The Importance of Distinguishing Lebanese Language from Arabic Language
Lebanese Language Center, July 2004
It is a common practice for people to use “Arabic language” terminology to identify all of the Semitic languages of the Middle East that use Arabic letters for writing. The Lebanese who were raised in Lebanon master both the Lebanese language and the Arabic Language. Refraining from distinguishing between the two languages has begun to have negative effects on people who want to learn Lebanese in Diaspora. The only way to speak Lebanese is to learn the “Lebanese Language”. Learning Arabic will not allow people to speak or understand Lebanese, on the contrary if you try to Learn Arabic before you can speak Lebanese, it may make Lebanese seem tougher to learn. Furthermore, calling both of the languages Arabic would confuse those outside Lebanon. They will think that we speak Arabic in Lebanon, and they will be driven to learn the Arabic language. Eventually, when they go to Lebanon they will not understand what the Lebanese speak nor what they broadcast on Lebanese television and radio.
Lebanese language and Arabic Language:
Lebanese is one of the most understandable languages among the Arab States*. In the past fifty years, thousands of songs, poems and books, and hundreds of plays and screenplays have been written in Lebanese. The Egyptian language has also been growing in popularity in the past century due to its tremendous media productions in the region.
Watching and listening to Lebanese entertainment programs and songs have spread the Lebanese language further among audiences from Arab countries*. If you pick a random mix of 10 songs produced in the Arabic states* an average of 4 songs will be in Lebanese, 4 in Egyptian while the rest will be from the rest of the languages. On the other hand, the songs written in Arabic language do not form more than 1% (one percent) of the song production of all of the countries that use Arabic as their official language.
Lebanese is a Semitic language that was derived from the Aramaic language. Aramaic replaced the Canaanite language that was spoken by the Phoenicians in the region until around the days of Jesus Christ. Aramaic was spoken in the whole region until about 900 AD. Later, the people in Lebanon were speaking several dialects of Aramaic especially in the mountains of Lebanon. Syriac-Aramaic was the dominant dialect in the mountains and North Lebanon, while some Arabic dialects were spoken in some costal cities and South Lebanon by the 13 th century. By the 17 th Century, a large population had moved from the Lebanese mountains to the costal cities. The people of Lebanon blended their Aramaic with Arabic utilizing Arabic words in their spoken Aramaic, and from the 17 th to 20 th centuries, some of the Turkish language was incorporated. The Lebanese language kept developing and some French was introduced in the 20 th century. During the past couple decades, some English terms became part of the Lebanese daily conversation.
Arabic is a formal language that is not spoken today in any of the countries that use it as their official language. It is often used for documenting, publishing, formal speeches and some religious rituals. It has merely changed (evolved) since it was spoken in parts of the Arabian Peninsula some 1,500 years ago. Nowadays, there is not a nation in the world with Arabic being its native language. One cannot learn Arabic by living with Lebanese, Egyptian or even Saudi Families; the only way to learn Arabic is to study it. For example, Kuwaiti, Lebanese or Egyptian television stations hardly have 5-10% of their programs in Arabic.
Most of the Lebanese in Lebanon today know Arabic along with their native Lebanese. That is because they learn Lebanese from their parents and their daily life, while studying Arabic Language and Literature in schools.
Calling Lebanese a dialect of Arabic is another dilemma that would hurt the intention of teaching Lebanese in Diaspora. The people of Lebanon may have spoken dialects of Arabic at some costal cities a thousand years ago, but the language spoken now in Lebanon is much more different considering the Aramaic mix and the Turkish influence, not to forget the several centuries of development. In other words, if people learned Arabic a thousand years ago, they would have been able to communicate with some people in Lebanon that time. If people learn Arabic now, they will not be able to communicate with the people in Lebanon today.
Confusing Lebanese with Arabic:
While Lebanese and Arabic are two different languages, the Lebanese (in Lebanon) do not worry, or may not care, for the difference between the two languages. They both come from Semitic roots, and have many common words and grammar.
The Lebanese more than likely wanted to distinguish the language they speak from French (a Latin language) that is widely used in schools and normal life, from English (a Germanic Language) that is growing in education and business life, and from Armenian (an Indo-European Language) that is used by some Lebanese in education and business. Dealing with all these languages descending from different linguistic branches probably made it easier for people in Lebanon to refer to the language by the roots or by the script (the letters) they use to write it with. Since Lebanese in general use Arabic script to write Lebanese, they often refer to the Lebanese language as Arabic language.
Add to that that the Turks who occupied the region for four centuries used to call all the Semitic languages other than Hebrew – “Arabic”, since they did not differentiate between the spoken Lebanese, Egyptian or Arabic then.
Some people tried to reach a compromise by claiming that the Lebanese people speak Lebanese but write Arabic. This incorrect statement often used by people in Lebanon who confuse the use of Arabic script to write, with the language itself. The Lebanese use Arabic script to write both Lebanese and Arabic; They write, read and speak Lebanese for their songs, poems, television production and letters, while they write, read, and speak Arabic in Arabic Literature, courts and some formal religious rituals. This is not different from the people utilizing Latin letters to write both English and Spanish languages.
Since the languages that the Lebanese (in Lebanon) are familiar with are from different roots except for Arabic and Lebanese, they think that there are no two languages closer to each other than Arabic to Lebanese. Also, since the Lebanese are raised learning Lebanese and Arabic side by side, while the other languages they learn are form different roots they missed the opportunity to compare apples-to-apples such in comparing Italian to Spanish for example.
