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!

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About the author

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.