Understanding the orality of Arabic culture

Signs define visible and invisible boundaries within cultures and societies, and semiotics is the study of these signs and symbols. It is used to study people’s perceptions, interpretations and interactions with symbols and signs. As computational software is breaking distant boundaries and rewiring cultures and societies, human-computer interaction researchers are relying on semiotic methods to study the interplay between information systems, languages and cultures.

To meet the exponential growth in the use of codes and software in today’s organizations, linguists and cultural brokers working in the field of localization and broader language technology require semiotic perspectives on language and culture to mediate the development of usable spaces and devices for users with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This approach not only generates new business opportunities but also enables intercultural learning. Arabic language and culture are highlighted as examples to explain this semiotic approach.  


Orality versus literacy

According to semioticians, symbolic breakthroughs have led to major transformations in human civilization and enabled new modes of thinking, sensing, knowing and being. Historically, symbolic shifts led to cultural transformations and created new economic landscapes with new business and career opportunities. For example, oral traditions (known as orality among media experts) dominated modes of communications, lifestyles, knowledge production and social interactions in preindustrial times. As a main symbolic system, orality also shaped cultural norms and social structures. For instance, people lived in tribal communities, and knowledge was transmitted orally among social groups and then onward to the next generation. Economic activities were meshed within kinships, family and a wider social web.

Despite accelerated advances in information and communications technologies, oral cultures are still alive in most parts of the world and shape social behaviors and attitudes for the majority of world population. Orality doesn’t necessarily imply illiteracy. Instead, orality refers to a different way of thinking about things, and even a different way of relating to the world. For example, while literate people tend to embrace analytical knowledge in problem-solving and decision-making, oral people use relational knowledge to navigate their lives and make everyday decisions and choices. According to orality experts, more than 60% of the world’s populations are described as oral communicators. Historically, oral modalities shape Arab language and culture.  

For Muslims, Arabic is a sacred language. It embodies religious practices for Arab and non-Arab Muslims. This includes five daily prayers, Quran recitation and memorization, and weekly Friday prayer. The oral traditions of Arabic culture are also deeply rooted in pre-Islamic times. Oral tradition was quite important in the Middle East, going back farther than the Arabic language and then continuing for thousands of years. In fact, pre-Islamic poetry is seen by historians as a register of Arabs, meaning that it contains information on their history, genealogy, world view, cultural values and entire way of life. At that time, Arabic poetry was an original ethnography of the pre-Islamic period. This orality heritage in the Arab world continues to shape attitudes, preferences, decisions and choices. For various reasons, Arabic people may not read books as often as their Western counterparts. Translator Richard Jacquemond estimated that somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 books are translated into Arabic every year — and this count is an increase over the Arab Human Development Report’s estimate of 330. The average person in the Arab world reads infrequently, the Syrian newspaper Tishreen claimed in 2008, referencing a United Nations survey. Some have criticized this study, but the fact remains: those in the Arabic world tend to be more oral in their conceptions than literate. Although indeed, the concept of reading in our digital era has changed somewhat to become increasingly post-literate.

Like other oral societies, Arabs identify themselves mostly within kinship and family ties. Ignoring this orality dimension might not only limit the success of localization and experience design for Arab users, but also might cause offense for oral users in the Arab world. In contrast, the outbreak of industrial revolution in Western societies and the invention of a printing machine in the fifteenth century by Johannes Gutenberg have changed the lives of people and societies in industrialized countries. The printing press gave birth to printed text as a new semiotic system in Europe and eventually moved to other parts of the world. The new textual order gave rise to widespread literacy, and this became the new way of thinking, knowing and doing. In social terms, literacy shift facilitated deep societal changes. Literacy provided societies with new means to store, organize, retrieve and pass knowledge to next generations.  

According to Walter J. Ong in his book Orality and Literacy, print literacy encouraged individualization, distance and objectivity because reading is an individual activity. Thus, it created a split between knower and known, distance between writer and reader, and eventually separated thought from action. “Writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another,” Ong writes. “By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle. Proverbs and riddles are not used simply to store knowledge but to engage others in verbal and intellectual combat: utterance of one proverb or riddle challenges hearers to top it with a more apposite or a contradictory one.”

