What is Arabizi?

Well, it’s the name of the virtuosic code that Arabic speakers sometimes use when text messaging, or when they’re on social media sites, like twitter or facebook. When the internet first became popular, back in the mid-90s, online communication was run on systems that only supported roman characters; the ISO basic Latin alphabet, and so the Arabic world had to adapt if they wanted to communicate in their own language. In a burst of innovation, people started to use Latin characters to compose messages in a transliterated form of Arabic, and where there is no phonetic equivalent, numerals and punctuation are appropriated, sometimes relying on visual resemblance. For example, عbecomes 3 to mean ayn.

English                       Arabic        Arabizi

English الإنكليزية Engliziya
Yes نعم Na3am
No لا La
Hello مرحباً Mar7aban
Welcome أهلاً ahlan
Goodbye مع السلامة ma3a alsalamah
Please أرجوك Arjook
Thank you شكرًا Shukran
You’re welcome عفوًا 3afwan
I’m sorry آسف Asif
What’s your name? ما اسمك؟ Ma esmok
How much? كم؟ kam?
I don’t understand. لا أفهم la afham
I don’t speak Arabic. لا أتكلم بالعربية La atkalam bi el 3arabiya
I don’t know. لا أعرف La a3rif

There is no agreed name for this kind of transliteration, as it still relatively young and only used informally, but Arabizi and Arabish are the most common names, portmanteaus of Arabic and English (or Arabee and Inglizi, or Arabee and easy – no one can quite decide it seems!). As Arabic regional dialects are so varied, this pan-Arabic language has no correct form and is very fluid.

There has been a lot of criticism over this new form of communication, especially from those who believe that Arabizi is corrupting Arabic and from language purists. The romanisation of Arabic is seen as a symptom of the domination of English language and actually destroying the Arabic language, but as about 280 million people speak Arabic and Arabizi is limited to young bilinguals, it seems unlikely.

The prevalence of this new hybrid language is the medium through which a new generation of bilinguals are expressing themselves. It also makes Arabic more accessible for those who don’t speak it and are learning Arabic. If you don’t know, or haven’t come to grips with the Arabic alphabet, which can confuse people at first, reading Arabic phonetically can make it easier to understand.

This is not an uncommon phenomena – think about Spanglish, the hybrid of Spanish and English spoken by bilinguals or those who can’t speak one of the languages fluidly. Most languages adopt words or phrases from other languages, English in particular often appropriates foreign bon mots that most people believe enrich the language and culture. Language constantly evolves to adapt to our communication needs; all languages are compressed and contracted when the occasion arises, whether in text messages between friends or shorthand in meetings. And as poet Tom Leonard wrote “All living language is sacred.”

But is Arabizi commonly used? From my perusing of facebook and twitter systematically (for research purposes only you understand) I have only found examples of it sporadically, but then, as someone who can barely read Arabic, maybe I am looking in the wrong places. From what I’ve seen, people write and comment and tweet in English and Arabic intermittently, dipping in and out of each language. Now that internet communication can support Arabic characters, has Arabizi lost it’s value; has it become old fashioned, uncool?