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Language, identity and Wikipedia: Some perspectives from the Cairo “Wikipedia in the Arab World” workshop

Published on
1 Nov 2012
Written by
Heather Ford
Mark Graham talks about the stated goal of Wikipedia to become the “sum of all human knowledge” while Ahmed Medat waits to translate into Arabic

It was the end of the final day of our workshop on the outskirts of Cairo and we were all feeling that curious mixture of inspiration, energy and exhaustion that follows those meetings where a world of ideas and people and things are thrown together in a concentrated few days. Mark Graham asked each of us if we’d like to say a few parting words and the participants spoke about how they enjoyed meeting Wikipedians from so many places in the Middle East, that they were happy to come to an event with academics and that they were excited about doing something to make a change in the real world. The majority of participants spoke in English – what was for many of them a third or fourth language – while some had their Arabic translated on the fly by other participants.

I was surprised when we got round to Mohamed Amarochan, Wikipedian, Mozilla hacker and blogger from Morocco, when he said that he would like to speak in Arabic. I knew that Mohamed had a really good command of English because I’d spent a fascinating ride with him from the airport on the way to the workshop where we commiserated with one another about visa hardships. When he chose to speak in Arabic and allowed others to translate into English, I realized that Mohammed was making an important statement about how small decisions like which language you choose to speak in a conversation like this one has big consequences.

As Clive Holes writes, ‘How we speak is an important part of who we are: in a sense, speech is the oral counterpart of how we dress. Both are intimately linked to our sense of self, and of how we prsent ourselves to, and are seen by, others.’ (Holes, 2011)

Language was a luminous thread running through the two-day workshop, sparking some pretty intense debates among participants who didn’t always agree with one another about what the real problems were or what the perfect strategy was in improving the coverage of Arab topics on Wikipedia. A particularly interesting issue was around the validity of the Masri (Egyptian Arabic) version of the encyclopedia and whether it “divided the ranks” of an already small effort, whether it was an initiative dominated by people from outside the Middle East (with some hinting that there was perhaps some ulterior motive behind the initiative) or even whether it was a legitimate language in its own right or merely a dialect of Arabic and should thus not have been provided the status of an independent Wikipedia. Many participants said that they felt “offended” by the existence of the Masry Wikipedia which they saw as a “politically-motivated fork filled with bots and hoaxes” – political in the sense that its existence came into being because of issues around identity and power, rather than practical considerations such as how many people would actually edit it. Others said that it was up to any community who speak a language to create their own Wikipedia and that since the user base was small, it didn’t really have an impact on the Arabic Wikipedia project.

After I wrote the first version of this post and sent it to participants, Egyptian Wikipedian, Ahmed Shawky Mohammedin sent me a well-researched eight-page document of  comments and notes. He said that he had spent the entire day poring over it, and although he was incredibly respectful and kind, he said that and felt that I didn’t completely understand the status of Egyptian Arabic in Egypt. I read further and realized that the situation is a lot more complex than I had originally understood it to be and that there is even disagreement within the linguistic community itself about the interaction between Egyptian Arabic and the so-called “Classical Arabic” of the region – so much so that people within Egypt often feel that the languages (and/or dialect) has been misunderstood (see Suleiman in Simpson, 2008).

It turns out that Egyptian Arabic is spoken natively by about 50+ million Egyptians and as a second language by most of the remaining 24 million Egyptians in several regional dialects, as well as by immigrant Egyptian communities in the Middle East, Europe, North America, Australia and South East Asia (see UCLA Language Materials, the Ethnologue and Omniglot) giving some credence to the claim that it the Wikipedia Masry is perhaps being driven by people outside of the region. Egyptian Arabic is also a signal of the regional power of Egypt and the mobility of Egyptian professionals through the MENA region. Egyptian Arabic is said to have become a lingua franca in other parts of Arabic-speaking world because of the proliferation of Egyptian films and other popular media throughout the region, and because of the high numbers of Egyptian teachers and professors who helped set up the education systems in other Arab countries.

Despite the widespread speaking of Egyptian Arabic throughout the region, it is still predominantly a spoken rather than written language. Yasir Suleiman (Suleiman in Simpson, 2008) writes about the complexities of talking about Arabic and Egyptian Arabic in Egypt, preferring to use the terms al-lugha al-‘arabiyya al-fusha (eloquent Arabic language) and al-‘ammiyya (the colloquial, referred in previous paragraphs as Egyptian Arabic). Suleiman writes that many people outside of Egypt see ‘ammiyya as ‘the Egyptian language’ but that for most Egyptians ‘ammiyya is not a language but a kind of dialect that is ‘denied the  status of language in common parlance’ and that is often incorrectly described by locals as ‘having no grammar’ even though it is the mother tongue of Egyptians and the one through which they are socialized.