Within literate societies, this literacy shift also replaced oral subjectivity among oral people with literate objectivity, and situational knowledge of oral cultures with analytical knowledge. Over time, print literacy shaped cultural norms such as rationality and institutional hierarchies within societies, especially within Western industrialized societies. Under literacy order, attitudes of independence and free choice prevailed among people in the West.  


Ethnocomputing for all users

Currently, post-industrial ad-
vances in mobile and media technologies are bringing the literate dualistic order to its end. More importantly, it is converging orality and literacy modes into a new post-literacy order driven by hypertext and hypermedia. Unlike printed text, hypertext is multimodal, with attributes from literacy and orality modes. For example, hypertext is both subjective and objective and supports both relational knowledge of oral people and analytical knowledge of literate users. Nevertheless, human-computer interaction researchers report that literate and oral cultures conceive and interact with technology including this new post-literate order differently. They propose ethnocomputing as a new paradigm for inclusive user experience. Unlike conventional computing mainly evolved in Western literate contexts, ethnocomputing incorporates cultural dimensions of computing into the design of computational devices, interfaces and practices. Ethnocomputing is the study of the interactions between computing and culture. It includes research on the impact of computing on society, as well as the reverse.

The ethnocomputing shift eventually might facilitate economic opportunities within the emergent Arab information technology economy. Statistics issued by the International Telecommunication Union at the beginning of this year reveals that Arab States had reached an estimated internet penetration of 29.1%, compared to 34.7% globally. This places the Arab world ahead of Africa (12.8%) and Asia and the Pacific, where internet penetration was estimated at 27.2%. There are major differences within the Arab States, with internet penetration varying from below 5% in Mauritania and Somalia, around 50% in Morocco, to around 80% in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — a level comparable to many European countries. For mobile technology, the Arab States overall had some estimated 97 mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, putting the region ahead of Asia Pacific and Africa. Mobile penetration rates vary greatly within Arab countries, from below 10% in Somalia to 188% in Saudi Arabia.  

Using the semiotics of literate users might be inadequate in oral Arabic cultures. Indeed, it might lead to opposite results as experienced currently in oral cultures. In contrast, ethnocomputing is positioned to meet the needs of both literate and oral users by mediating better interactions between users and information technology devices and interfaces.


Coding Arabic orality 

Ong explains that certain modern cultures have known writing for centuries “but have never fully interiorized it, such as Arabic culture and certain other Mediterranean cultures.” Ong claims they rely heavily on “formulaic thought and expression,” by which he means a certain set way of expressing oneself verbally. “Oral habits of thought and expression, including massive use of formulaic elements, sustained in use largely by the teaching of the old classical rhetoric, still marked prose style of almost every sort in Tudor England some two thousand years after Plato’s campaign against oral poets.”

As explained previously, orality theory emphasizes that oral users need to be understood within their cultures, rather than by semiotic biases of literate users. Human-computer interaction researchers have developed insights to enhance the effectiveness of localization and experience design for oral cultures. For example, information for oral users needs to be communicated through examples. Abstract statements, such as “breastfeeding should be continued even when the child has diarrhea,” is not as effective as describing a precise example of a mother who is faced with this particular issue. In general, new information should be described in terms of familiar cultural norms. Oral people may give more importance to the source of information than literate people, especially, perhaps, in the case of divine revelation. In literate societies, information is shared through writing, and scant attention may be paid to the source of the information. For oral people, however, information is social and traceable, with what is supposed to be an obvious source. The epics of Homer, for example, are supposed to have been constructed by a man called Homer, though others might recite them for public amusement. Therefore, content for oral users is expected to encompass sources to make it credible and trustworthy. It is known in Arabic culture that narrators of Hadith (the Arabic word for the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) have traveled to many countries to verify their sources and insure their credibility.

Moreover, each and every word written for oral users needs to be easily understood. Oral users never face unknown words in daily life — spoken language is clear and obvious. Thus, even one unfamiliar word can confuse the user completely, and thus care should be taken to ensure that no such words exist in any content for oral users. In the final analysis, the incorporation of such ethnographic insights in localization and experience design is advised to enhance usability among Arab users.

The post-literacy order is changing linguistic paradigms. It put an end to the monolingual paradigm and opened doors for a new translingual one. In the old paradigm, languages were seen as separated from each other, but the translingual order is enabling people and ideas to move between languages seamlessly. People working in the language technology industry are advised to enhance their translingual and transcultural paradigms to stay relevant in today’s converging world of cultures and languages, including Arabic.