Arabizi: where numbers become letters

Illustration : Noa Snir

Even though Arabic is an official language in 22 countries around the world, not all Arabic speakers converse in the same language. From Morocco to Sudan and from Egypt to Lebanon, the dialects of Arabic are unique to the societies in which they are spoken. These local languages emerged for the purpose of communication between a single society comprised of different ethnicities, but they were never meant to be written down — that is, until the arrival of the mobile phone.

The spoken dialect versus the written language

The official Arabic language, common among all countries in the Arab world, is what the majority of Western universities have denoted as Modern Standard Arabic, Literary Arabic, or Classical Arabic. This language, used as the language of instruction in schools to teach students to write, is predominantly used by the media and by publishing houses.

In addition to this standard Arabic language, every country in the Arab world has its own dialect called darija — more or less an analogue of Classical Arabic, differing based on the country and the ethnicities. In Morocco, for example, the Moroccan darija is a standard tongue that allows Arabic speakers to communicate with speakers of Berber languages, and vice versa. The Moroccan darija is primarily inspired by Standard Arabic but also incorporates terms adopted from the Berber languages, Spanish, and French.

The standard Arabic language taught at school and immortalised in literature is virtually absent from everyday life. In pre-21st century Morocco, television programs were almost exclusively presented in Arabic or in French, despite Moroccans speaking darija in the family, on the streets, or when making everyday purchases. This dichotomy continues to cause issues. In 2016, the Moroccan Ministry of National Education reported that only 76% of students were unable to understand what was being said in class.

The status of darija in Morocco began to evolve in 2005 due to the democratisation of the audiovisual landscape and the increasing influence of television announcers. These TV hosts made the decision to ‘speak to the housewives’ in a language that they would understand. Little by little, shows in Moroccan Arabic and series dubbed in darija took off and enjoyed unprecedented success. Among its many sceptics were certain conservative decision-makers who vehemently opposed the use of the ‘language of illiterates.’ In their eyes, this would detract from the original language — the language of the Quran.

Illustration : Noa Snir

The democratisation of the audiovisual landscape marks an important stage in the recognition of Moroccan darija as a vernacular language. However, the veritable turning point in the evolution of dialectal Arabic into becoming an integral part of Arab society was the increased accessibility to mobile phones and the democratisation of the Internet.

Writing the Arabic dialect: a question of transliteration

Information and communications technologies have been an important medium in the diffusion and structuring of Arabic dialects. Indeed, for historian Benedict Anderson, transcription plays an essential role in the process of reaching autonomy for these vernacular languages.

For Arabic-speaking countries, the arrival of the first smartphones and keyboards (QWERTY and AZERTY) created an unprecedented problem: how to write the spoken Arabic dialect on electronic devices that only have Latin alphabet keyboards.

According to Dominique Caubet, sociolinguist and specialist of Moroccan darija, young Moroccans who grew up reading both the Arabic and Latin scripts from infancy have created a blended Moroccan Arabic, written with Latin letters while drawing inspiration from the process of handwriting Arabic.

These Arabic speakers — in Morocco or elsewhere — began by searching for graphical equivalents for Arabic letters that simply don’t exist in the Latin alphabet. What followed was the birth of an intuitive and novel system of transliteration between the Arabic script and its Latin counterpart. Today, it is widely accepted and adopted by a large majority of countries in the Arab world.

Arabizi, the alphabet of SMS and chatrooms

Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, professor and researcher of modern and contemporary Arabic literature, defines Arabizi as the Arabic used on online discussion forums, in text messages, and on Twitter. The Arabizi alphabet includes numbers in addition to the letters of the Latin alphabet — these numbers replace graphemes that are inconceivable on a QWERTY or AZERTY keyboard. The graphic conventions of this system of communication are largely influenced by the Arabic script itself. There is an undeniable resemblance between the number and the letter of the Arabic alphabet that it replaces: 3 for ‘ayn (ع) and 7 for ḥā (ح), for example.

In the Maghreb, where French is more prevalent than English, the conventions are slightly different than in the Middle East. In e-darija in Morocco (a counterpart less popular than Arabizi), supplementary numbers are used.

The democratisation of Arabizi was thanks to the collective intelligence of Arab civil society. Speaking about the development of its practices, Gonzalez-Quijano explains that :

“Everything was done in a perfectly intuitive manner outside the influence of all institutionalisation, and we can consider it as, even when including the faults of the system, one of the first collective inventions completely initiated by the Arab civil society confronted by this information revolution”.

Yamli lets you access the Internet in Arabic without an Arabic keyboard. Type like you speak!

Before 2010, Facebook did not enable the use of Arabic script. In any case, electronic devices with Arabic keyboards were virtually nonexistent at the time. Consequently, this technological void brought about the use of the Latin script and of Arabizi as a force of habit. According to Dominique Caubet, these habits began as early as the 2000’s with the development of cybercafés and the arrival of chat forums, MSN, MySpace, and Facebook.

With the evolution of the Internet in the Arab world, the Arabic script would gradually be taken into account in applications and in digital tools. Thus, it is becoming possible to write directly in Arabic without using Arabizi. However, completely abandoning Arabizi would be nearly impossible for the entire generation of users habituated to this chatroom language.

For users to continue to ‘type’ in the manner they are used to, tools such as Google Ta3reeb and Tamli have been developed. The idea is that you type in Arabizi and watch your text transform automatically into Arabic script.

Today, throughout the Arab world, Arabic dialects and the Arabizi alphabet are widely used in advertising messages for posters on the street, in commercials, or even on official social media accounts. The same can be said for television channels and the press.

The Arabizi alphabet was born to fill a void that will surely not exist in a few years as more platforms support the use of Arabic script. Meanwhile, the varied dialects of Arabic are rich in expression unique to each country and culture, which is why they are used so often in Arabic-speaking societies. While many conservative decision-makers believe the use of these dialects threatens the sanctity of the ‘pure’ Arabic language, there are now numerous politicians and linguists who advocate for a detachment from this classicism.