Linguists here, especially those who were not raised learning these two languages, can point out the difference. Professor Wheeler Thackston of Harvard pushes this analogy a bit further and argues that "the languages the 'Arabs' grow up speaking at home, are as different from each other and from Arabic itself, as Latin is different from English."
Results of not distinguishing Arabic language from Lebanese language:
Very little effort was done to distinguish Lebanese from Arabic language, while some refer to it as “Spoken Lebanese”, “Spoken Arabic”, “Arabic Lebanese”, “Lebanese Dialect”, “Aramaic Lebanese”, “Lebanese Language” or just “Lebanese”, most of the Lebanese did not care to use any differentiating terms.
If people around the world had the chance to learn both Lebanese and Arabic languages, there would not be a need to distinguish Lebanese language from Arabic Language. However, the problems of claming that Lebanese and Arabic are the same language, or that Lebanese is just a dialect of Arabic started to emerge on the surface in the twentieth century.
Due to the events that were taking place in Lebanon and the region since 1850’s, many Lebanese had to leave their country. Unofficial estimates show that there is approximately 15 million Lebanese living out side Lebanon while only 3 million Lebanese live in Lebanon today. Some Lebanese descendents in Diaspora kept speaking Lebanese with their kids while others have not followed up with doing so. Not to mention the Lebanese married non-Lebanese descents, which made it even harder to pass the language to the next generation.
As for the people who were born in the United States and Canada, those who can speak Lebanese learned it solely from speaking it at home and within Lebanese communities. On the other hand, many people who tried to teach their kids or friends Lebanese, tried to use Arabic language books. Those who tried to learn Lebanese using Arabic teaching books experienced unpleasant result; it was like trying to teach someone Italian using Spanish language books. The kids and adults were not able to learn neither Arabic nor Lebanese. Furthermore, most of them became convinced that Lebanese is a very tough language to learnI therefore losing the desire to learn it while in fact it is one of the easiest languages to learn from that region.
Those who learned Lebanese abroad do not understand Arabic. This is natural since, as previously stated, they are two different languages, and despite the similarities between the two languages it is a must to differentiate between them. In the case of the people who learned Arabic (whether they were of Lebanese or non-Lebanese origins), they do not understand Egyptian or Lebanese except for few common words or phrases. The same exists for Egyptians or Kuwaiti language for example. The people who learned Lebanese abroad cannot understand Egyptian and visa versa.
Native Lebanese, who know Lebanese and Arabic, find it will easy to pick much of the Egyptian language due to the large Egyptian production in radio and television, and because of the Arabic, Aramaic and Turkish mix in the Egyptian language. On the other hand, they can hardly understand some words from Saudi or Moroccan languages.
The necessity of distinguishing Lebanese language from Arabic language:
Hence, it is important for the people who are first generation Lebanese to understand the need to differentiate and distinguish between Lebanese and Arabic Languages. Being able to master both Lebanese and Arabic was a privilege for those who were raised in Lebanon. However, this does not help their children abroad since they do not have the chance or the atmosphere to learn two Semitic languages at the same time. Dealing with the Lebanese language and Arabic as one language has caused numerous amount of Lebanese descendents a failure in learning Lebanese.
Furthermore, some books and teaching material that claim to teach Arabic or “spoken Arabic” actually teach Egyptian, while some teach Lebanese and others teach Saudi. The results of such methods are drastic since those who learn Egyptian will not be able to understand Lebanese nor Arabic. This is just a small example of how uncontrollable the situation has become and will continue to be when people consider all the languages Arabic.
The effect is not limited to the Lebanese who try to learn their mother language; it furthermore reaches the governmental and diplomatic affairs for countries. Most of the diplomats and the people who travel to Lebanon (or other Arabic states*) fall to the myth that people there speak Arabic or a dialect of Arabic. So they learn Arabic language only to later reach Lebanon and find out that they have learned a different language. In most of the cases they will end up not able to communicate On the other hand, the Lebanese would understand them since they studied Arabic at school. But this will not do them any good in daily communication because of the limited use of classic Arabic in daily conversations. It is not unusual that most of the people who learned Arabic and went to Lebanon ended up communicating with the Lebanese in English or French.
To conclude, the Lebanese and Arabic languages are two different languages yet of same Semitic roots. Calling the language we speak in Lebanon, Arabic or a dialect of Arabic has proved to more confuse those who want to learn Lebanese by pushing them to learn a different language than their intended one. Arabic is a rich language for literature, culture and religious cleric. It is acquired in Lebanon and the Arabic states* at schools as a second language. First generations in Diaspora have a responsibility to clarify the difference between the two languages, and to be responsible for what their children are learning. It is advisable that people do not get involved in any other language-learning processes whether Arabic, Egyptian or Saudi until they master their native Lebanese language. The normal procedure is to follow what the people in Lebanon do; first, learn their native Lebanese language and after mastering Lebanese, they can then study Arabic or if they choose to add another language to their vocabulary.
* The countries referred to as Arab countries/states in this article are the countries members in the Arab League, where Arabic is their official language and Arabic culture is part of their cultures. However the nationals of those countries could be of Arabic or non-Arabic ethnicities.