Lebanon’s tri-lingual evolution in Arabic, French, English

The Lebanese affectionately refer to their language as “a propeller with many blades,” a dynamic fusion of words mostly from French, English and Arabic. A decade after its inception, L’Orient-Le Jour still stands as a testament to the enduring vitality of the French language in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s tri-lingual evolution in Arabic, French, English

The Geday Palace painted by Louis Lottier, one of the great orientalists. (Credit: Philippe Jabre Collection)

Lebanon had been predominantly French-speaking for a significant period and French was its second official language. Recently, there has been a surge in American English. Previously more compartmentalized, its usage is now trending toward becoming the common language of our time.

Arabic remains the national language, a rich and intricate root that each region shapes and adapts. Accents reveal diverse origins, while incorporated foreign words were introduced by conquerors, traders, colonizers, clergy, or emigrants.

One of the most renowned examples is “hawvir,” the Lebanese term for vacuum cleaner, popularized by the Hoover brand.

Our unapologetic use of French has often resulted in expressions where the two languages are interestingly intertwined.

For instance, our phrase “baad shway,” which means “in a little while,” directly translates to “a little longer.”

It is common for a Lebanese individual to respond, for example, to someone offering them more food or drink with “encore un peu” in French. Even if they do not wish to have more, they may find their plate and glass being refilled involuntarily.

There are few countries in the world where you’re greeted in three languages, and the quintessentially Lebanese “Hi, kifak, ça va?” has become a caricature of our linguistic fusion.

As good Mediterranean people, we also communicate with our hands, adding a fourth common language that never lacks vocabulary, especially when all our fingers come together in a threatening bouquet to convey the warning “You’ll see.”

This gesture is distinct from the three-finger bouquet, which signals calm and patience.

Then there’s the single raised index finger which invokes a of original meanings: The stern warnings of 100,000 combatants” and the thunderous roar of 150,000 shells, a nod to the declarations of military leaders past and present.

Frotto, bagno and fawtir

Lebanon’s strategic geographical location, serving as the gateway to Asia from the sea, positions it as an ideal entry point to the continent.

Lebanese people, characterized by their open-mindedness and curiosity about foreigners, are accustomed to diversity and receptive to innovation. They aspire to excellence as their ticket to success abroad in a country that continually pushes them toward emigration.

Lebanon is also deeply religious, both culturally and in terms of community identity. This affinity has historically attracted foreign educational missions, primarily religious ones, since the early 17th century.

Interestingly, despite four centuries of Ottoman rule, very few Turkish words have endured in everyday Lebanese speech.

Some individuals in the early 20th century were fluent in Turkish. However, Arabic was mixed with a handful of Turkish words for most people, particularly those related to places or administrations under Ottoman rule.

“Serail” is one such word, and for a long time, “astakhana” (“place of the sick man”) was used to refer to a hospital.

Italian influence can be traced back to the establishment of Capuchin fathers and the Italian-speaking schools they founded, primarily in northern Lebanon. Additionally, maritime trade with Italian ports and interaction with Italian crews led to the adoption of words related to daily life, such as “frotto” for dessert or “bagno” for the bathroom.

Though these terms have fallen out of common usage, there was a time when they were considered part of the Arabic lexicon.

From Italian, we still have “fattura” for “invoice,” a word that lacks a direct equivalent in Lebanese Arabic and has been adopted as an Arabic word, with the plural form “fawatir.”

Few people know that Russian is a language spoken rarely in Lebanon.

At the turn of the 20th century, Nicholas II expressed his benevolence toward Orthodox Christians in the region by establishing small schools in disadvantaged villages across Lebanon. These schools taught Russian while maintaining the use of Arabic.

The aim of Greater Russia was undoubtedly to counter the Ottomans in their provinces and protect young Christians from the abuses of their fragile empire.

Although the Russian language did not leave a significant linguistic legacy, it did impart a cultural influence that greatly contributed to the Renaissance of Arabic literature. Mikhail Naimeh, a member of this generation under the patronage of the Tsar, liberated Arabic poetry from its traditional constraints thanks to his exposure to the works of great Russian authors.

For a considerable period, Orthodox Christian families in Lebanon, particularly in Bhamdoun, adorned their living rooms with portraits of the Tsar and Tsarina, whom they held in high regard and affection.

