RIYADH: The Arabic language is one of the five most spoken languages in the world, with more than 274 million native speakers, according to Ethnologue, a leading authority on the world’s languages. At least 2 billion people can, to some degree, read or write it.
Nonetheless, hundreds, perhaps thousands of examples of virtually unreadable examples of Arabic exist in the media, from Hollywood to the backs of cereal boxes.
To combat this tendency, two Arab men have developed websites to help make backwards, disjointed Arabic a thing of the past, be it in video games, film and television or advertisements. To mark International Arabic Language Day, Arab News is highlighting their efforts to preserve the language.
Ramsey Nasser, a computer scientist, game designer, and educator of Lebanese origin, created a website called notarabic.com where visitors can submit examples of poor, butchered Arabic found in the wild.
“Arabic is my native language, so I lose sleep over this,” reads a statement on Nasser’s site.
Inspired by the site, Rami Ismail, a Dutch-Egyptian game developer and formerly one half of indie studio Vlambeer, created his own site called isthisarabic.com. Here, he lists some of the most common mistakes found in Arabic language media, and more importantly, how the text should be correctly aligned.
The reason for the most common mistakes, said Nasser, is the way computers are designed, which gives priority to Latin scripts.
“Computers are designed to handle the subset of the Latin script required to manipulate American English first and foremost. Every other writing system is an afterthought, and Arabic is particularly poorly served,” he said.
According to Ismail, the difficulty of rendering Arabic text also poses a problem for most developers. “Rendering Arabic is just a straight-up disaster. And copy-pasting is still hit or miss. If you copy-paste from one program to another, you can only hope it comes out properly. I find this unacceptable.”
Ismail said that their shared interest in keeping Arabic alive, coupled with their mutual anger at seeing the language butchered, caused them to join forces.
“I think I was one of the first people to start submitting everything I came across on Ramsey’s site, and we kind of ended up being brothers-in-arms about the subject,” he said.
He added: “When you consider that nearly a quarter of the human population speaks or reads some level of Arabic, you just can’t write things backwards. That’s not how it works. It’s not even a mistake at that point, it’s just disrespect.”
Nasser has attempted to combat the misrepresentation of Arabic in the media with a project named “Alb” (Arabic for heart). Alb is a programming language created with the intention of “exploring the role of human culture in coding.”
The code is written entirely in Arabic, highlighting cultural biases of computer science and challenging the assumptions people make about programming.
“All modern programming tools are based on the ASCII character set, which encodes Latin characters and was originally based on the English Language,” said Nasser.
“As a result, programming has become tied to a single written culture. It carries with it a cultural bias that favors those who grew up reading and writing in that culture. Alb explores and challenges that by presenting a language that deviates almost entirely from ASCII.”
Ismail said he is often contacted by developers and designers to check over the Arabic in their projects.
“I get a lot of messages from developers that check my website, who tell me that without the site they never would have been able to finish their projects. Also, if a large company approaches me to look over some Arabic, I can charge them, and put the money toward helping Arabs and Muslims,” he said.
He also helps to make sure holy texts, such as Qur’anic verses and Hadiths, are not misappropriated or used in inappropriate contexts.
Both Nasser and Ismail have also given presentations on the subject, Ismail gave a “crash course” in Arabic at XOXO, an experimental festival celebrating independently produced art and technology in Portland, Oregon, in 2015. Nasser gave a talk titled “Techniques for the Processing of the Arabic Language on Modern Computers” at Interrupt 4 at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 2017.
Together, the combined efforts of both developers are attempting to make people reevaluate the Arabic language, and Ismail says he can actually see the improvement now.
“Between Is This Arabic and Not Arabic existing, and my Twitter account being a very loud callout of that, I think things have got a little better, at least in the games industry,” he said.