Languages of Libya

Languages of Libya

All but a small minority of the Libyan people are native Arabic-speakers and thus consider themselves to be Arabs. Arabic, a Semitic language, is the mother tongue of almost all peoples of North Africa and the Middle East. Three levels of the language are distinguishable: classical, the language of the Quran; modern standard, the form used in the present-day press; and the regional colloquial dialects. In Libya classical Arabic is used by religious leaders; modern standard Arabic appears in formal and written communication and sometimes in the schools. Many people learn Quranic quotations without being able to speak the classical language.

In classical Arabic, as in other Semitic scripts, the text is read from right to left, and only consonants are written. Vowel signs and other diacritical marks appear sometimes in printed texts as aids to pronunciation. Modern standard is grammatically simpler than classical and includes numerous words unknown to the Quran.

The spoken dialects of Tripolitania and Fezzan belong to the Maghribi group, used throughout the Maghrib. They are mutually intelligible but differ considerably from dialects in the Middle East. Dialects of Cyrenaica resemble those of Egypt and the Middle East. Urban dialects differ somewhat from those of the hinterland, and in the southern part of the country some Sudanese influence exists.

Arabs find great beauty and style in their language. It is a keystone of Arab nationalism and a symbol of Arab creativity. Libya has played a leading part in the campaign to make Arabic an official language in the forums of the UN and other international organizations. Yet although Arabic has a richness of sound and a variety of vocabulary that make it a tongue for poets, its syntactic complexity makes it one of the world's most complex written languages. Its intricate vocabulary also is not well suited as a medium for technical and scientific expression. Even modern standard Arabic contains little in the way of a technical vocabulary , in part because many Arabs are purists about their language and resist the intrusion of foreign words.

These deficiencies of Arabic, coupled with a tradition in Arab schools of learning by rote methods, have seriously interfered with scientific and technical advancement. In Libya, as well as in the other Maghribi countries where a similar problem exists, educators reluctantly recognize that preparation of suitable Arabic vocabulary additions, textbooks, and syllabi are still a generation or more away. In the meantime, scientific and technical subjects in the Libyan universities are in large part taught by foreigners employing foreign languages.

Under the colonial regime, Italian was the language of instruction in schools, but only a scattering of Muslim children attended these institutions. As a consequence, the Italian language did not take root in Libya to the extent that French did elsewhere in North Africa. Nevertheless, the strong wave of nationalism accompanying the 1969 revolution found expression in a campaign designed to elevate the status of the Arabic language. An order was issued requiring that all street signs, shop window notices, signboards, and traffic tickets be written in Arabic. This element of Arabization reached its apogee in 1973, when a decree was passed requiring that passports of persons seeking to enter the country contain the regular personal information in Arabic, a requirement that was strictly enforced.

Despite the progress of Arabization during the 1970s, English occupied an increasingly important place as the second language of the country. It was taught from primary school onward, and in the universities numerous scientific, technical, and medical courses were conducted in English. A Tripoli shopkeeper or a hotel doorman was unlikely to speak the language, but business people were accustomed to corresponding in it. The government also issued at least some internal statistical documents and other publications in a bilingual English-Arabic format. In 1986 Qadhafi announced a policy of eliminating the teaching of English in favor of instruction in Russian at all levels. Whether this policy would actually be carried out remained to be seen in 1987, but it seemed safe to assume that English would remain in wide use for the immediate future if not longer.

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