What future for Arabic dialects?

We often refer to ‘The Middle East’ as one region, but it is actually made up of more than 20 countries and territories. Most of these are Arabic speaking.

Middle Eastern countries share some cultural similarities, but each country (or region) has its own distinct culture and these cultures reflect on the spoken language too – each Arabic speaking country has its own spoken version of Arabic, known as a dialect.

The Arabic speaking world. Credit

Linguists disagree on whether Arabic dialects are really dialects, or whether they are languages in their own right. Sometimes they are called variants as a compromise.

A common past

All Arabic currently used stems from the same original Arabic, also called FusHa. The modern evolution of FusHa (known as Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA) is quite different to the one spoken a couple of thousand years ago. To get the picture, just think of how much English has changed in the few hundred years since Shakespeare’s time.

So it’s natural that as spoken Arabic evolved over the years, regional differences cropped up, leaving each community with its own particular dialect.

The relationship between MSA and local dialects seems complex at first. MSA is taught in schools and used for official communications, so those with an education can comfortably switch between local and standard Arabic. Newspapers are written in MSA, but national tv stations usually speak either MSA or the local version of Arabic, depending on the show.

The Main Arabic Dialects

Arabic dialects can be divided into 4 main groups:

Arabian dialects – spoken in Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Yemen and Saudi Arabia;

Mesopotamian dialects – spoken in Iraq;

Syro-Lebanese (Levent) dialects – spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Southern Turkey;

Egyptian dialects – spoken in Egypt;

Maghreb dialects – spoken in Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

The Maghreb dialects also divide into sub-groups, with the Tunisian and Libyan versions having more Berber influence.

It’s all about culture

So all the Arabic dialects share the same basic structure, but each is modified by local cultures, histories, traditions and habits.

Fatima is a university student from Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia. She shared some of her opinions and experiences as a native Arabic speaker:

“If you look into north African Arabic (which to me is the most difficult to understand) you notice a lot of French influence stemming from the French occupation. In Egypt, Syria, Lebanon etc you can notice the French and the Turkish influence; in central Saudi Arabia and also I guess in Yemen, Arabic is more pure, while in Eastern Saudi Arabia (which is where I am from) and in the other gulf states you can notice the Persian and Indian influence. It all goes back to the history of each area.

These days English media also have a lot of influence all over the Arabic world, I mean we listen to English songs, we watch English movies and TV shows…etc so “OK”, “yes”, “yup”, “no”, “nope”, “cool”, “hi”, “bye”, “whatever”, “please”, “sorry”, “thank you”, “baby”, “music”, “movie”…etc are all words commonly mixed up with Arabic in everyday conversations.”

Pop culture. Credit

Dialects don’t stop communication

Fatima also says that any Arabic speaker who understands the differences in local customs and cultures has no problem communicating with other Arabic speakers:

“As a Gulf speaker, I’m familiar with other Gulf speakers. Yes, even within the Gulf there are differences! But they’re the same as English tomatoes and American tomatoes or taking a shower vs. having a shower,

I’m also familiar with all the other accents of Saudi Arabia (even though I have some difficulty in understanding the Southern areas because they speak very quickly and the area is quite isolated)

I’m very familiar with Egyptian Arabic because Egypt is the Middle East’s Hollywood.

Lebanese and Syrian are also very familiar to me on the basis of media, as for Palestinian and Jordanian, I do understand them but sometimes I have some difficulty with the local slang.

Arabic spoken in North Africa (Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria) to me is most difficult because the local Arabic they speak is mixed with a lot of French. But when they speak to other Arabs, they tend to use their Arabic words along with some FusHa to make their speech more understandable.”

A reunited future?

Some see Arabic dialects as a threat to the Arabic language, arguing that they weaken the status of standard Arabic as a world language.

Others think that differences between local versions of Arabic are increased due to high illiteracy rates and restricted movement among people who live in Arabic speaking countries. These are factors which could change over time.

