altered and diluted. To see this in practice, bilingual readers can try this exercise: How does one translate data breach, meaning a security incident where digital information is compromised, into Arabic, and how would that concept be retranslated back into English?
In terms of audience size, the online collective has big potential. The main communities that could benefit are the Lebanese that live abroad as part of diaspora communities living mostly in North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Africa. They number in the millions, and, for many in the diaspora, formal Arabic is not a language taught to schoolchildren. Instead, many in diaspora households might only be speakers of Lebanese and may have limited formal writing and reading ability, and so Lebanese diaspora may consider Lebanese, not formal Arabic, their mother tongue. That means that when they visit Lebanon, or return to live in the country, they can speak and interact in day-to-day conversations but may struggle in formal settings or when reading or completing official paperwork.
Those that come to Lebanon seeking to learn Arabic often find out very quickly that the country, and especially in the capital, Beirut, is not an ideal place to study the language. This is because the language that is taught in the textbooks is not what is spoken on the streets outside the classroom. For foreign language students to learn Arabic in Lebanon is really challenging, and it is more akin to learning two foreign languages instead of just one.
At Lebanon’s primary schools the situation is similar, formal Arabic is taught, but according to 2017-2018 enrollment figures from the Center for Educational Research and Development under the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, more than half of Lebanese students (almost 550,000) are enrolled at schools that teach French as the primary foreign language, with about 48 percent of students (almost 520,000) enrolled at schools that teach English as the primary foreign language. Schools are licensed by the ministry to offer curriculum of the American system, the French system, or the International Baccalaureate system. However, the Lebanese official curriculum is taught alongside a foreign system, while the national exam, which must be passed to obtain the high school diploma, is offered only in Arabic. Often students have studied subjects, such as science or math, in English or in French. Those test subjects are part of the national exam, with their terminology transliterated from the foreign language into Arabic.
At home, Lebanese tend to speak the local dialect and not formal Arabic, and there are some households where French or English is the dominant language. Media in Lebanon, such as the newspaper or news broadcasts as well as books are mainly delivered or written in formal Arabic. Locally produced television programming is often in the colloquial dialect with foreign productions dubbed, or subtitled in formal Arabic. But now in the digital era, many of these mediums are not as widely consumed as they once were. This makes practicing formal Arabic outside of the classroom somewhat challenging for Lebanese students and for foreign language learners.
Andil and Rasmi think of formal Arabic as almost a dead language. It is not an extinct language, they say, because it is still used in religious and formal settings, but dead in the sense that it is not commonly heard in day-to-day conversation. Lebanese is unique from formal Arabic in that it incorporates terms and concepts from other languages. This is most easily seen through code-switching, a term that refers to alternating between languages during a conversation. At its simplest, there is the famous phrase “Hi, kifak, ça va?” and conjugating words using spoken Lebanese Arabic rules, such as the use of “bonjourayn” to reply in greeting.
Bel Lebnééné looks to standardize spoken Lebanese into a written format and to build a library of content to make written Lebanese more mainstream. The two co-founders point to poet and prose author Maurice Awad, financially-inclined academic Nassim Taleb, and other well-known authors that wrote in Lebanese, such as Said Akl and Talal Haidar. Their effort is not one with political goals—they do not aim for the collective to serve as a platform promoting national identity, but to express themselves better when talking about philosophical, political, or economic issues, and to inspire Lebanese to write as they speak.