If you relied on subtitles, you’d think Arabic only had one insult: “tabban lak.”
The phrase is a strong curse, meaning “may evil befall you” or “may you perish,” and dates back to the Qur’an, though no one would ever utter it in real life nowadays.
But the phrase is commonly used today in movie subtitles and translations in Classical or Standard Arabic, in which it seems that all profanity and insults can be rendered by “tabban lak.” The phrase has a certain legendary status now, even being printed as a joke on T-shirts.
This use of “tabban lak” illustrates how Arabs are responsible for creating the split between the dialects of everyday speech and Classical Arabic by purposefully limiting the latter to the most formal language while insisting that the former do not deserve to be studied and should ideally disappear. The irony of the situation is that by limiting Classical Arabic to the role of a rigid prestige language and refusing to let it be sullied as an everyday language, Arabs are ensuring diglossia will persist.
Diglossia refers to a split between the spoken, everyday language and the formal language. As recent research addresses, there is a social dimension to diglossia: Speakers have agency and construct the diglossic situation.
What does this mean for Arabic? Arabs limit Classical Arabic to formal situations, the main areas being media, political speeches, literature, religious sermons, some education settings, and some children’s media. Much of this stems from the commonly held belief among Arabic speakers that Classical Arabic is the proper language that was codified after the advent of Islam and has remained stable until today, whereas the dialects are corruptions of Classical Arabic and not real languages.
Arabs are constantly negotiating the spheres of influence for Classical Arabic and the dialects. In 2015, the Algerian minister of education proposed that teachers should use the local dialect to teach the first two years of elementary school, setting off a heated debate. In Morocco in 2018, when primary school textbooks used a few colloquial words for food in a unit on breakfast, it was national news and forced the minister of education himself to defend the books from critics.
Yet the insistence on using inappropriate Classical Arabic terms strikes others as nonsensical.
Critics of the blanket use of Classical Arabic often focus on children’s literature and media, citing vocabulary and phrases that kids do not understand. The problem, though, is not simply one of vocabulary—Arabs have created it by how they have defined Classical Arabic.