I recently stumbled across an online dictionary dedicated to showing “how alive Arabic is.” Its creator, Hossam Abouzahr, is Lebanese American. He mastered Arabic as a young adult and—like many who learn or reclaim a language, acquiring it through effort rather than dumb luck—he is passionate about it.
Growing up in the United States and studying Arabic at a private school, Abouzahr told me, the classes “didn’t make any sense. It was painful. I thought there has to be a way to do this better.”
He pursued a dual master’s degree in Middle East studies and public policy at the University of Michigan. That’s where he met Dr. Waheed Samy, a professor of Arabic whom he credits with inspiring his passion for the language, and his understanding of the relationship between classical and colloquial Arabic. “He said to see classical Arabic as the sun, with all the dialects as planets revolving around it,” Abouzahr wrote on his website, Lughatuna. “It was that description that planted the seed for this site.”
Abouzahr then continued to study Arabic at the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad, a renowned intensive language program that teaches both classical and colloquial Arabic at once—an approach he advocates.
The Lughatuna site actually began as a word list Abouzahr compiled on his computer and used to study. By the time it had reached thousands of terms, he decided it might be worth turning into an online dictionary. He launched the site in 2015.
“I never expected it to go this far, but it became something very personal to me,” says Abouzahr, who works as an editor in Washington, D.C., today, and is busy teaching Lebanese Arabic to his 3-year-old son .
Today Lughatuna includes 30,000 to 40,000 terms and about 70,000 definitions in classical Arabic, or “Fusha,” and about 20,000 terms and 30,000 definitions in the Egyptian and Levantine colloquial dialects. There are separate dictionaries for each, which users can search by Arabic word, Arabic root or English word.
In the future, Abouzahr hopes to add more sophisticated search features, to give etymologies and to show results in the different dictionaries simultaneously.
On his website and its Facebook feed, Abouzahr shares his thoughts on how best to learn Arabic. He recently waded into the fraught debate over the use and decline of Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA, the version of classical Arabic taught in schools and used in formal writing and the media across the Arab world.
In a commentary he wrote recently for the Atlantic Council, he argued that “the withdrawal of MSA is in fact a warning about the weakening social infrastructure and declining education system” of the Arab region.
Statements like this irk those who champion dialects as a vibrant, valid alternative to classical Arabic. It struck me as overstating the case, and making the use of Modern Standard Arabic the most important gauge of the region’s cultural and intellectual life (while relying on a lot of anecdotal evidence, as data are hard to find).
But I do agree with Abouzahr’s point that literacy is often too narrowly defined; that “functional literacy is on the rise, but that access to and use of MSA—such as sophisticated literature and academic texts—is on the decline,” and that this is one of the hurdles to cultural and intellectual production in the region.
When we spoke, Abouzahr said he realized that “decline” may not have been the right word to use, as it implies there was a once a golden age when classical Arabic was widely used (whereas it has almost surely always been the preserve of a minority, and more a written than a spoken language).
But he said he was concerned that “the hubs of language are being destroyed” in the region today. He referenced Iraq and particularly Syria, where members of the educated middle class—those most likely to keep classical Arabic alive—have fled by the millions.
He also noted that another problem is that classical Arabic is perceived as ossified, and associated with political and religious power. “For it to survive, it needs producers, it needs to be made alive and fun; otherwise, it becomes more and more limited, isolated,” he said.
Many would say that this ship has already sailed—Abouzahr himself concludes his commentary by acknowledging this. Nonetheless, he remains passionate, not just about classical Arabic but all Arabic.
“I don’t want to get into the argument about whether classical Arabic is a dead language or not,” he writes on his site. “I do want to show how alive Arabic, as both the dialects and formal language, really is, and I want to show a more complete picture of it. I love the Arabic language. I love the literature, I love speaking it, I love poetry and music, I love the way it all sounds.”
The next dialect Abouzahr plans on including is Moroccan (this is exciting to me since I live in Morocco). When building dictionaries of dialects, he reads available textbooks, dictionaries, academic articles, stories, poems and folk tales. Often he watches and transcribes movies. He also creates his own phonetic transcription for each dialect.
Needless to say, this is time-consuming. “On a day-to-day basis this site is mainly one nerd sitting at a computer inputting data, trying to teach himself coding and database work, and trying to imagine what Arabic can really be,” he wrote in the “About” section of his website.
“I’d be happy to pay someone to help me with this,” told me. “But I have to train someone on a writing system for each dialect—and it requires high attention to detail and a decent level of Arabic and English.” (He does employ two Syrian graduate students to help with the website’s development.)
And while the site is free, he has created an app to help “make the project sustainable in the long run, so it doesn’t just languish.”
In fact, Abouzahr’s ambitions for his project are significant.
“I feel like it can change the way we learn and study and think of Arabic,” he says. His goal is to circumvent the argument about whether the dialects and classical Arabic are separate languages. “That’s not the question,” he says. “The fact is they exist side by side. We just need to design the tools to show them to us that way.”