Arabic is the official language, as well as the religious language for Muslims, Druzes, and some Christian communities. Like Hebrew and Aramaic, it is a Semitic language. One of the earliest recorded instances of Arabic is found in an Assyrian account of a war fought with Arabs between 853 and 626 B.C. Arabic inscriptions in various alphabets have been found on the Arabian Peninsula. By the time of the Prophet Muhammad (sixth century A.D.), Arabic had developed into a refined literary language. The Arab conquest brought it to Lebanon.
In Lebanon, as elsewhere in the Arab world, there are essentially two forms of Arabic--colloquial, of which there are many dialects, and classical. Classical Arabic, uniform throughout the Arab world, is chiefly a written language. It is also used for public speeches, poetry recitations, and radio and television broadcasts. A Modern Standard Arabic has been developed from the old classical language of the Quran, the Islamic scripture; the syntax has been slightly simplified, the vocabulary considerably expanded, and the literary style made less complex.
The classical Arabic language is the principal unifying factor in the Arab world. It is revered by Arabs as the symbol of their unity, as a sacred language, and as the vehicle of a great literature. They think of it as their original language and of their spoken dialects as corruptions.
Lebanese colloquial developed from the Syrian Arabic dialect, which includes the Arabic spoken by Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese. It has been influenced by Aramaic, which preceded it in the area. Within Lebanon, the dialect changes from region to region, and the dialect of the Druzes is regarded as distinctive.
Colloquial dialects are seldom written, except for some novels, plays, and humorous writings. However, a call for the adoption of the spoken language to replace the classical as the national language emerged in the 1960s among Maronite political and intellectual circles. The movement, which was championed by the prominent Lebanese poet and political activist, Said Aql, attracted a number of supporters by 1975, with the rise of a right-wing trend to dissociate Lebanon from its Arab ties. Nevertheless, few took the movement seriously, apart from a handful of writers who wrote in colloquial Lebanese.
Proposals also exist for improving the Arabic alphabet and for updating Arabic vocabulary to include scientific and technological terms. In written Arabic, short vowels and doubled consonants are not indicated but must be supplied from the context.
Scholars tend to adopt foreign words without changing them and use them in both Arabic and Roman alphabets. The language academies in Cairo and Damascus, apprehensive of this practice, have achieved a certain amount of success in forming new words from old Arabic roots.
Armenian is an Indo-European language, distantly related to English, although a large part of its vocabulary is derived from Arabic and Turkish. When the Armenians were converted to Christianity in the fifth century, they acquired an alphabet based on Greek and developed a classical literature, which differed considerably from modern Armenian. Modern Armenian literature flourishes today in Soviet Armenia and to a lesser degree in Lebanon, where a printing and publishing industry is active. Armenians are strongly attached to their language, which is important as a means of maintaining their identity.
Assyrian, a Semitic language, is a modern spoken form of ancient Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. The Assyrians increasingly use Arabic as their spoken language, but Syriac continues to be used for religious purposes.
French and English are the most widely used Western languages. Although French is not an official language, almost all government publications appear in French as well as in Arabic. Since World War II United States influence, and consequently the importance of English, has increased. Some Lebanese authors choose to write in French or English, and fluency in these languages generally marks the educated man and woman. The Lebanese dialect, particularly in Beirut, has acquired some French words. Arabic literary style, especially in poetry, has also been influenced by the style of Western languages.
Source: Federal Research Division - Library of Congress
(Edited by Thomas Collelo, December 1987)
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