Old media. Credit

The rise over the last 10 years of pan-Arabic media such as the tv stations MBC and Al Jazeera mean that even Arabs who don’t travel are hearing more Arabic from different countries – although presenters may speak in standard Arabic, people phone in and participate from all over the Arabic world.

Increasing internet access across the Arab world could help further in removing some barriers. And as the Arabic blogosphere blooms, the future of Arabic in all its forms is looking bright.

Update (July 2010): Amar commented that Libyan Arabic does not have the same French influence as that spoken in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, since Libya was not colonised by France.

Are you an Arabic speaker? Please share your opinions with us!

Read more:
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About the author

Lucy (Liz) Chatburn
Lucy is English and first ventured out of the UK she was 19. Since then she has lived in 4 different countries and tried to see as much of the world as possible. She loves learning languages, learning about different cultures and hearing different points of view.
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  • I am currently studying Arabic online—my teacher is in Egypt while I live in Taiwan. We’re using a textbook that interjects a bit of Egyptian pronunciation and vocabulary, although generally the grammar and usage is based on Modern Standard Arabic, MSA. Most Arabic teachers seem to be convinced that students should start with MSA and then, after a year or two, begin a parallel study with a regionalect like Levantine Arabic or Egyptian. However, early on I noticed that whenever my teacher gets enthusiastic about a subject, he slips into Egyptian. I began to surmise that MSA just doesn’t have the cultural connotations to adequately convey his authentic emotions.

    For me personally, I wish we had just started with one of the dialects directly. I recall all too clearly one of the first times when I used my MSA to talk to an acquaintance of mine from Lebanon: she laughed and called me ‘Shakespeare’ (referring obviously to my stilted MSA, not to any kind of eloquence).

    The more I think about it, the more it seems that beginning with MSA is a misguided attempt to allow a student to gain access anywhere in the Arabic-speaking world—i.e., the value is in the option of deciding where to go later. Yet, to my mind, learning one of the dialects from the outset would accomplish the same communication goals, since most people in the Middle East and North Africa have been listening to all those dialects all their lives. It would be just as easy to change from MSA to Levantine as it would be from Egyptian to Levantine, right? But since MSA is much closer to classical Arabic, there are non-linguistic impulses at work in order to cater to the majority of the market’s demand for studying Arabic in the first place. It just leaves non-religious students like me in a kind of language limbo.

    In the same way I wouldn’t learn Old Church Slavonic to prepare for Russian, I should have started with Egyptian, not MSA. All said and done, though, I’m glad I’m learning Arabic of any kind. They say the first 10 years are the hardest, but then it gets easier after that.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience Andy. That’s interesting. I’m learning Arabic too (by the sounds of it less effectively than you!). At the moment I’m using podcasts from arabicpod.net, which use a lot of colloquial language. Usually it’s Sham or Gulf dialects. They are really good because they often discuss how different words are used in different regions. It gets a bit confusing at times but I think that’s more due to my early stage in the language than anything else.

  • What an interesting experience. I just escaped the academic world and entered the job force. It’s nice to keep learning and hear about other peoples experience. The cause I work for is about cultural sustainability. 90% of the world’s music and languages will die in one generation. It’s so sad. Check out their facebook to learn more http://www.facebook.com/pages/Last-Voices/213978194896?ref=ts

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  • Hello this is the first time I happen on this site. Very interesting topics. I’d like to point out that Libyan Arabic is not influenced by French as Libya was not colonized by France. It was colonized by Italy for three decades but the Italian language has left behind only a few scattered words. Libyans understand all other Arabic dialects I would say, and Libyan Arabic is closer to the Arabic spoken by Palestinians and Jordanians, except that Libyans speak in a faster accent.

  • Hello Amal and thanks for adding your comment. I’ll add an update in the post to include your correction regarding French influence.

    Here we looked at the topic from the perspective of a Gulf resident so it’s great to hear the point of view from a different part of the Arabic world.

    Hope you will visit again!

  • seagirl

    Actually, I’m Egyptian and i want to share my experience about the Arabic Language. Arabic is a very rich language and you’ll enjoy it especially when you read Arabic poetry. It’s simply stunning.