Faculty, Publications

New book by a Georgetown Arabic scholar makes Classical Arabic more accessible

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A new handbook titled “Spoken Arabic: The Third Language” written by Assistant Professor Abdul Rahman Chamseddine at Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q) seeks to promote the concept of “the third language” as a way to reach a unified “semi-formal” spoken Arabic. 

Published by Dar Kunouz, the handbook offers professors and learners of Arabic, both native and non-native, a practical guide for the application of “third language” linguistic theories popularized by Tawfiq al-Hakim. The famed playwright attempted to bridge the language divide by applying certain colloquial forms of the language to classical Arabic in order to make it easier to speak. 

With this book, Dr. Chamseddine offers clear examples of how formal speech can be reconsidered to bring spoken Arabic closer to its elevated form. The scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies shares his essays written in the original Classical Arabic, or ‘fusha’, then rewritten in “the third language,” with a table listing and explaining each change. 

“The emphasis on preserving fusha has ensured the protection of a great literary and spiritual tradition. However, because it is different from everyday speech and requires an education not accessible to many, its role in everyday life is declining in favor of modern dialects,” he said. 

“I’m mainly changing the negation, the connectors, and the auxiliaries common between all variations of Arabic. And these elements can be changed without affecting the fusha in order to encourage the language development of Arabic speakers, promote an accessible dialect that can connect a diverse cultural region, and encourage a return to Arabic’s formidable linguistic and literary tradition.”

The book also introduces readers to the roots of al-Hakim’s writing style that emerged from his efforts to overcome the division between Classical Arabic too formal and unrealistic for public performance and a dialect too casual and grammatically flawed to be considered literature.

“Though he didn’t invent ‘the third language’ style of written and spoken Arabic, he popularized it, making Arabic language literary work more relatable and accessible to native and non-native speakers regardless of their level of education,” said Dr. Chamseddine. The book was inspired by his experiences teaching Arabic using al-Hakim’s theatrical works to students intimidated by the difficult terms of fusha.  Public linguistic debates about “the third language” continue to center around concerns that it will turn speakers away from Classical Arabic, but Dr. Chamseddine said it’s the other way around. “We are not using Classical or even Modern Standard Arabic in our daily lives. If we don’t find a better version of spoken Arabic that’s closer to fusha, we will lose it completely.”