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.

Official Announcement of the Doha Historical Dictionary of the Arabic Language

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.

June:26:2013 - 08:58 | Comments & Trackbacks (13) | Permalink
13 Responses to “Regularizing Arabic”
  1. 1
    Barkley Rosser Said:
    June:26:2013 - 09:19 

    It will be interesting to see what comes out of this. The most widely used form of Arabic is the Egyptian, given both that it is by far the largest Arabic-speaking nation in the world and also the source of much media used throughout that world, both its publishing center as well as main center for production of movies and TV shows. The Egyptian Arabic is very close to the Hijazi dialect spoken on the western coast of Saudi Arabia, including in Mecca.

    The dialect spoken in central Saudi Arabia, the Nejdi, is probably the closest of any in the whole Arabic-speaking world to the classical Arabic of the Qu’ran. However, the Hijazi/Egyptian variety is certainly spoken by many more people.

  2. 2
    Saudi Jawa Said:
    June:26:2013 - 09:42 

    This is awesome. I have always been intrigued by all the regional dialects of Arabic, and found it sad that they weren’t properly documented and studied. This is indeed a bold move. Many people believe that so called Classical Arabic is the only true Arabic, and that what they are speaking in day to day life is somehow wrong. A sign of weakness that Arabs must one day abandon if they are to rise as a super power again.

  3. 3
    Yousif Ajaji Said:
    June:27:2013 - 13:09 

    No doubt this project will be of grat help for academicians and intellectuals, but to achieve a really useful work, as I believe, is to concentrate on text books from the early stages of education up to high schools especially in the teaching of grammar which students all over the Arab world find it insurmountable . Believing that there is something sacred in this field has hampered previous efforts to make Arabic language learnable .

  4. 4
    Jerry M Said:
    June:29:2013 - 11:48 

    This sounds like a huge project. Given the nature of what is called Arabic, it is almost like trying to create a unified dictionary of Dutch and German (languages that share a lot of vocabulary). I assume it will take a bit longer than 15 years.

  5. 5
    Andrew Said:
    June:30:2013 - 06:13 

    Much of the academic work for this does exist already scattered in a variety of linguistic journals.

    That is not to say that the task will not be arduous.

    Diglossia exists in many languages besides Arabic.

    In English, for example, it also exists, as I know from speaking to Scots and Australians.

  6. 6
    Chiara Said:
    June:30:2013 - 06:57 

    Interesting post and comments!

    I agree this is an important undertaking, and one for which there has already been a lot done in academic linguistics circles, on dialects as well as Modern Standard Arabic (as opposed to Classical Arabic).

    Diglossia is indeed present in many other languages, and there are others with a distinctive classical version, and a modern version better suited to contemporary communication needs.

    The project itself seems to have taken many linguistic facets into consideration, including making the resulting dictionaries accessible and searchable online.

  7. 7
    John Burgess Said:
    June:30:2013 - 08:31 

    @Andrew: Indeed, diglossia exists for many languages, including English. I suppose, too, that for some Americans, hearing strongly dialectic Scots English is as tiresome as an Iraqi trying to understand a Moroccan. Even films like “Trainspotting” had to have subtitles for an American audience.

    The problem with messing around with — or even analyzing — Arabic is that some consider it sinful, making it difficult, if not impossible, to do serious work.

  8. 8
    Chiara Said:
    June:30:2013 - 10:16 

    John–I’m curious about the who would object so strenuously on religious grounds to this undertaking, and how they would manifest that. I understand that there are certain groups who might, but it is a very long tradition in Arabic and Islamic scholarship to examine Arabic, in detail, as part of exegetical and other religious studies. Would the objection then be to non-Quranic scholars examining non-Quranic (or hadith) Arabic?

  9. 9
    John Burgess Said:
    June:30:2013 - 12:27 

    @Chiara: Yes, non-Muslim scholars come in for special condemnation, but even Arab Muslim scholars do, too. The case of Nasr Abu Zayid in Egypt is illustrative. Attempts to argue that Quranic Arabic is not ‘pure’ Arabic — that is, that it includes vocabulary from Aramaic, Amharic, Hebrew, and other languages spoken in the region in the 7th C CE — meet with calls of blasphemy.

  10. 10
    News-2013-06-27 | SUSRIS Pinged With:
    June:30:2013 - 17:38 

    [...] Regularizing Arabic [...]

  11. 11
    Saudi Arabia-News-2013-06-27 | ArabiaLink Pinged With:
    June:30:2013 - 17:46 

    [...] Regularizing Arabic [...]

  12. 12
    News-2013-06-27 | SBRIS Pinged With:
    June:30:2013 - 18:32 

    [...] Regularizing Arabic [...]

  13. 13
    Andrew Said:
    July:02:2013 - 04:05 


    Certainly Arabic has a special place, as the language of our faith and of the Rasulullah.

    However, even in our nation, linguistics is taught and is taught honestly and with regard to the facts that it is a language that has links to other Semitic languages.

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