Our Perspective


Bridging the language gap: A new lexicon for electoral terminology

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Libyan woman votesRadhya Bourawi is elated to have voted after a three-hour wait in the Libyan elections. Photo credit: Samia Mahgoub/UNDP Libya

What happens when there are no words in a language to refer to a new situation or process? People naturally make up new ones, either using their own language, borrowing from others, or a combination of both. This is what makes language so fascinating because it is alive and constantly changing.

But talking about things that are both very technical and politically sensitive is a challenge. This is what happened in the Arabic speaking world when winds of democracy started to blow across the region, regimes fell and people aspired to hold real elections as the key to a new future.  

When people in the countries of the Arab Spring - Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – began work on organizing their first democratic elections, they used their own local understanding and expressions to refer to what are often complex processes and concepts. Just like others in the region who had had earlier electoral experiences, for example in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, people delved into the rich vocabulary of the Arabic language.

As an Arabic speaking international electoral assistance consultant for UNDP, I worked in a number of Middle Eastern countries. In Tunisia in 2011, I saw the potential for misunderstanding between people using different expressions and words to refer to the same process. Together with my supervisor, a native from South America where Spanish is spoken with many regional variations, we agreed that we should try to provide a solid work of reference on elections that could be used across the Arab world. Our objective was not to force the harmonization of terminology but to encourage accuracy, reflect international standards and allow people from the different countries to understand each other by providing regional variations.

This is how the Arabic Lexicon of Electoral terminology was born. With the support of our electoral assistance projects in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine Tunisia and Yemen, over 100  elections experts, practitioners and members of electoral commissions worked on it for close to 2 years. So far the lexicon includes 481 entries, providing clear and accurate explanations of key concepts and terms in the field of elections in Arabic, along with English and French, so that there is always a second language to refer to. We hope that this is just the start and that we will be able to grow the lexicon by adding more terms and spreading its geographical reach to include all the Arabic speaking countries.