A typical Beirut language pile-up. Kaveh Waddell/CityLab

The polyglot city boasts a crazy combination of tongues. Researchers are trying to untangle them.

A sign across from a quiet Beirut park advertises a taxi service: “For everyone, everywhere,” the sign reads in French. “Day and night,” it says in Arabic on the other side of the sign. Two sheets of printer paper are taped up on a wall nearby. One advertises an apartment for rent, delivering different pieces of information in English, French, and a transliteration of Arabic into Latin letters. On the wrinkled page pasted next to it, a hookah delivery service lists its flavors in Arabic—alternating between Arabic and Latin script—and entices customers with an offer of “free delivery” in English.

Beirut, Lebanon’s cosmopolitan capital, is famous for the chaotic jumble of languages it contains. Arabic, French, and English mix and mingle in writing and in conversation. For visitors and locals alike, it can be hard to pin down just how they interact, and the unwritten rules for how they’re used.

To try and sort out Beirut’s complex linguistic landscape, a team of more than 40 undergraduates from the American University of Beirut wandered through the city with their smartphone cameras trained on writing in public spaces. Over the course of two years, they snapped photos of everything from street signs and shop awnings to billboards and graffiti. Their photos were tagged with various characteristics: their location, the languages and scripts used, the meaning of the words, whether anything was misspelled. For Mario Hawat, one of the researchers, the exercise changed the way he looked at the city. “It ruined walking in the street for me,” said Hawat. “It used to be such a peaceful exercise.”

The result is a collection of maps that reveals the contours of the polyglot city’s famed linguistic diversity. In most cities, one or two languages dominate the landscape, except for in small patches, like immigrant neighborhoods. But in Beirut, blends of Arabic, French, and English turn up everywhere in the city—sometimes alongside other languages, like Armenian and Amharic—and they’re rarely alone.

“There's a messy vernacularity to the streets of Beirut that parallels the beautiful code-switching that takes place in Lebanese conversations,” said David Wrisley, who leads the mapping project. His students began collecting data with smartphones in 2015, back when he taught English at the American University of Beirut. Now, he’s a professor of digital humanities at New York University in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, but he still oversees the project.

Code-switching is built into spoken Lebanese Arabic, which is studded with French and English—a product of the country’s colonial history and its close ties with the West. It's more than just the occasional word, thrown in the way an American English speaker might unthinkingly toss off a Spanish word here and there. Instead, whole phrases and sentences in English or French crop up in the middle of Arabic conversations. Often, English and French words become so ingrained in Lebanese Arabic that they take on Arabic characteristics. Hawat offered an example: “If I wanted to be very jock-like and greet my friends, I would say, ‘Hi, broite.’” Yes, that's “Hi, bro” with a Lebanese Arabic possessive ending.

The blurred lines of Lebanese vernacular show up in writing, too. Although Arabic is written in a different script than English and French, the two writing systems often mix freely here. Many establishments write out their names in Latin letters, even if the names are made up of Arabic words. Signs for corner stores and bakeries, by contrast, might include “سناك” or “ميني ماركت”—words which, if read aloud, sound like the English words “snack” and “mini-market,” respectively.

Here’s an interactive map of Beirut’s multilingual signage:

In addition to playing with scripts, the majority of the signs the researchers analyzed included more than one language. One might expect a sign in Arabic, French, and English to contain roughly the same information in each. Instead the researchers found that the ideas communicated in each languages are often complementary, but different: To understand the entirety of a sign, the reader must be able to read and understand two or even three languages.

Signage with different information in different languages is unusual, said Lorna Carson, a linguistics professor at Trinity College Dublin. But the pattern is a reflection of the reality here in Beirut: Bilingualism and trilingualism are normal, and not just among the highly educated. “There is an assumed multilingual literacy among the people of Beirut,” said Wrisley.

Hawat, for example, grew up speaking Arabic at home, graduated from a French-speaking high school in a suburb of Beirut called Hadad, then went on to get a degree in English from the American University in Beirut. His background places him squarely in the ranks of Lebanon's educated elite—but anyone who completed basic schooling in Lebanon will have been taught several subjects entirely in either English or French.

