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Mapping the Blurred Lines of Beirut’s Languages

The polyglot city boasts a crazy combination of tongues. Researchers are trying to untangle them.
A typical Beirut language pile-up.
A typical Beirut language pile-up. Kaveh Waddell/CityLab

A sign across from a quiet Beirut park advertises a taxi service: “For everyone, everywhere,” the sign reads in French. “Day and night,” it says in Arabic on the other side of the sign. Two sheets of printer paper are taped up on a wall nearby. One advertises an apartment for rent, delivering different pieces of information in English, French, and a transliteration of Arabic into Latin letters. On the wrinkled page pasted next to it, a hookah delivery service lists its flavors in Arabic—alternating between Arabic and Latin script—and entices customers with an offer of “free delivery” in English.

Beirut, Lebanon’s cosmopolitan capital, is famous for the chaotic jumble of languages it contains. Arabic, French, and English mix and mingle in writing and in conversation. For visitors and locals alike, it can be hard to pin down just how they interact, and the unwritten rules for how they’re used.