Band of brothers : the trioWe know it, Lebanon is a real multilingual country, and there is a trio of widely used languages: Arabic is the homegrown one, French grew strong with colonization, English is gaining grounds every day. That’s for the basic facts. But what is fascinating about this mix of languages is the way locals use them: simultaneously and interchangeably, switching mid-sentence. “Sorry, Wein il Toilette?” I even catch myself asking the bartender at a new place. Highly contagious.It even has a scientific name…According to my linguist friend Loubna Dimachki, who has done tremendous research on the matter, it is called intra-sentential code-switching, which means mixing different languages in the same sentence. Lebanese do that all the time. In linguistics, they used to explain that code-switching as not being confident in one language. Now, they rather think that it means you’re sophisticated in many. So, that brings me to the following question: is Beirut the codeswitching capital of the world? Well I have travelled the world quite a lot, and I have never witnessed anything like this… Here, hellos, thank-yous and how-are-yous are often said in French. Arabic is the core language, but kids are taught in French or English at school¬. And English and French were imposed through colonialism and occupation, and they’re remnants of that complicated history.
Tayb, lech hek, you think?
Identity crisis? A large part of the problem, according to some, is the lingering impact of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, displacing many Lebanese across the globe. Generations have now returned and account for many of Lebanon’s entrepreneurs today, but rarely spoke Arabic growing up in western countries or on residential compounds in the Gulf, where they mixed with international expats.Are the Lebanese lost with all those languages, or do they want to use them all when they speak? I am not sure, but does it matter, as long as everybody understands each other? Because the idea of an identity crisis has been evoked, and there was a campaign, a few years back, asking Lebanese people to not “kill their own language.” Arabic is not dying, but it’s not doing well either, in Lebanon. The fact that people rather read in English is significant. There’s a big difference between Lebanon and neighboring countries, regarding the matter. There’s no way of getting around Arabic elsewhere in the region. In Lebanon, there’s been this desire to be associated with the West. The idea that there is an identity crisis can be rather true. However, if some might see it as a flaw, especially when young Lebanese start speaking Arabic with a French or English accent, as long as Lebanese don't forget who they are and are able to express comfortably and communicate clearly, who on earth can beat that?
Actually, if you pay attention, multilingualism really is everywhere. Street signs are in Arabic and French, government websites often include English. Menus in lots of restaurants or cafés are in at least two languages, and you’ll hear people switching constantly around you in daily conversation. And this is what makes Beirut different from any metropole in the world. Indeed, you’ll never see two French speaking to each other in a language other than French. This code-switching is to the point that Lebanese joke that this mix&match of languages has turned into the true Lebanese mother tongue… There’s even a Lebanese mother tongue T-shirt: “Hi. Kifak? Ça va?”, greetings in English, Arabic and French. Man, do I love that T-shirt! To me, it sums up à la perfection what this country is about.And just as I am rounding up this piece, I receive a text message from a friend: “Salut hayete, I missed you ana!” Bam! Here you go… Not confusing whatsoever.
[image via Maya Zankoul]
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