Sorry, Wein il Toilette?

Late last month, the sixth Francophone Games opened at the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium on the outskirts of Beirut. The ceremony was suitably lavish – this is the first time that the games have been held in an Arab country since their inception in 1989. 

The games are open to participants from the member states of the International Organization of the Francophonie, which exists essentially to promote the French language internationally and unite French-speaking populations, most of which are former colonies and protectorates. Formed in 1970, it welcomed Lebanon into its ranks just three years later.

The area that comprises modern-day Lebanon has historically had a close relationship with France and became one of the country’s official protectorates in 1918. As Raghid al-Solh notes in Lebanon and Arabism: National Identity and State Formation, “French motives were clear; they wished to create a viable ‘homeland’ for the Maronites, their traditional clients, and establish a strong territorial base in the Levant for French interest and French influence.” 

That influence did not end in 1943, when the country was granted independence. The Christian community in particular has remained attached to its association with France, hence the prevalence of fully Lebanese people named Jean-Michel, Pierre, Antoine and Marie. But it’s not just Christian. As a result of the highly developed French private education system, the reach of the French language has spread across sectarian divisions. 

Today, the best schools and universities in the country teach in either French or English, with the latter quickly becoming the more widely spoken foreign language. As the Toronto Star’s Oakland Ross noted in an October 2007 article on Lebanese society “English has incontestablement [indisputably] supplanted French as the language of status in this resolutely status-conscious land.” 

Nonetheless, Canadian politician Louise Beaudoin, the member of the pro-independence Parti Quebecois who played a large part in instituting Quebec’s bilingual language laws, insisted in a 2008 article for Canadian newspaper Le Devoir that around 38% of the Lebanese population can more or less express themselves in French. The “peu ou prou” – more or less – noted is perhaps the most important part of her opinion piece.  

While, a percentage of the Lebanese may well speak fluently and primarily in French, like their equally Anglophone counterparts, they tend to be those who attended private schools, where there is more of an emphasis on teaching English and/or French. It is indeed possible to travel in Lebanese social circles where no language other than French is really needed, and equally possible to live in Lebanon and communicate almost solely in English. Yet these social circles are as select as they are small. 

Although the Lebanese constitution notes that French can and will be used officially when specified, Arabic is the official language and that in which both the country’s politics and its day-to-day affairs on the street are conducted.

However, given the predominance of private schooling here, many grow up speaking a foreign language with as much, if not more, fluency as Arabic. The result is a mix-and-match dialect in which all three languages are meshed together in an attempt at national communication. 

It is likely that total French fluency in Lebanon is restricted to the 16,600 speakers that the 16th edition of Ethnologue: Languages of the World as of 2004, while the rest are the “more or less” that can express themselves in French just enough to get by in the quirky linguistic mix produced by three systems of education and adapted two strong language influences into the indigenous Arabic. 

The section on basic Lebanese-Arabic phrases that online travel guide iGuide provides is particularly illustrative of this linguistic phenomenon. The Lebanese-Arabic phrase for “Excuse me” is the French pardon. To apologize, travelers are instructed that the English word sorry will do just fine and should they need to find a bathroom, a seamless Arabic-French mixture of “wein il Toilette?” is provided. 

Should hunger strike, Wikitravel’s phrasebook helpfully details that the Lebanese-Arabic word for ham is the originally French jambon, and instructs that to inquire whether a Lebanese bar provides snacks visitors should ask “3endkoon Bar Snacks?” meaning “do you have bar snacks?”. Should drinks be desired following the bar snacks, the ever-useful Lebanese-Arabic phrase to ask for another round is also provided; “Round tenye, please.”

While this dialect is widespread and for the most part facilitates the interactions between the different linguistic populations of the country, it hardly counts for the trilingualism that tends to be claimed in clichés along the lines of “in Lebanon even the car-park attendant speaks three languages.”

The car park attendant does not speak three languages, as he runs a car park he has probably not been afforded a private education in a foreign language and so he speaks Arabic. But, having absorbed enough elementary phrases in both the preferred languages of the upper class, he will find your voiture and express “thanks” upon payment. 

Are the Lebanese lost with all those languages, or do they want to use them all when they speak? a blogger from France living Lebanon asked on her blog  named “Hi! Kifak, Ca Va?” after a common English-Arabic-French greeting often used in the county. Not really finding an answer, she concluded the mixed dialect was amusing, “as long as everybody understands each other.”

