ABU DHABI // Arabic has 16 words for the different levels of love between two people, according to The Knowledge of Language, an Arabic book by Abu Mansoor al Tha'albi dating back to the 11th century. With so much flexibility, no wonder someone from Oman may struggle to understand a visitor from the Maghreb, although each would say he was speaking Arabic. And in the UAE, a melting pot for dialects from across the region and beyond, the differences can be even more frustrating.
One man who was fed up with constantly asking or hearing "wait, what does that mean?" is Abdullah Arif, a 23-year-old Saudi Arabian graduate living in Dubai, who decided to do something about it. That was last summer. In March he set about making things a little more clear for others like him and two weeks ago he launched Mo3jam.com, one of the web's most comprehensive user-generated compendiums of slang and colloquial Arabic.
On the first day, it had 20,000 page views, 2,000 unique visitors and 300 uploaded definitions. After a fortnight, Mo3jam - pronounced mo'jum, the Arabic word for lexicon - has just over 900 definitions, 10 per cent of which are in English, with plans to expand the English section to include every word that has been uploaded. Colloquial language in the UAE, and the Arabian Peninsula in general, is steeped in tradition and among the closest dialects to classical Arabic, said Dr Fatma al Sayegh, professor of UAE and Gulf history at UAE University.
"The birthplace of Arabic was in the Peninsula. The further we are from the centre, changes begin coming in." Media outlets were contributing to an erosion of classical Arabic, also called modern standard Arabic, she said. "The media affect us to a great extent. We now use a mix of Emirati, English and Levantine." She illustrated her point with a sentence used by a student, who had said: "Ana rayeh adarrap el course" - a mish-mash of Arabic and English that meant the student was going to drop a college class.
This language creep was an affirmation that Arabic was, like other languages, simply organic. "Language is like a living being," she said. "It's only a problem if it obscures our way of life and traditions." Almost 10,000 words were added to the Arabic language every year, she added. Mo3jam allows internet users to upload words in one of eight major dialects that include Egyptian, Saudi, Gulf, Levant and Maghrebi, with sub-dialects that include Emirati, Lebanese and Moroccan.
Users upload a definition in classical Arabic and, if they wish, English or French. They can also add pronunciations and example sentences. The dearth of comparable online resources gave Mr Arif the idea for his website. "You had to dig really deep within the web or ask people on forums for this kind of information," he said. A graduate in business administration from the American University of Sharjah, he wanted to fill a communication void that he saw amid the multiculturalism of Dubai compared with his home town of Jeddah.
"In Dubai especially, you come across the entire spectrum of Arabs," he said. Back home, his exposure was limited to local dialects, mainly Hijazi with hints of Egyptian and Levantine from school teachers and television. The English section of the website currently defaults to the English definition if it is available. Audio versions of words can be uploaded and phrases are spelt out phonetically to help non-Arabs with pronunciation.
Mr Arif said foreigners were very much part of his audience. "I'm an Arab and I need this kind of service. So you could imagine the case for learners of Arabic or expats." In Dubai especially, with its "eclectic mix of Arabs and other non-Arab expatriates", he believed a service like Mo3jam could prove useful. "The higher the incidence of misunderstanding, the higher the need for clarifications," he said.
At first glance, the website offers a simple, inviting aesthetic. This informality is evident in the name, which is written in "Arabish", an English transliteration that uses numerals to convey Arabic letters that have no equivalents in the Latin alphabet. Mr Arif said the experience had reinvigorated his connection with the language and culture. "I rarely used standard Arabic on the web, but now with Mo3jam, I'm seeing myself typing and using Arabic increasingly."
But Dr al Sayegh worries that Arabic usage might become increasingly fragmented. "This promotes tribalism," she said, arguing that classical Arabic should be dominant. With dialects taking over pop culture, she felt that classical Arabic, which was common to citizens of the Arab world, should be given more prominence. "Dialects have taken hold to the extent that we need a dictionary to speak with each other," she said.
But Mr Arif feels the dual nature of the Arabic language, with its colloquial and classical components, is itself a staple of the culture. "Arabic has forever been diglossic," he said. He added that while he banned offensive words of a profane or racist nature, he had been criticised for accepting some vulgar expressions. "They're part of language," he said. email@example.com