The Global Decline of the Arabic Script

Today, the Latin alphabet is the international standard for phonetic writing. But this is a modern phenomenon. For centuries, Arabic was the central language to science and trade, and consequently, the use of its script was dominant worldwide well into the 19th century. Yet the 17th-19th centuries saw a slow decline in the use of Arabic, and a critical loss over ten years from the late 1920s to mid-1930s in the former Ottoman and new Soviet territories as Latin letters, and to a lesser degree Cyrillic, became the script of choice.

arabic map1

Colonialism and independence realized the decline of Arabic in Africa in many languages. Swahili, a major African language up the African east coast, has used the Latin alphabet since the 19th century, despite heavy influence from the Arabic language, along with Malagasy in Madagascar. Songhay, Yoruba and other West African languages were, in some regions, written in Arabic, although all are now written in the Latin alphabet. Nearer Arabia, Harari in Ethiopia, Berber in northern Africa, and Nubian in the Sudan area no longer use Arabic script. Even Afrikaans was written in Arabic by some people for part of the 19th century.

During the Arabic rule of Spain, Mozarabic, Aragonese, Portuguese, and Spanish were written in Arabic. During Ottoman rule of Eastern Europe, several languaegs — Greek, Bosnian, Romanian and Albanian — were written in Arabic script. Elsewhere in Europe, Tatars used Arabic to write Polish and Belarussian. But the decline of the Ottoman Empire saw the rapid abandonment of the Arabic script, and Turkey’s voluntary abandonment of Arabic script in 1928 saw the end of the Arabic script in Europe. Even the Kurds abandoned Arabic for a Latin alphabet in 1932.

The Russian Revolution and Soviet rule saw the switch from Arabic to the back-and-forth use of the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, depending on the mood fo the Bolsheviks at any particular time. Russia’s central Asian languages such as Bashkir, Tatar, Chaghatai, and Chechen sporadically used Arabic but now all use Cyrillic. The languages of the Central Asian republics — Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik — are the same, having abandoned Arabic in the 1930s. The same is true for Azeri in the Caucasus. Uyghur in western China is the only Turkic language that still uses the Arabic script, and it remains an official language in that part of China.

In distant East Asia, Malay in Malaysia and Indonesia used Arabic script until Dutch and British influence gradually replaced that script starting in the 17th century. Some Filipino languages also abandoned the use of Arabic at this time. And finally, the Hui Muslim people used to write the Chinese and Dungan languages in Arabi script in a script called Xiao’erjing.

In addition to the obvious factors — imperialism, colonialism, and the Soviet hegemony — another factor was the printing press. Because there are several forms of each Arabic letter depending on where it appears in the sentence, material produced in the Arabic script could not be easily reproduced with a printing press.

In our previous discussions on what language to learn, Arabic has generally been rated as a second or third tier language in order of importance. A century ago, when the real-life Curzon, Younghusband, Chirol and Munro-Ferguson travelled the globe, it surely would have been a first tier language, if for nothing else than for the dominance of its script from southern Africa to western China. Those days, however, are long gone.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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20 Responses to The Global Decline of the Arabic Script

  1. quant18 says:

    I think you’re putting too much weight on government orthographies without looking at actual literacy practices of the man on the street. Wolof in Senegal (so-called “Ajami script”) is one case that’s been more widely covered in the popular media lately, so let me mention some of the more obscure ones:

    In China, the government claims the Mongolic-speaking Dongxiang people are almost entirely illiterate, and went ahead and published them a dictionary with a newly-invented Latin orthography, while ignoring the fact that they regularly write their own language in Arabic letters, as well as directly writing in Arabic. Only a few obscure academic journals in Gansu have officially taken note of this fact. (On the bright side, at least the Dongxiang Latin orthography can actually be typed on a QWERTY keyboard — certainly not the case for the godawful IPA-like Uyghur orthography the PRC promulgated up until the 1980s, when they thankfully switched BACK to Perso-Arabic).

    Jawi, the Arabic orthography for Malay, is certainly in decline — the most obvious sign being the closure of the Utusan Melayu newspaper — but reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. In many places you can see billboards written entirely in Jawi; I know Maxis (cellphone company) and some banks regularly do this.

  2. Oliver says:

    Might this be related to Arabic being a 3-vowel language and thus its alphabet ill-suited to writing languages with many vowels?

  3. Curzon says:

    Definitely not. Arabic, as a much more strict phonetic language, is a lot easier to learn that English. This struck me as I walked past “Ace Hardware” in Dubai recently. The Arabic read “Eis” which makes much more sense phonetically. I really think it had to do with geopolitics and the printing press, especially considering the widespread use of Arabic script up until a few centuries ago.

  4. I think it’s interesting that there’s one Arabic -related language, Maltese, that’s written with the Latin script. But then again, I always find stuff like that interesting. :)

  5. Oliver says:

    @Curzon

    Well, English is quite perverse a user of the Latin alphabet. Almost any other language is writter closer to phonetic writing. How do you note vowels not present in the Arabic language in Arabic script? For example how would you write Finnish vowels?

  6. Bob Harrison says:

    When I was younger and discussing the various Middle Eastern countries with some of my older Lebanese relatives, I asked about what script was used in Turkey. My great uncle told me, with a very obvious tone of resentment, that Turks used Arabic for hundreds of years until Ataturk switched the country to Latin. I think he realized that the height of Arab cultural hegemony was long in the past, much too his dismay.
    This is a very interesting article! I never realized just how widespread Arabic writing once was.

  7. spandrell says:

    Being a phonetic alphabet has nothing to do with not being able to write vowels properly, Curzon.

