December 15, 2004

The Arabic Language – Making Things Difficult

The Arabic language is difficult – ask anyone who has tried to learn it. The United States government categorizes languages on the degree of difficulty for a native speaker of English to gain practical fluency. Category four is the most difficult; there are four of them. They are Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

Al-lawghat al-‘arabiyah

Arabic is a Semitic language, as is Hebrew and Maltese. These languages are derived from the Aramaic language, believed to be the language spoken by Jesus Christ. Arabic is spoken by almost 250 million people and is the (or one) official language of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

That said, the local dialects of Arabic can be quite different from place to place, country to country. The Arabic spoken in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia – the Maghrebi dialect – is heavily influenced by French and Berber. Egyptian dialect is quite distinct, but is widely understood since Cairo is home to the major Arabic film and television studios. Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese speak the Levantine dialect, which is markedly softer than the guttural sounds of the Gulf Arabic. Unless people from one end of the Arab speaking world converse in Modern Standard Arabic (the written language), they run the risk of being either misunderstood or not understood at all.

Arabic is also the language of Islam. The Islamic holy book, the Quran, is written in Arabic and is believed to be only fully understood in that language. As such, the Quran is usually not translated into other languages – explanations in other languages are common, but the text is always rendered in Arabic. For that reason, classical Arabic is widely understood by many of the world’s almost one billion Muslims.

The Arabic alphabet – another problem

In addition to being a difficult language, the Arabic alphabet creates its own set of problems. The writing system consists of 28 consonants; the three vowels are not normally written. As with Hebrew and the other languages that use the basic Arabic alphabet (Persian, Urdu, Malay, etc.), the script is written from right to left.

The problem is how to properly transliterate the Arabic script. Although there is only one correct spelling in Arabic, converting it to something readable in Latin letters can be confusing. For example, is it Saddam Hussein or Saddam Husayn? Technically, neither can be incorrect since the actual spelling is the Arabic letters Hah Sin Yah Nun. Most media are using the transliteration Hussein, although Husayn is closer to the Arabic script.

The United States intelligence community is required to use a standardized system, especially in the era of computerized databases that require specific letters. That system is the Board on Geographic Names (BGN) transliteration system developed jointly with the government of the United Kingdom.

An example of the consequences of not adhering to the system is the U.S. Army destruction of an Iraq munitions storage depot in the days immediately following the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Operating under orders to destroy all Iraqi military facilities in the area under coalition control, Army officers checked the databases to determine if the Al-Khamisiyah depot was used to store chemical weapons. Unfortunately, the records indicating that artillery shells filled with the nerve agent Sarin were stored at Al-Khamisiyah were filed under a different – and non-BGN – transliteration. When the facility was blown up, American forces were exposed to low levels of the nerve agent.

Arabic language expertise will continue to be a problem. It is not widely taught in the United States, but there is an increasing need. Immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued an urgent appeal for American citizens with Arabic language ability.

It will continue to be a major problem in the war on terrorism since the majority of the terrorists speak Arabic.