There is a contemporary development in Lebanon that could be described as a new wave of Latinised Lebanese – a trend for writing spoken Arabic in Latin characters. Before diving into this concept, it’s important to better understand the variety of languages that are currently present in Lebanese culture. By understanding trilingual Beirutian and Lebanese speech, languages can then turn into a typographic system that echoes this localised phenomenon.
Three languages in one speech
In Beirut, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say in Arabic ‘I went to a French Lycée, and continued my university studies in the American University of Beirut’. Arabic is the first and official language of Lebanon; however, as the country was also under French mandate for many years, Arabic and French co-exist on practically everything, including banknotes, road signs, vehicle registration plates and most commercial signs. It is also important to note that a large number of Lebanese students attend private schools, the majority of which are French schools,1 where, alongside French, English is used as the ‘international’ language. In the education system, English is taught in schools from grade two. Nowadays most schools accommodate all three languages in their syllabus. By age eight, Lebanese children can often understand and speak all three languages. With this in mind, we can understand where the mix of French, English and Arabic stems from in everyday speech patterns, and how trilinguals switch between one language and another with ease. Sometimes, certain French words such as bonjour are pronounced with an Arabic accent, rolling the ‘r’, and is answered by bonjouren, an invented word meaning ‘two hellos’, which has assumed common use in Beirut. In the book The Rock of Tanios,2 Amine Maalouf speaks about Lebanon’s hybrid heritage and the composite make-up of its inhabitants. This mosaic of languages and cultures creates a fluid and often perplexing identity for Beirut, reflected not only in blended speech patterns, but also in the typographic landscape of the city.
‘Question: What language do you think in? Answer: […] Well look sometimes… I mean if I’m just thinking randomly? No, Arabic of course.’
Three languages in the vernacular
Semiotic signs are given meaning by the way in which they are organised into systems and the context in which they appear, and language is a system of signs that transmits meaning; a series of sounds that we use in a variation of combinations to construct words. David Crow defines language as ‘an agreement amongst a group of people that one thing will stand for another; this agreement can be made independently of agreements in other communities.’3 The same principle applies to alphabets. The written form of these sounds are letters, and when there is a collection of letters we have a word, a sentence, etc. In the context of Beirut, the mix of languages is significant – in order to comprehend the signs, one must have prior knowledge of three languages and two alphabetic systems which share no relationship between letterforms. Even the phonemes of each language are different. When it comes to the Arabic alphabet, the letters of a word are connected and the same letter can take multiple shapes depending on the placement of the letter in the word. In the Latin alphabet, the shape of the letter is static no matter where it is placed. This is significant when two different alphabets are used alongside each other. This brings us to our next point – the combination of Latin characters representing Arabic phonetics as a new series of signs.
A new mix
Said Akl (1911–2014) was a Lebanese poet, philosopher and language reformer, recognised for developing the first attempt at writing the Lebanese language in Latin script. Akl advocated that the Lebanese language was distinct from Arabic, and while acknowledging Arabic’s influence, he reasoned that Lebanese was equally connected to Phoenician languages. His proposed new system was written in a modified Latin alphabet rather than the Arabic one, codifying spoken Lebanese into a modern, reformed Roman script consisting of 36 characters,4 including newly designed letters and accents to accommodate phonetics unique to Lebanese. In the 1970s, Akl went on to grant awards to whoever authored the best essays with this writing system, as well as publishing a poetry book and the newspaper Lebnaan, both exclusively typeset in the new alphabet.
During the final decades of the twentieth century, we see Said Akl’s alphabet return with some differences in the codifying system, but following the same essential principles. Rather than using new diacritics or forms for sounds that do not exist in the Latin alphabet, the idea shifted to incorporate Arabic numerals. This system is the so-called ‘Arabic chat alphabet’, also known as ‘Arabizi’, ‘Franco-Arabic’ or ‘Arabish’,5 and has many localised variants for the assorted Arabic dialects that use it. This alphabet developed organically by the people that adopted it and has become the alternative to writing standard Arabic when texting. According to teacher and linguist Wid Allehaiby, ‘this phenomenon is believed to have been developed in response to the prevalence of western technology […] which initially required the use of the Latin alphabet [and] did not support the Arabic script.’6 It is fascinating that the system appeared in this manner without ever really being formalised, and that it is still very much in use today even though standard Arabic script is now offered as an option on phone keyboards. Regardless, in terms of coding and typography, there are some choices that were made which seem necessary to discuss, specifically the numerals. Certain numbers are used to replace sounds that don’t exist. However, what becomes interesting is the uncanny resemblance the number has to its Arabic equivalent. This duality helps to regulate the relationship between both character sets, providing counterparts that are intuitive in nature. There is even a website (yamli.com) that allows the user to write in Arabish, translating the words back into Arabic script – which begs the question, do some Arabic speakers now prefer the Arabic chat alphabet? And, if the natural instinct is to now write in the Arabic chat alphabet rather than the Arabic script, what kind of meaning would that have?
In the hands of a Lebanese speaker, the Arabic chat alphabet is a tool with interesting potential, which brings us back to trilingual Beirut. Having this alphabet available in combination with French and English allows a visually uninterrupted flow of words. As previously discussed, the differences in the Arabic and Latin alphabets do not help when a Lebanese speaker, who usually mixes languages when speaking, wants to do the same when writing. Given that the chat alphabet relies solely on Latin characters, it facilitates the transition from one language to another in written form, echoing patterns which Lebanese speakers have grown accustomed to and which are now considered a part of everyday speech.
This phenomenon is a manifestation of the ways in which technology exerts influence on how we read and write. Latinised Arabic clearly presents pros and cons; on the one hand, it tussles with traditional Arabic script and therefore with the roots of Arabic identity, while, on the other, it facilitates new forms of expression. Either way, it has gained a firm foothold in today’s technological world, and grows ever more popular with younger generations of Arabic speakers.
Karima Deghayli is a graphic designer from Beirut, Lebanon, with over three years of experience working in-studio and independently as a freelancer. She is a participant at the Master Type Design at ECAL since September 2020.
‘Stories’ are writings by students where they reflect on the contemporary challenges that are driving current type design forward. The essays are written and edited as part of the MATD Theory class.
 Educational System Overview of Lebanon, 2020. (accessed 16.08.2021)
 Amin Maalouf, The Rock Of Tanios, London: Abacus, 1993.
 David Crow, Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics, Crans-près-Céligny: AVA Pub., 2003, p. 20.
 ‘Said Akl’, Wikipedia. (accessed 16.08.2021)
 Natalie Sullivan, ‘Writing Arabizi: Orthographic Variation in Romanized Lebanese Arabic On Twitter’, Plan II Honors Program Thesis, The University of Texas at Austin, 2017.
 Wid H. Allehaiby, ‘Arabizi: An Analysis of the Romanization of the Arabic Script from a Sociolinguistic Perspective’, in: Arab World English Journal, 4 (3), 2021, pp. 52–62. (accessed: 18.08.2021)
Mohammad Ali Yaghan, ‘Arabizi’: A Contemporary Style of Arabic Slang’, in: Design Issues, Vol. 24, #2, Spring 2008, pp. 39–52.
Charbel El-Khaissi, ‘The Romanisation of Arabic: a comparative analysis of romanised spoken Arabic and romanised Modern Standard Arabic’, La Trobe University, 2015.
Ibrahim Al-Shaer, ‘Does Arabizi Constitute a Threat to Arabic?’, in: Arab World English Journal, Vol. 7, #3, September 2016, pp. 18–30.