The Art of Arabizi: Navigating Foreign Language Social Media

arabizi, vcheck global

Primarily reserved for informal communication, a blended writing code known as Arabizi is now spreading beyond the realm of social media and finding its way into print media such as newspapers, books, and advertisements. Arabic language research is a key part of Vcheck Global’s foreign language investigations, particularly because many tweets are typically written in Arabizi as opposed to Arabic. The frequency of cases requiring Arabizi translation, including a Lebanese case from June, highlights how proficiently navigating all facets of foreign languages is essential in delivering contemporary due diligence reports.

Arabizi is a blend of عربي (/​ʕ​arabi​ː/​, Arabic) and إنجلیزي (/​ʔ​ingli​ː​zi​ː/​, English) is arguably the most commonly used term for the ad hoc romanization of Arabic, although Arabish and Arabic chat alphabet, among others, are also used. Arabic was romanized, or transliterated from the original scripts to Latin script, into what is now known as Arabizi as a way for people to more easily use electronic communication technology such as short message service (SMS) and texting using a messenger or social media application. These technologies were once dominated by the character encoding standard known as American Standard Code for Information Interchange, which did not accommodate for languages outside of Latin script.

The increasing popularity of smartphones and messaging services like WhatsApp has caused a reduction in the use of many romanizations. For example, Russia’s Volapuk encoding and Translit and Greece’s Greeklish are now virtually obsolete. Yet even with the advent of unicode, which opened the floodgates for SMS and other electronic communication technologies to allow for Arabic and other non-Latin languages, Arabizi remained popular for several reasons.

One reason Arabizi remains popular is that, unlike some scripts such as Cyrillic, Arabic does not have a distinction between uppercase and lowercase. “The use of capital letters [in Arabizi] indicates yelling, excitement, emotions or calls for special attention (as with most messaging systems),” according to an article published in MIT’s Design Issues in 2008. Capitalization is not possible with the Arabic script but can be an asset in non-verbal communication.

Another reason for Arabizi’s sustained usage is its ability to keep SMS text messaging costs low. Unicode SMS messages in Arabic max out at 70 characters each, whereas a single SMS message can accommodate up to 160 Latin characters. When paying per message, Arabizi allows people to communicate more for less. A 2018 study of Arabizi conducted in Saudi Arabia reached the conclusion that, “…although Arabizi users have access to an Arabic keyboard and communicate with those who understand Arabic, they still resort to Arabizi, which is a marker of youth identity and solidarity.”

Language is fluid—new slang and code is being created by people all over the world at any given time. Vcheck Global’s International Office has in-house experts fluent in several languages and maintains active relationships with language experts on the ground in countries across the globe. These experts continually study modern linguistics and translations, ensuring Vcheck Global reports include all valuable information regardless of language.

Brittany Thayer is an investigator based out of Vcheck Global’s office in Boston. Vcheck Global Investigator Ishan Sawai contributed to this article.

Sources: 
Alghamdi, Hamdah; Petraki, Eleni. 2018. “Arabizi in Saudi Arabia: A Deviant Form of Language or Simply a Form of Expression?” Soc. Sci. 7, no. 9: 155.
Yaghan, Mohammad Ali. ““Arabizi”: A contemporary style of Arabic Slang.” Design Issues 24, no. 2 (2008): 39-52.