Facebook dialect: orthographical standardisation in Romanised Lebanese-Arabic
With the advent of the internet, the new communicative opportunities afforded to millions of its users across the globe have not always come without drawbacks– and in some cases, unexpected advantages. For speakers of colloquial Arabic dialects, such as that of Lebanese colloquial Arabic, the traditional Arabic script used for writing both Classical Arabic and its associated colloquial forms was not available for use in the first programs and applications that enabled digital communication. The resulting adoption of the Roman script has persisted well beyond the availability of the Arabic script for online communication, and is considered a non-standard orthography, used for the writing of a non-standard language, offering its users both constraint (for the representation of sounds for which the Roman script is not suited) and freedom (for the writing of certain colloquial Arabic features of that the Arabic script is not suited, as well as from the generalised constraint of standard language culture). This puts the Roman script orthography of Lebanese colloquial Arabic in a unique position, where users do not have a direct standard reflex to which to refer or recourse, meaning that unlike non-standard orthographies such as those used to write English dialects, or even creole languages such as Jamaican Creole with a standard lexifier (in this case also English), there is no means by which users can tend towards (or away from) a codified, standardised manner of writing. And yet what emerges is not unbound chaos, but an effective and in many cases expressive writing that generally serves the practical (if not ideological) needs of its users well. Though the QA dialects and in particular their online CMC manifestations have been studied extensively over the past two decades, the opportunity to understand how written conventions form on a grassroots level when there is no standard reflex from which users can draw has not yet been taken advantage of. This study adopts a ‘mature’ understanding of the sociolinguistics of writing and a modern understanding of standardisation as a cultured and imposed paradigm, with which we can consider the non-standard writing of Lebanese colloquial Arabic as it is used in the city of Tripoli in Lebanon not as an orthography that is simply awaiting standardisation (or which can be expected to inevitably standardise), but rather as flexible, dynamic writing well-suited to its use outside of the standard language culture paradigm, and yet within which written conventions nevertheless can be observed, and a process of conventionalisation and its effects can be detected and described. The city of Tripoli, due to its troubled history, has a history of Facebook groups initially formed for the discussion of news not otherwise covered by mainstream media, but which have evolved over time to become discussion boards for members of the city, seeing regular Roman script writing and so serving as the first corpus for this study, alongside a series of experimental interviews conducted in Tripoli in 2016 that allow the novel comparison between spoken and written forms in a manner not yet exploited by studies of grassroots conventionalisation, allowing us to ultimately describe this process and produce novel conclusions about how conventionalisation works for non-standard orthographies untethered to a single standard form or the imposed constraints of standard ideology.