With an educated class that often speaks French and English with more ease than Arabic, and tempestuous domestic politics that are run in the complete opposite linguistic pattern; the dialect would indeed be amusing, if it did not literally illustrate the largely absent national dialogue.

  • Winksi

    Along the same lines of "Hi kifak ca va?" and "Sorry wein il toilette" a new slang has come out saying "Je thanks ktir!" I think it's about time we create a Lebanese dictionary and read newspapers in Lebanese rather than classical Arabic. This way we'll become quatro-linguals (Arabic, French, English, and Lebanese!) Make way for more confusion and diversity!

    October 21, 2009

  • Julie Anne Zein

    Thank you for this article. It is very interesting and raises many points about linguistic diversity in Lebanon. I agree with Maya that “The “peu ou prou” – more or less – noted is perhaps the most important part of her [Beaudoin’s] opinion piece” and think the much acclaimed fluency in three languages is something of a myth in Lebanon. In fact the ability to insert a few French or English phrases into a Lebanese conversation is a status symbol and attention grabber, thrown out to impress. That has been my observation on my various “coffee sojourns” at Starbucks in Beirut. Those Lebanese who are truly fluent in another language have either grown up in a bilingual household, attended an exclusive and expensive school, or have been educated in an English speaking or French speaking country. The other sectors of Lebanese society who are fluent in both languages, are those who left during the civil war, grew up between two cultures and then returned.

    October 20, 2009

  • Ramham

    always love reading your articles. they're entertaining and insightful. keep up the great work!!!

    October 20, 2009

  • chris

    speaking more than ONE language is already a big advantage, so speaking three or four is definitely a virtue. I'm lebanese and i just moved to spain, people can't believe how can a lebanese guy speak 4 languages so fluently, while here speaking 3 words of english or french is considered to be an accomplishment. However, some might see it as a flaw, especially when young lebanese men and women start speaking arabic with this horrible french or english accent, as if it was a hard task. As long as we don't forget who we are and stay in touch with our mother tongue, i think that the more you speak the better.

    October 15, 2009

  • ggirl

    how many people can say they speak three languages? I live abroad and have travelled extensively, and never has the ability to speak arabic,english,and french hindered me. It is instead an amazing advantage that has allowed me to communicate with more people, and has opened my mind to more ideas and views. Of course, unless your are a linguist, it is difficult to juggle three languages and to learn each fluently, but why is that an issue? As long as we are able to express ourselves comfortably and communicate clearly, then let us do it any language we choose! That's the beauty of Lebanon, you can swear in three different ways ;-)

    October 8, 2009

  • 1984

    Well ... Lebanon has always been different:) Look at the English and the French- so proud of their languages that they wouldn't know what 'ca va' or 'sorry' meant. The truth is- other countries as so into their cultures that they don't know anything going on around them, and yet we Lebanese want to be like them? impossible, because we look beyond the borders. However, I do agree that this mis of languages also results in the loss of the Arabic language. Having not schooled in Lebanon, I can communicate perfectly well when I am there, however I find it very difficult to understand the news because it is 100% in arabic. I also find it hilarious when a Lebanese tells me they are fluent in French or English and yet cannot say a complete sentence in ONE language.I think we need to have some control in the languages we use in Lebanon. When you speak Arabic- just speak Arabic. Likewise for French and English!

    October 6, 2009

  • MC

    There's no "Starbucks Cafe" - it's "Starbucks Coffee" Maya.

    October 6, 2009

  • gilbert

    What is wrong with the languages? I don't get it. Le Hajj, I'm not sure whether to laugh or not. Making of the the 'country; while commenting in English? Walla? The languages spoken in Lebanon are indeed a huge positive. I wouldn't even limit it to three. On any given day you'll hear Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or even Russian. It gives us character but the language does not define us. Why be limited to Arabic, just because they conquered us at one stage? Why be limited to French, or English or others? The more, the merrier. It is a strength many countries would kill to have...wait a minute, perhaps that explains our neighbors to the East.

    October 6, 2009

  • ED B

    Hillarious..........Thats Lebanon For U

    October 5, 2009

  • luka

    we're just open to diff civilisation, we're fond of foreign languages, it's another part of who we lebanese r...i think it ends here, nothg to discuss..

    October 5, 2009

  • Le Hajj

    “Hi! Kifak, Ca Va?” and when leaving "Ciao!"... what a country...

    October 5, 2009