December 20, 2005
In Jordan, the young and hip speak “Arabizi”
By Ibon Villelabeitia
AMMAN (Reuters) - The waiter with dreadlocks and a Bob
Marley T-shirt glides among a group of chic Jordanians sipping
cappuccinos and smoking hookahs, or water pipes.
the sound system playing rock band Coldplay and the lively
chatter of young customers: "What's up? Keefak?," "Thank you,
The banter is a form of speech that mixes Arabic with
English. It is widely used among Jordan's Western-educated
elites, drawing ire from language purists and exposing a
widening social and economic gap in the small kingdom.
Dubbed by some "Arabizi" -- a slang term for Arabic and
"Inglizi," or English in Arabic -- it is also a means of
expression for many young Jordanians who have been educated
abroad and who do not share Jordan's conservative values.
"When I came back from university in Canada I realized
that everybody was mixing English and Arabic. It is so
prevalent. It wasn't like that five years ago," said Dalia
Alkury, 25, author of an independent documentary called
"It is easier to express yourself in English about topics
that are considered taboo, like sex," she said. "I can't speak
about sex with my friends in Arabic. The words are too heavy
and culturally loaded. It all sounds 'haram' (sinful). I feel
more free in English. 'Arabizi' is a way to escape taboos."
Linguists blame the growing use of English among young
Jordanians on American pop culture inundating the Arab world.
"Some young people look down on Arabic language. They think
it is old and that English represents life and desires," said
Haitham Sarhan, a linguist and professor at Jordan University.
"If this trend continues Arabic could be in danger. Young
people think Arabic is boring," Sarhan said.
He said the trend was an example of an intellectual crisis
in Arab countries, which was outlined in a U.N. Arab Human
Development report published earlier this year.
"HI, KEEFAK, CA VA?"
Mixing Arabic with foreign languages has long been
commonplace among Western-educated elites in Arab countries
such as Lebanon or Algeria.
In cosmopolitan Beirut, young people sometimes greet each
other with a salutation that mixes English, Arabic and French:
"Hi, Keefak, Ca va?"
But in Jordan, a poor desert country, the sudden popularity
of "Arabizi" reflects deep changes in society since the early
1990s, when authorities embarked on economic liberalization
An influx of white-collar workers and professionals from
Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War and from Iraq in more recent
years created a more affluent and liberal middle-class.
Pupils at private and public schools study English from a
young age in Jordan, a moderate and pro-Western state ruled by
King Abdullah, who was educated in England and in the United
But elite schools in wealthy neighborhoods in Amman, where
"Arabizi" is spoken at trendy cafes and American-style malls,
teach many of their subjects, like sciences, in English.
In the gritty working-class areas of East Amman or in the
tribal heartland, "Arabizi" is unheard of and few speak
Musa Shteiwi, a sociology professor at Jordan University
and director of Jordan's Center for Social Research, said the
use of English has become a status symbol among middle- and
upper-class Jordanians, many of whom send their children to
universities in the United States.
"It's an expression of class position and works as a
demarcation of social status. It is a way of putting a cultural
distance between you and the pastoral and Bedouin world of
traditional Jordan," Shteiwi said.
"It's a new phenomenon. The lines between the rich and the
poor are becoming more evident as we move toward a class
society. In the past the upper classes belonged to the
government's bureaucracy. The new class is not shy about
showing off its status and English is just another sign of
"Arabizi," the documentary, will be broadcast on state-run
Jordanian television early next year. It tackles the use of
"Arabizi" through a series of interviews, sometimes showing
Arabic-speaking parents sitting next to their
Alkury said she speaks Arabic at home with her parents.
Even though she uses English or "Arabizi" most of her day, she
said she is proud of her heritage and of her mother tongue,
"I speak 'Arabizi' all day but I feel very Jordanian. If I
was going to write poetry, I could only do it in Arabic."