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.
Classical Arabic sounds particularly awkward in kids’ cartoons and shows because Arabs use it predominantly in formal situations, so it does not seem to contain readily accessible phrases that kids will understand and laugh at.
“Those who want Classical Arabic to truly become the lingua franca of the Arab countries need to expand it and let it evolve.”-Hossam Abouzahr
Subtitles and translated movies are riddled with awkward, formal phrases, even if they are understandable to kids. Various phrases like “fine,” “okay,” “all right”—all casual expressions in English—are translated to the formal “hasanan” instead of “mashi” or “tayyib” and other more casual phrases. “Yeah baby!” becomes “Na’m ya ‘azizi!” (“Yes, my dear”). “Cheat sheet” becomes “waraqat al-ghish” or even simply “waraqa” (a sheet of paper) instead of something more casual and colorful like “birsham” (literally, a pill, something small and beneficial) or “rashita” (the small piece of paper a doctor writes a prescription on).
When Disney recently switched from dubbing movies in Egyptian colloquial Arabic to Classical Arabic, several online campaigns were launched complaining that the new translations were archaic and alien to kids. There are a good number of Classical Arabic texts that are inappropriate for children, as though the writers wanted to use as much Qur’anic and archaic terminology as possible. Parents, writers and academics—such as Reem Makhloul and Riham Shendy—have cited this issue in children’s literature. But the issue is more than just using vocabulary that is appropriate for kids; it is the fact that Arabs have willingly limited the usage of Classical Arabic, making it inappropriate for entertainment as well as other sectors.
The fact is, Arabs could expand the idea of what Classical Arabic can cover, and with that the phrases and vocabulary that it could use and include, without even violating grammatical rules. When I used the phrase “nerd credentials” in an article published previously by Al-Fanar Media, it got translated as “muhtamm jiddan bi-d-dirasa” (“very interested in studying”), but it could have been “nahhit dirasa” (someone who really digs into studying) or “harrit” (someone who “reaps” studies) or even “himar dirasa” (“a study donkey”—I’m the one who called myself a nerd, so I wouldn’t have been offended). Interestingly, even when there are shared terms between Classical Arabic and a spoken dialect, speakers tend to avoid them, instead going for what they perceive as pure Classical Arabic.
One sign of hope that this might change is how at times Classical Arabic and dialects are mixed. Technology is largely to thank for this: By opening the doors for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to post material online, it has wrested control of what Arabic is from rigid academics and government bureaucracies. The willingness of Disney translators to use both Classical Arabic and Egyptian colloquial in some of the more recently translated movies, like Incredibles 2, may also be an indication that the idea of what Classical Arabic is can be expanded. Some children’s books try to capitalize on the overlap between Classical Arabic and dialects to make them more accessible.
Arabs can continue living with diglossia. While the situation does pose certain challenges for education and communication across borders, those challenges can be met with effective tools and education systems. I have often argued that diglossia has a certain beauty because Classical Arabic and all the dialects encompass such a range of history and culture.
But those who want Classical Arabic to truly become the lingua franca of the Arab countries—a language that feels natural in a variety of settings, that speakers can comfortably switch in and out of, and that unites the Arab countries from Morocco to Iraq to Yemen—need to expand it and let it evolve. Ironically, those who insist that Classical Arabic should be the one and only Arabic are completely unwilling to let it be an everyday language.