Arabic originated from the Arabian Peninsula. With the proliferation of Islam, the number of people who spoke Arabic increased as well. Today, more than 300 million people speak the language, which makes it one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. It is the dominant language in North Africa and the Middle East. But do all of the people in these different areas speak the same language? Let’s explore the globe to discover the different dialects of the Arabic language.
Modern Standard Arabic
Just as there are standardised versions of many European languages, e.g. Standard Dutch, there is also a general form of Arabic, which is known as Modern Standard Arabic or MSA. MSA is also known in Arabic as فصحى (IPA: fuṣḥā). Surprisingly, MSA is not that new or modern at all. The language was already established in the eighth century, and it has hardly changed since then.
Unlike Standard Dutch, Modern Standard Arabic is a language that is mainly used in writing, and not very often in conversation. This includes newspapers and literature, for example. To some extent. MSA is found in the spoken form, such as the news, on the radio and in speeches. Schools also often teach MSA, although this may be deviated from locally. By contrast, conversations between people in places such as bakeries or in the marketplace are almost always conducted in a dialect, an عامّيّة (IPA: ʿāmmīyya).
MSA is considered by many to be a distinguished form of Arabic. It is the language of rulers and intellectuals, and is often also spoken by foreigners. In fact, when you learn Arabic as a foreign language, MSA is often the language you are taught! This does not mean, however, that Arabic speakers cannot understand you. They may look at you a little strangely for speaking rather formally, but they will probably understand you. Whether you understand their answer is another question altogether. If they try their best to talk to you in MSA you should be fine, but if they answer in their dialect, chances are you won’t understand them.
The Arabisation of North Africa and the Middle East meant that the Arabic language spread over a vast area. This geographical distribution created differences between the spoken and written forms of the language, despite the fact that Modern Standard Arabic hardly changed. But make no mistake: there are differences not only between the variants and MSA, but also between the variants themselves. In some cases this could be as simple as a vowel that is weaker or stronger or a different emphasis, while in other cases entire words are completely different.
Arabic dialects are divided into dialect branches. Each branch has a number of dialects falling under it. The most well-known dialect branches are the Maghrebian, Egyptian, Syrian-Lebanese and Iraqi dialects, and the dialects of the Arabian Peninsula. Each branch encountered internal or external influences at some point in history, which brought about changes in the spoken form of the language in the region.
Maghrebian dialects can be found in North Africa, from Morocco to Libya. These dialects were initially influenced by Tamazight (Berber), the language spoken in the area before Arabic first arrived there.
The Islamic empire had also expanded into the Iberian Peninsula, which resulted in an interplay between the dialects and the Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic spoken there. The Muslims who lived there eventually fled the area because of the Reconquista, the recapture of the region by several Christian kingdoms. They settled in North Africa, mainly in northern Morocco. In this way, their language, Andalusian Arabic, came into contact with Moroccan Arabic and left its mark before the language largely died out.
Centuries later, when European powers conquered territories in North Africa, influences from French, Italian and Spanish were included. As a result, Arabic grammatical constructions are occasionally applied to words that originated from one of these other languages, or Arabic words are used in a sentence in which the French, Italian or Spanish word order is maintained. In the Maghrebian dialects, for example, there is a construction for negation in which a prefix and suffix are used, just like in French ‘ne … pas’. In contrast, MSA uses a separate word to indicate a negation.
As you might guess by the name, Egyptian dialects are mainly spoken in Egypt, but these dialects are also heard in other countries with large communities of Egyptian immigrants.
Egyptian Arabic was heavily influenced in its development by Coptic, which was a fusion of Greek and the Demotic script system from Ancient Egypt. This was the colloquial language in Egypt before Egypt became part of the Islamic empire. Arabic intermingled with Coptic, and at first was mainly used as a written language. Arabic became dominant later on, and today Coptic is only used in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
At the time of the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman Turkish also left its mark on Egyptian Arabic, along with French and English during Egypt’s colonial past. As a matter of fact, the language has hundreds of loanwords, including the words for ‘taxi’ (تاكسي, IPA: tāksī, from English), ‘telephone’ (تليفون, IPA: tilīfūn, from French) and ‘bag’ (شنطة, IPA: shanṭa, from Turkish).
The Syriac-Lebanese dialects are also known as the Levantine dialects. These dialects can be found in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan.
Aramaic was spoken before the Arabic language made its way into the Levant. Similar to Arabic, this is a Semitic language that originated in northern Mesopotamia and the Levant, an area that today includes Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and south-eastern Turkey. Not surprisingly, Aramaic has had an influence on dialects in this region. For example, the words for ‘water’ and ‘hand’ in Lebanese Arabic are derived from the Aramaic words.
While under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman Turkish also left behind loanwords, such as the words for ‘room’ and ‘lamp’. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the area came under the control of Britain and France. One example of the French influence in Lebanon is the greeting ‘bonjour’, which also contains an Arabic personal suffix to indicate the direct object. This gives you ‘bonjourak’, for example, which literally means ‘good day to/on you’.
The different languages have also caused the grammar of the dialects to differ from that of MSA. In Arabic, when you talk about or with two people, you usually use the verb in the dual form. In Lebanese Arabic, however, duality does not exist for verbs. The plural form is used instead.
This dialect branch consists of varieties of Arabic that are spoken in Iraq, southeastern Turkey, eastern Syria, Kuwait and communities of Iraqi immigrants in other countries.
Iraqi dialects followed Syriac-Aramaic as the language spoken in this area and have also been influenced by Sumerian, Akkadian, Persian, Turkish and Greek. The influence of these other languages can clearly be seen in phrases such as “how are you?” In Iraqi Arabic, you would then say شلونك؟ (IPA: shlūnak), while in MSA it is كيف حالك؟ (IPA: kayfa ḥāluk). You will immediately notice that these are two completely different sentences. Literally, they mean “what is your colour?” and “how is your condition?” respectively.
Dialects of the Arabian Peninsula
The Arabian Peninsula is home to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. Bahrain is an island near the northeast coast and in the north, Iraq and Jordan are partly located on the peninsula.
The dialects spoken in these countries are often said to have remained closest to Classical Arabic. This does not mean, however, that there are no differences. Bahraini Arabic, for instance, has loanwords from Persian, Ottoman Turkish, Urdu and English, such as the words for ‘wheel’ and ‘mattress’. In Gulf Arabic, which is spoken around the shores of the Persian Gulf, the personal pronouns are only slightly different from those in MSA.
Now that we have looked at the five main dialect branches of Arabic, you should be more aware of some of the differences between MSA and the dialects. Do you know a few words in MSA? Don’t worry then, most Arabic speakers will understand them!