Although all three languages are in play across Beirut, the mapping project revealed some surprising patterns in how they’re used. The researchers found that different industries favor certain languages. Construction companies, for example, often have English names and advertise in English. (“Maybe Americanism seems industrious,” Hawat speculated.) Health and beauty stores tend to advertise in French. And shops that sell clothing and shoes often use a nonsensical amalgam of Romance languages, like “Bella Rêve” (Spanish or Italian plus French, with bonus points for an Arabic transcription: بيلّا ريڤ), or “Vogue,” a store with a French name and an Italian slogan: “è classe, è prestigio.”

Carson said that using a particular language in advertising is a common way of signaling values to customers. By putting up signage in French or in English, for example, “you’re selling lifestyle connotations of cosmopolitanism or efficiency,” she said.

English, French, and Arabic compete for dominance in Beirut. (Kaveh Waddell/CityLab)

Beyond the ways that different languages were used throughout the city, the distribution of those languages in Beirut also held some surprises. A widely held belief in Lebanon is that English is the second language of choice in the predominantly Muslim western half of Beirut—especially in a neighborhood called Hamra, which borders two American universities that have been around for more than 150 years—while East Beirut, which has more Christian residents, is closer linked to French. The city’s current religious makeup is in part a product of a long and bloody civil war that bisected Beirut from 1975 to 1990.

In reality, the researchers found, the linguistic division between East and West is far from clear. French and English do tend to crop up disproportionately often near educational institutions that teach in the corresponding language, and those institutions are indeed bunched on either side of the city: English-speaking in the west and French-speaking in the east. But generally, Arabic, French, and English show up with regularity everywhere in the city—even in more conservative, lower-income, and less cosmopolitan areas. (That said, the project has far fewer data points in some of Beirut's poorer neighborhoods.)

“One of the reasons we wanted to carry out this project to begin with was that the empirical observation of the city seemed to contradict a lot of these urban myths about Beirut,” said Wrisley.

Rather than a clear-cut division by neighborhood, the researchers found much more granular variation. When one former student, Alice Kezhaya, analyzed signs in Muslim-majority Hamra, she expected to find a drop in English-language signage at the borders of the neighborhood. Instead, the concentration of non-Arabic signage varied significantly from street to street.

Multiple languages were splashed across the main streets—but in Hamra’s smaller backstreets, the writing was mostly in Arabic. “There are corridors of privilege and mobility in Hamra,” said Wrisley. The neighborhood’s main thoroughfares are home to a number of large, foreign-owned businesses, which can afford the real estate and have a commercial incentive to put up signage in different languages. But in harder-to-reach places, older Arabic-only signage on family businesses may not have been updated in decades, Kezhaya said. The result is a patchwork mosaic that reflects the minutiae of the neighborhood’s economic geography and even its traffic flows, as you can see in this close-up of the Beirut language map:

Although Arabic-only signage can seem outdated in parts of modern Beirut, that impression may not last. Hawat detects a resurgence of interest in Arabic among Lebanon's younger generations.

“In the 90s, post-war, some people wanted to distance themselves from the region and belong to a ‘civilized’ part of the world,” he said. Now, some Lebanese are reasserting their national identity through the Arabic language. “A lot of posh places now are actually in Arabic. In my generation, if you want to do a hipster and woke tattoo, you do it in Arabic.”

Some time down the road, changes in Lebanon’s spoken language will likely be reflected on Beirut’s streets. For now, the research team is working on the data the students captured in 2015 and 2016, transcribing the text found in the more than 2,000 images and tagging them with more information, like the proportion of each language that appears on each sign. The resulting database, which is being compiled on GitHub, will be available for other researchers to use for free.

“The landscape that we’re looking at is not at all static,” Wrisley said. “Now we have a snapshot of Beirut in 2015. Maybe somebody coming along in 2020 will find some interesting changes.”

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