Quakers and rock and roll

The English language’s historical roots in Lebanon trace back to the establishment of the American University of Beirut (AUB) by Syrian Protestant missionaries in 1866.

A decade later, Protestant and evangelical schools emerged in regions where Catholic presence, which tended to align more closely with French missions, was less prominent.

Coincidentally, between 1869 and 1874, an educator named Elijah G. Saleeby founded a school in Broummana, an isolated mountain village three hours from Beirut. He named it Darlington Station, as it was funded by subscriptions from Quakers affiliated with the Friends Religious Society in Darlington, England.

Education at what is now Broummana High School is rooted in the principles of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. These principles emphasize non-violence, equality (including gender) and a spirit of service.

The Quakers’ core belief in the inherent worth of every individual necessitated that the school equip its students intellectually and technically to serve their community.

Like the Russian missions, Anglo-Saxon missions in Lebanon promoted and preserved the use of Arabic alongside English. They offered an educational environment known as less restrictive and puritanical compared to that of the French missions.

This cultural dichotomy between liberalism and authoritarianism often led to spirited conflicts between students of the Jesuit fathers’ Saint-Joseph University (USJ) and those of AUB.

Legend has it that during a friendly gathering between the two institutions in the late 1950s, the DJ signaled for partners to switch with their counterparts as young couples danced to frenetic rock music.

However, the USJ students refused to relinquish their current dance partners to AUB students. The evening broke into a full-blown brawl.

Even today, students who transition from French-speaking schools to AUB are sometimes viewed with suspicion by the English-speaking community. French is perceived as complex, harboring elitist and “imperialist” undertones, and at times, an anti-Arab sentiment.

French-speaking Lebanese attracted the mandate

L’Orient-Le Jour owes much of its existence to the presence of French-speaking schools in Lebanon. From the Collège des Pères Lazaristes de Antoura in 1834 to the College of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1861, and onward to institutions like Collège Notre-Dame de Nazareth in 1873 and the College of the Jesuit Fathers in 1875, French-speaking schools have been deeply ingrained in the Lebanese social fabric.

The establishment of the Collège des frères du Sacré-Coeur (College of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart) in 1894 and the French Lay Mission in 1910 further solidified the role of French education in Lebanon. Today, more than 100 private colleges (unfortunately, public education is in disrepair) and universities across Lebanon teach French.

This extensive network of French-speaking schools established long before the French mandate continues to uphold the legacy of the French language in Lebanon and perpetuate the values of the Enlightenment.

The use of French in Lebanon carries historical baggage, as some French-speaking schools during the mandate era resorted to punitive measures to enforce the use of the language.

Under this system, known as the “witness” punishment, students caught speaking Arabic were publicly denounced and subjected to the same punishment as a previous offender. This practice perpetuated a sense of prejudice associated with the use of French.

While many attribute the introduction of French to Lebanon to the mandate period, the reality is that French-speaking Lebanese, particularly Maronites, had sought the protection of France as early as the 13th century. They regarded France as their “tender mother” and looked to it for support and safeguarding.

The war significantly eroded the French language’s dominance in Lebanon, as many French-speaking Lebanese migrated to France, Canada and to a lesser extent, certain African countries during the conflict or conflicts.

Today, thanks to the Internet, this diaspora forms most of our newspaper’s community.

English, as the language of business, technology and social media, now appears to dominate the linguistic landscape of Lebanon, propelled by popular culture.

Nevertheless, Arabic remains the primary language, effortlessly adapting to formal settings and casual conversations on the streets.

In Lebanon, the language you choose for inviting guests to a wedding, reception, or talk, can significantly impact your audience. English has emerged as the safest and most unifying option in this regard.

However, navigating life with three common languages is a rare privilege. These languages serve as valuable tools for engaging in commerce in its broadest sense: Human interaction, and exchanging ideas and knowledge.

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Sahar Ghoussoub. Edited by Yara Malka.

Lebanon had been predominantly French-speaking for a significant period and French was its second official language. Recently, there has been a surge in American English. Previously more compartmentalized, its usage is now trending toward becoming the common language of our time.Arabic remains the national language, a rich and intricate root that each region shapes and adapts. Accents reveal...