The Internet Is Fascinated With the 'Arabic Chat Alphabet,' a Texting Style That Mixes Numbers and Letters

  • The world is bigger than QWERTY. There are hundreds of millions across the globe that don't use the Latin alphabet.

  • Arabic speakers have been adapting the Latin alphabet to represent their language since the rise of the Internet in the '90s.

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If you're part of the extremely online, you might’ve seen messages like the one in the image above, which combine letters and numbers, circulating on social media. Now, unless you’re proficient in Arabic, texts like these will be totally incomprehensible to you. And although they might not look like your typical Arabic text, they are, in fact, written in Arabic.

A very special kind of Arabic, we’ll give you that.

Known as Arabizi, this distinct style of text tells a remarkable story about how technology is transforming our society and our identity.

The world is much bigger than our alphabet. The standard QWERTY keyboard layout that we use seems simple and straightforward, but it becomes problematic when we consider that billions of people in the world don’t use the Latin alphabet. For instance, around 1.3 billion people use Chinese logographic systems, while another 660 million use the Arabic alphabet. More than 600 million use the Devanagari alphasyllabary. These are just some of the most commonly used alphabets.

Given the variety of other alphabets out there, we're left with a burning question. How do all these people communicate daily through interfaces designed for Western languages? The answer is quite simple: They communicate however they want.

That brings us to the most recent system popping up online, the so-called “Arabic chat alphabet.”

What's the Arabic chat alphabet? The alphabet has many names, from Arabizi to Franco-Arabic, though there's no official one. The most popular name is “Arabizi,” which, interestingly enough, is a vernacular term that combines the Arabic words “arabi” (Arabic) and “engliszi” (English). However, the phenomenon also includes the French-Arabic community.

In short, the “Arabic chat alphabet” refers to the strategies Arabic speakers use to transliterate their language (usually their Arabic dialect) into Latin script.

Ultimately, it refers to a fascinating sociolinguistic phenomenon that, despite lacking official “codification,” is understood by the vast majority of Arabic-speaking Internet users.

But let’s take it one step at a time.

What is transliteration? “Transliteration” refers to the process of representing the symbols of one writing system with the symbols of another. We often forget that alphabets are tools. To better understand this, we can refer to a “historical” piece by Daniel Martín, where he raises the question of why the Phoenician alphabet didn't have vowels.

“Were the Phoenicians stupid?” Martín asks in his article. He later replies that they weren’t, pointing out that they ignored vowels because representing them wasn't necessary for them to communicate. Similarly, the Latin alphabet doesn’t represent the rhythms and tones of a sentence as they’re not necessary for understanding the text. However, rhythms and tones are essential when writing some varieties of Chinese using the Latin alphabet (pinyin).

From an Indo-European perspective, the Greeks improved the Phoenician alphabet by adapting it to their languages. This is similar to what millions of young Arabs are doing today in chat rooms worldwide by adapting the Latin writing system to communicate in their language.

This phenomenon isn't new. Arabic speakers have been doing this since the late 1990s when people started facing issues with computer apps that didn’t support Arabic characters. While there were some exceptions, the process was slow and cumbersome. In addition, these apps also required Arabic speakers to write from left to right—the opposite direction to standard Arabic.

As a result, the use of letters, numbers, and apostrophes to transliterate Arabic developed naturally. The system is self-explanatory in many cases, such as the use of “3” to represent the Arabic letter “ع” or “7” to represent “ﺡ”.

However, the code can be more complex in other circumstances. Dialectal differences can distort understanding because speakers use the Latin letters that most closely resemble Arabic phonetics. In other words, given that Arabic is tremendously diverse language, not everyone pronounces certain words the same way when speaking informally.

Why is the Internet fascinated with this phenomenon? The “Arabic chat alphabet” is increasingly influencing the Arabic language. This change not only alters the direction of the written language but also breaks away from traditional writing conventions, such as those that dictate the way letters are written depending on their position in a word.

Many Arabic-speaking communities view this as a dangerous “Western colonization” or even “culture treason.” Yet, it seems this change is here to stay. As digital literacy in Arab countries grows and Arab communities in Western countries expand, the “Arabic chat alphabet” is becoming more prevalent in global conversations.

It's a reminder that technology has far-reaching consequences that we may not have anticipated.

Image | Vitaly Gariev via Pexels

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