  8. Roy Berman says:

    The Uyghur have maybe gone through more script transitions than anyone else. They had their own alphabet for centuries which formed the basis for the Manchu alphabet, based on Sanscrit. And for the last two centuries or so they’ve been bounced between Arabic, Cyrillic, and like 4 or 5 different forms or romanization.

  9. quant18 says:

    @Oliver — “How do you note vowels not present in the Arabic language in Arabic script?”

    Same way you do in Latin alphabet, with diacritics. Uyghur is quite a good example of this — in their current Arabic orthography (as compared to the pre-20th century Arabic orthography), they actually write ALL their vowels, whether long or short. For example they use و (waw) for “back o”, and ۆ (same letter with a caron on top) for “front o”.

  10. Curzon says:

    Bob, it’s overstated, of course, because much of the map — China, Russia, parts of Europe, parts of Africa, India — used the Arabic script in some areas, or for some languages, not universally. But it is amazing how rapid the decline was particularly in the 1920s-1930s.

    On the whole vowels thing I don’t understand what you guys are saying — Arabic has vowels, it just doesn’t use them. So “Dubai” is spelled, in the Latin script “d-b-yy,” but vowel-heavier Abu Dhabi is spelled “A-’ah-b-u Dz-b-yy.” There was never any problem writing dozens of languages — even Chinese, Polish, or Afrikaans — in Arabic.

  11. Re: “Because there are several forms of each Arabic letter depending on where it appears in the sentence, material produced in the Arabic script could not be easily reproduced with a printing press.”

    With computerized printing, this should no longer matter so much.

  12. e says:

    Curzon
    February 15, 2010
    4:47 pm
    Definitely not. Arabic, as a much more strict phonetic language, is a lot easier to learn that English. This struck me as I walked past “Ace Hardware” in Dubai recently. The Arabic read “Eis” which makes much more sense phonetically.
    ———————————————————————————————–
    “Eis” is exactly how “ace” would be transcribed in my language, which is Lithuanian, which is one of the oldest surviving Indo-European languages.

  13. …Except that, with the advent of the computer some years ago (!), the initial, medial and final forms of Arabic letters are automatically entered correctly from the keyboard, with the program doing the hard thinking. Is type truly set by hand anymore?

  14. Oliver says:

    @Curzon

    Of course Arabic has vowels, but it has less distinction than most languages. If I understand the descriptions of the language and hence script correctly, there is no difference, for example between: bitter – better or botch – butch

  15. lirelou says:

    Very interesting post and replies. The Latin alphabet does have some useful advantages, however it helps to learn the local script. In Korea, at least, several romanization systems exist, and maps will be printed in one of three. Being able to read Hangul was handy for identifying Daesoeng-ni from Taesong-ri from Ttaessong-ri when two or more such named places existed. In some cases, my Korean co-workers lamented the dropping of Hanju characters in the case of homophones, in that the Hanju characters were more precise.

  16. Curzon says:

    Lirelou: Yes, Korea basically dropped the Chinese character script in a nationalist fervor, but certainly its literature and to a degree the precision that arises from characters suffered as a result.

    Oliver: Vowels are indeed omitted when writing Arabic language itself, but that’s more for convenience. The Koran is written with full vowel utilization. And some languages that imported Arabic script for writing use full vowel utilization, including Kurdish, Uyghur, and Kashmiri. So it has always been possible to use vowels fully in the Arabic script, but when importing it, most langauges, given the option, felt it more convenient to omit “obvious” vowels. Or to say different: “mst languajz, gvn the opshn, flt it mor cnvenient to omt ‘obveeos’ vwlz.”

    Every phonetic language has certain issues that only make sense subjectively. Consider the incompleteness of the Latin alphabet in this regard. English is rare in that it does not have the dots and indentations that appear on top of such vowels in other European languages. Then look at the Latin alphabet in Turkey and Vietnam and how so many of the letters have been augmented.

  17. Roy Berman says:

    In a similar way, Yiddish is traditionally written using the Hebrew alphabet, but being a Germanic language does not have such easily predictable vowels as Hebrew-so the orthography indicates vowels when necessary.

    I think we can all agree that, in phonetic terms, English spelling is basically a cruel joke. But we maintain it for the same reason that the insane Japanese orthography persists, tradition and habit, and for more obvious etymology.

  18. Roy Berman says:

    “Yes, Korea basically dropped the Chinese character script in a nationalist fervor, but certainly its literature and to a degree the precision that arises from characters suffered as a result.”

    North Korea, yes. But in South Korea Chinese characters faded because they just wasn’t needed nearly as much as in Japanese. In cases where homonyms are likely to produce ambiguity, especially academic writing, etc., the hanja for a the tricky word is given in parenthesis. Koreans do still have to learn around 1500-2000 characters in primary education, but they tend not to retain them very well since they just aren’t important to normal literacy. So yes, it has had a negative impact on the precision of technical language, and it has also certainly had an impact on literature as well, but whether the impact on literature is a negative one is a question for those who are actually familiar with Korean literature, which I certainly am not.

  19. Peter says:

    “I think we can all agree that, in phonetic terms, English spelling is basically a cruel joke. But we maintain it for the same reason that the insane Japanese orthography persists, tradition and habit, and for more obvious etymology.”

    Roy, I get the meaning of your first sentence. I do not quite get the meaning of your second sentence. For starters, who are “we”?

  20. Roy Berman says:

    By “we” I mean everybody who writes or reads in English. While English spelling conveys a lot of useful information about the etymology of words, it conveys less information about the actual pronunciation of those words than almost any other European language.