Language Borders: Linguistic Mapping in Beirut

For the Multilingualism Across Disciplinary Borders Conference at the AUB in April 2014, I (Alice Kezhaya) presented my ongoing research project at the poster sessions. In multilingual Beirut, it’s general knowledge that in certain areas, certain languages dominate over others. I happen to live on a street that lies at the intersection of an English-dominated area, a French-dominated area, and an Arabic-dominated area. This led me to wonder what happens at the borders, in places like where I live.

What does multilingualism mean in Beirut?

I started by questioning my first assumption, that certain languages dominate areas, by surveying 105 people about the languages of 12 Beirut neighborhoods. The results showed clear distinctions. Below I pasted the results for Hamra and Ashrafieh:

survey results hamra ashrafieh
As this project is a huge undertaking, I had no choice but to start with only one neighborhood. I focused on Hamra, as it is the neighborhood I know best. From there I will push outside of the borders of Hamra until I cover all of Beirut.

Based on the survey results and my own understanding, I drew a map of what I believed the language dispersion looked like in Hamra: (link to hypothesis on Google maps)

Notice the green English areas circle around the two American universities, and the main Hamra Street–a busy tourist area–cuts through the middle.

In order to make my own maps, I used a phone application called Click2Map: an app that allowed me to pin points with photos (which made passersby clearly uncomfortable, so I couldn’t always take photos) on-the-go via 3G and GPS. Then I transferred that information manually to a custom map on Google Maps.

In my research, I decided to focus on signage (i.e. shop signs and street signs) as they are relatively permanent.

Here are my results so far: (link to Google maps)


Map Legend:

Red: Arabic Script
Yellow: Romanized Arabic
Orange: Mix of Arabic Script and Romanized
Purple: French mix with Arabic Script
Green: English
Brown: English mix with Arabic Script
Light Brown: English mix with Romanized

LINES: dominated by that language

My hypothesis wasn’t entirely wrong, but it definitely did not cover the reality.

It is true that the main street and the street near one of the American universities are dominated by English, however surprisingly the second American university is surrounded by a domination of Arabic. The second American university is near a border with another neighborhood, though, so this will require further research.

However, even within the areas dominated by English, small streets and alleyways nearby are dominated by Arabic. What does this mean? I am assuming it is related to class, but again, this will require further research and analysis. So far, I am calling it “the hidden Arabic.”

There are two important issues that need to be looked into before drawing conclusions from this data:

1) The big stores on Hamra Street are foreign-owned and therefore have non-Arabic names.

2) Are there laws about the signage in Beirut? Not sure.

3) It is not always easy to classify whether the Arabic/English is translated or a transliteration.

There is still a lot more work to be done before I can call this project complete! Updates will be posted here.

Update: 9 September 2015
It seems that my research has inspired Professor David J. Wrisley (@DJWrisley) to include a class project involving mapping the languages in Beirut using mobile data collection apps for the ENGL 229 (History of the English Language) course at AUB. I’m very excited to see what they come up with! If you’d like to follow their progress, check out this link:


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