Jordan’s law to protect Arabic triggers mixed reactions

Dr Muhammad Al-Saudi, Secretary General of the Arabic Language Academy, says that this law is “cultural” in essence and should not be construed as confrontational in intent.
Thursday 06/05/2021
Arabic Language Academy headquterts in Amman. The Law for the Protection of the Arabic Language in Jordan is the first legislation of its kind in the Arab world. (https://arabic.jo)
Arabic Language Academy headquterts in Amman. The Law for the Protection of the Arabic Language in Jordan is the first legislation of its kind in the Arab world. (https://arabic.jo)

AMMAN - The Law for the Protection of the Arabic Language in Jordan is thought to be the first legislation of its kind in the Arab world. The law was approved by the Jordanian parliament a few years ago. It sets out a “compulsory” system for holding proficiency tests in Arabic. The system is to be overseen by the Arabic Language Academy, working with a number of partners in order to raise the linguistic standard of candidates for government, public and academic posts.

Cultural law 

The Law for the Protection of the Arabic Language obliges state institutions to ensure the ascendancy of the Arabic language and to strengthen its role in the economic and social fields, civil society institutions and in scientific and cultural activities.

This includes the names of organisations, their documents, transactions, records, contracts and agreements to which they are a party, the books issued by them, any audiovisual or print advertisements directed to the public, any promotional or non-advertising publications and any media campaigns.

The law also requires the use of Arabic in any advertisement for broadcast, publication or display in any public place, with the possibility of adding a translation in a foreign language when necessary, provided that the Arabic text comes in larger characters and is more prominently displayed.

Even films and works in languages other than Arabic that are licensed for broadcast or publication  are required to be translated into Arabic.

This includes banners and signs bearing the names of institutions, banknotes, stamps, medals, certificates and academic rulings, with the possibility of adding to the Arabic a foreign language translation.

The law also covers the naming of streets, districts, public squares and other locations, with the exception of non-Arabic proper nouns.

This applies to commercial, financial, industrial, scientific, social, service, entertainment and tourism institutions.

The law stipulates that the Arabic language is the language of scientific research. This means that research papers have to be in Arabic  but can also be in foreign languages, if the researchers provide a translation of their research documents in Arabic.

Muhammad Al-Saudi, Secretary General of the Arabic Language Academy. (https://arabic.jo)
Muhammad Al-Saudi, Secretary General of the Arabic Language Academy. (https://arabic.jo)

Dr Muhammad Al-Saudi, Secretary General of the Arabic Language Academy, says that this law is “cultural” in essence and should not be construed as confrontational in intent.

He adds that the implementation of the law should be gradual and be carried out with the cooperation of all concerned parties, especially since it affects the culture of society, education, customs, traditions and local dialects, in one way or another.

Saudi adds that one of the most tangible dividends of this law and its application has been the adoption of the Arabic language proficiency examination system.

According to the law, “no public education teacher or a faculty member in higher education or a broadcaster, producer or editor can be appointed in any media institution unless he passes the linguistic proficiency exam”.

In the trial period, more than 12,000 teachers sat the exam. The success rates ranged between 68% and 81%, which is an “advanced rate at the international level” according to Saudi.

Another aspect with an important bearing on public life relates to the system for the  “conformity of names”, which is still to be approved and put into practice.

Saudi says that this arrangement aims to ensure the compatibility of trade names with Arabic language rules.

He points out that the Academy has sought help from a number of legal experts and consultants in preparing the system, which has not yet received the approval of the Legislation and Opinion Bureau.

Although the Law for the Protection of the Arabic Language stipulates that violators will be liable to specific fines, according to Saudi, the problem remains who implements the law.

There is still debate on this issue, especially since the Arabic Language Academy does not have the powers of the judicial police to issue formal notices of violations.

Flexible implementation

Writer Soha Naajah says that “there were civilised nations who preceded us in putting in place laws to protect their language”.

She adds that Arabic at this time is in dire need of a law to protect it, because “the languages are close to each other to the point of overlap. In this context, we risk losing the characteristics of our identity”.

She thinks linguists, language academies, students of language and those who love it, including poets and writers, should discuss how to modernise Arabic without losing its constants.

The law also requires the use of Arabic in any advertisement for broadcast, publication or display in any public place. (AFP)
The law also requires the use of Arabic in any advertisement for broadcast, publication or display in any public place. (AFP)

Critic and academic Ghassan Abdel-Khaleq, who took over the secretariat of the committee drafting the Law on the Protection of the Arabic Language, says that some members adopted an extreme position over the imposition of fines for violators, especially against those who put signs in foreign languages in front of  their stores.

There was also a moderate tendency convinced that the purpose of the law was to educate people about the importance of Arabisation, cut “visual pollution” in the public landscape, reduce the arbitrary design of commercial signs and raise awareness of the aesthetic quality of Arabic calligraphy.

Abdel-Khaleq also acknowledges that the introduction of the law should be gradual, as its purpose is not to “fine” violators as much as to create common denominators among stakeholders (government agencies, companies, industrial and commercial institutions) in order to reach a consensus that encourages correct usage of Arabic, even if not classical, in correspondence, official letterheads and public signs.