Participants at the workshop brainstorming ideas about whether it is important to have Arab topics represented on Wikipedia

Suleiman writes about the historical role of language in terms of Egyptian and later Arab nationalism. Nationalists during different periods of Egypt’s history have used fusha (Classical Arabic/standard) and ‘ammiyya (Egyptian Arabic/colloquial) as a vehicle to assert the ambitions of Egypt but that this has changed over time. In the 1920s, the so-called ‘territorial nationalists’ embarked on a vernacularization campaign to promote ‘ammiyya ‘as the only authentic and legitimate voice of Egypt’ but Suleiman writes that the shift from Egyptian nationalism to pan-Arabism in the 1930s which emphasized the linguistic community not the speech community and the native language not the mother tongue (i.e. standard Arabic not the colloquial Egyptian Arabic). He writes that new debates are around conflicts involving ideologies of tradition and change or authenticity and foreignization/Westernization (taghrib) as Arabic struggles with the need to modernize and thus to import and localize concepts from the West.

Interestingly, the book in which Suleiman’s chapter appears was published in 2008, the year in which Masri Wikipedia was founded, the same year that Wikimania, the annual Wikimedia community conference, was hosted in Alexandria, Egypt. Wikipedia Masri started as a project in the Wikipedia Incubator in April 2008 and in November the same year, it became an official Wikipedia. Masri Wikipedia was mired in controversy from the beginning of its existence with some users establishing Facegroup groups to encourage vandalism against the encyclopedia. It seems that opposition was fueled by the elevation of the colloquial Masri to an encyclopedia, what is by many accounts considered to be the highest form of written “truth”, very different from the popular films and other media that Masri is traditionally used for. Others saw Masri Wikipedia as an affront against the attempts of Arabic Wikipedia to unify efforts across the Arab world.

Looking at the statistics of usage of Masri Wikipedia, it seems that the narrative about classical and colloquial Arabic in Egypt may not be as settled as Suleiman presents it in his chapter on Egyptian language and nationalism. Masri Wikipedia is still a small encyclopedia compared to Arabic as you can see in the table below:

Data derived from as at 29 October, 2012

But despite small editor numbers, Masri Wikipedia users are on the rise, and given the language’s historical ties to nationalism and democracy movements, there are few concrete indications that it is dying anytime soon (despite many Arabic Wikipedians’ statements to the contrary).

Erik Zachte, as at October 31, 2012 

Getting a more nuanced understanding of issues around language dynamics has a big impact on the way in which Wikipedias in different parts of the world are evaluated and nurtured. The Western world tends to think of language in static numerical terms. Appropriate languages for particular communications are often chosen according to statistics about the number of language speakers, rather than understanding the role of different languages used in different social and educational contexts.

In Tunisia, for example, almost everyone speaks Tunisian Arabic natively, and although there has been an attempt in recent years to Arabise facets of life that were dominated by French during and after the colonial period, including the teaching of scientific subjects, French is still widely used in business, in natural sciences, medicine and intellectual domains (Wikipedia). Although the people of Tunisia are almost certainly “counted” as native Arabic speakers, the reality is therefore a lot more complex. Many participants said that Arabic Wikipedia was much stronger in topics like history, religion and literature, but still pretty weak in maths, science and technology. Some said that there was a perception among some young people in the region that Arabic was “backwards” and that there was a problem that language standardization bodies take a while to find an Arabic translation for new words like “blog”.

Now I look at the statistics to the left in a whole new light. Comparing the number of editors according to the number of language “speakers” is actually an inappropriate measure of interest by a community in editing Wikipedia and it reflects a very Western framework of assessing participation. Arabic is the national language of twenty countries and the native language of approximately 300 million people, and Egyptian Arabic is the mother tongue of over 50 million people in Egypt, but editors may still choose to edit some articles in English or French and may vehemently disagree about which local language/dialect is appropriate for encyclopedic writing. The impact of this is that participation by people in the MENA (and many other developing nations) is dependent to a large extent on the ways in which language is tied to different spheres of knowledge.

Of course, there is another layer to this discussion and that was the assumed preference for English at this wonderful workshop about Arab topics on Wikipedia. Although there are almost 300 language versions of Wikipedia, the project is still framed and debated in the particular values and needs of the English-speaking world, and this bias is carried through to face to face settings. Wikipedia is certainly doing a great job of including a lot of people in its quest to become ‘the sum of all human knowledge’ but it would be a mistake to think that the language in which its goals are framed has no impact on the intentions, motivations and desires of its participants.

When the workshop was over, I remarked to Mohamed Amarochan that I was glad that he had chosen to speak Arabic there. He said, “Yes! It’s an Arabic workshop so I should speak Arabic.” Well said, Mohamed. Well said.


Suleiman, Y. (2008). ‘Egypt: From Egyptian to Pan-Arab Nationalism’. In A. Simpson (ed), ‘Language and National Identity in Africa‘. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Huge thanks to the participants of the workshop in particular to Ahmed Shawky Mohammedin for his extensive feedback on an earlier version of this post. The workshop entitled ‘Representation on Wikipedia in the Middle East and North Africa’ was a collaboration between the University of Oxford, the American University of Sharjah and University Tunis ElManar. It was funded by the International Development Research Centre in Canada and the John Fell Awards Scheme at the University of Oxford. The organising team included Dr Ilhem AllaguiDr Ali Frihda, Dr Mark Graham, Dr Bernie HoganAhmed Medhat, Clarence Singleton and myself. For more information on the results of the research, see the Oxford Internet Institute’s website here