The Arabic language suffers from diglossia. Children are raised in a first variety of Arabic — their regional dialect — but then must learn a second Arabic — the literary form. While there is great overlap, there are also vast differences between the two. This means that while dialects diverge — which is something that happens with dialects in any language — there are also forces that try to bring them back into accord.
The Doha-based Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies is about to undertake the effort to produce a lexicon — a word list — of contemporary Arabic. The effort seems to be one of description — laying out how the language is used — rather than a prescriptive one — how the language should be used. That will be an extremely important addition to Arabic studies. What is more, the project will look back to 2,000 years of Arabic usage with the intent to inform about how the language has changed and is continuing to change.
For some, this will be seen as a bold — if not to say blasphemous — enterprise. Many Muslims believe that Arabic, as the language God used to deliver the Quran, is itself unchangeable and incorruptible. That, sadly for them, is not the case. All languages change as the circumstances in which they are used change. Contemporary English is far from the language used by Shakespeare, not to mention that of Chaucer. American English is not the same as British English which is not the same as English spoken in India, Pakistan, or Indonesia. Obvious divergences in Arabic, from that of the Magreb to that of the Mashriq, are real. Saudi Arabic is vastly different from Moroccan dialect. But even within Saudi Arabia or Morocco, there are big differences in vocabulary choice and pronunciations. They need to be accounted for and to be understood. It’s not clear that the Doha project will focus on dialects; perhaps it doesn’t need to. It would be extremely interesting to see if it does, however.
The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies announced the official launch of the Doha Historical Dictionary of the Arabic Language, on May 25, 2013, following two years of extensive preparation by a select group of linguistic experts, lexicographers, and computational scientists from a variety of Arab countries. The official announcement was made at Doha’s Ritz-Carlton, where the first meeting of the academic council responsible for the project was held. ACRPS General Director Dr. Azmi Bishara passed the chair of the first session to Dr. Ramzi Baalbaki.
During the meeting, they also announced the launching of a temporary website for the lexicon, hosted on the ACRPS domain for the time being:
The Doha Dictionary project will provide the Arab nation with the means to understand its language, as well as their language’s historical and civilizational legacy.
… The new dictionary, which will chronicle the history of Arabic terms over 2,000 years, is projected to take 15 years until completion, with achievement highlights being presented every three years. The dictionary hopes to make possible the facilitation of research on Arab intellectual legacy through the work it uncovers. As a comprehensive electronic corpus, the dictionary will be able to assist a number of projects related to machine language in Arabic, including machine translation and automated spelling and grammar checkers. A number of specialist lexicons will also be published as auxiliaries to the main project, including dedicated works on scientific terms, terms related to the study of civilization, a complete dictionary of contemporary Arabic, and educational dictionaries.