The Palestinian Arabic Spelling Standardization Project

The Palestinian Arabic Spelling Standardization Project (PASS-P) is a system for representing a particular currently purely spoken dialect of Modern Arabic in a writing system that, while aesthetically and culturally connected to Classical Arabic script, is specifically designed to represent the very different sounds and structures of Palestinian Arabic. It is designed specifically to meet all expectations of professional linguists concerning what writing systems need to do while at the same time meeting two important cultural goals: that it be clearly and distinctly modern, i.e., Palestinian, and yet that it also be connected to and respectful of the classical tradition.

I consider PASS-P to be the most outstanding intellectual endeavor during my college years. The PASS project has illuminated my work in several courses more deeply and influenced my personal and professional development more profoundly than any other single experience. This is true mainly because of the multitude of issues involved in developing the project and the tremendous promise it holds for changing people's lives.

The problem PASS-P tries to solve is rooted in what linguists call Diglossia. Diglossia is a linguistic situation where two languages coexist in one society with one having all the prestige and linguistic interest and the other being considered a deformed "colloquial" dialect. In the Arab World, The prestigious language is Classical Arabic, the language of the Holy Moslem Book, the Qur'an. It is a language, more than a millennium and a half years old, that has been the object of a huge amount of scholarly study. The Modern Standard Arabic that is used today in all formal occasions from weddings and funerals to graduate theses is only slightly different from the classical language, but is dramatically different from all of the modern spoken varieties of Arabic.

My spoken variety is Palestinian Arabic, the language of everyday life, business, socialization, etc. Although it is the actual pillar of communication, it is nonetheless considered by most people to be a distorted "dialect" of Classical Arabic. Linguistically speaking, Palestinian Arabic, like other Modern Arabics, has gone through a natural linguistic evolution process that has left it as different from Classical Arabic as modern French, Spanish, or Italian are different from Latin.

For the past forty years, the Arab world has been split between a conservative majority, who have wanted to keep the status quo, and a few liberal scholars who believe in the modernization and simplification of the writing system by using a Latin script. The debate has always been theoretical with little attempt to produce practical solutions to the problem of the lack of standardization. For example, the lack of a standardized writing system prevents not only the development of any literature in the language, but also the collection of linguistic and anthropological data, not to mention the teaching of this language to speakers of other languages. The thought that there is at present no way to preserve and pass to future generation the vivid and moving Palestinian folktales that my grandmother used to tell me played an important role in igniting my interest and sustaining my commitment to solving this problem. Over the years, several make-shift systems were introduced to deal with these problems, but none were linguistically sophisticated or universally applicable.

I feel that my project has broken new ground in the consideration of this issue, principally by recognizing the multidimensional nature of the problem, namely linguistic and cultural. The conservative side that sought to protect classical culture simply ignored the linguistic facts: Palestinian Arabic exists and serves unique human needs. The liberal side, on the other hand, has been in touch with linguistic reality, but at times culturally insensitive. My proposed solution of devising a standardized writing system based on Arabic script, but independent of Classical strictures, is an innovative and diplomatic middle ground that is both linguistically sophisticated and culturally sensitive.

As part of the project, I did extensive research on the phonology and syntax of Palestinian Arabic. This led to my invention of some extra letters and diacritics and to a redefinition of the function of some letters in the Arabic script based on my own and others' research. This theoretical research also led me to design of the first Palestinian Arabic computer font. Virtually, all of my theoretical research and the technical implementation of the font are complete. A lengthy introduction and several chapters of a book dedicated to PASS-P is currently more than half written. Interestingly, none of this work was done as specific assignment in any course; however, the unified results that I feel that I have achieved have grown organically out of my work in several courses in both my degree programs.

Many factors are involved in making me the person to devise a solution to this problem. First, I am a student of Linguistics and Computer Engineering. This has given me not only the theoretical tools to analyze the problems but also the practical ability to find and implement solutions. Second, the fact that I was raised in the Middle East and went through public education there makes me more sensitive to the cultural issues of the region. Third, the fact that I am studying in an American university gives me the intellectual freedom to address this problem without the kind of hurdles I might have found at a Middle Eastern University. Finally, my interest in the visual arts has given me the background to create solutions that are aesthetically as well as culturally appealing.

I plan to pursue a doctorate in computer science in machine translation, but I am sure that I could achieve no greater goal in my life that bringing this project to fruition: i.e., persuading the Palestinian people to adopt a writing system that will preserve their cultural heritage.

For samples of the proposed standard and font, download my presentation Issues in Palestinian Arabic Spelling Standardization.