Arabic is the name of a group of closely related language varieties that fall within the Semitic family of languages, with approximately 350 million speakers. In Arabic itself, a distinction is made between Fusha (the written standard), and the multitude of spoken dialects in the Arab world. In West­ern linguistics, a further distinction is usually made between two separate types of Fusha: Classical Arabic, which is the language of the Qu’ran and mediaeval scholars, and Modern Standard Arabic, a standardised form of literary Arabic that developed over the 19th and 20th centuries, heavily based on Classical Arabic but distinct from it, as it’s kind of a modern evocation of the historic language variety.

Most of the Arabic-speaking world exemplifies diglossia, that is, switching between two different language varieties on a daily basis depending on the situation. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of writing, of the education system, of officialdom, of the news. And the dialects are the languages of everyday life, that you’d speak to your friends and family and people you see out and about. With the rise of modern technologies, dialects are being used in writing much more, in formats like text messages, social media posts, or emails. For these kinds of informal writing, especially text messages, Arabic is often written in the Latin alphabet. Most of the time, of course, it’s written in the Arabic alphabet. Most Arabic speakers cannot really speak fluently in MSA, although they can understand it. Very highly-educated speakers can speak MSA, or at least a very MSA-like register of their own dialect (with lots of borrowed vocab from MSA), to facilitate pan-Arab communication.

It has been argued that the highly diglossic situation of Arabic is an impediment to children’s literacy. Whereas with most languages, teaching literacy is about teaching children what letters and letter combinations correspond to what sounds, in Arabic even elementary children’s books are written in MSA, which is quite different from children’s actual native languages.

There is also a phenomenon where, because cartoons are largely in MSA, children try to use phrases and things from MSA in their everyday speech and adults all laugh at them. But then, those same adults teach their kids that their dialects are “corrupted” forms of Arabic and Fusha is the “pure, proper” variety. So, this can also leave kids confused and feeling kind of bad about their own language use, whatever they say.

The modern Arabic dialects are not strictly descended from Classical Arabic. Rather, Classical Arabic and all the dialects are descended from an earlier form of Arabic (Proto-Arabic). This can be known because, for example, Egyptian Arabic and several Yemeni dialects have retained /g/ from Proto-Semitic, which Classical Arabic and other dialects have palatalised.

Broadly, the dialects of Arabic can be grouped into five groups:

  • Maghrebi: encompassing all the North African dialects west of Egypt
  • Egypto-Sudanic: varieties from Egypt, Sudan, Chad
  • Levantine: varieties from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan
  • Mesopotamian: Iraqi varieties
  • Peninsular: varieties of the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf

There is also a more fundamental “sedentary” vs “nomadic” (or “Bedouin”) division that harks back to the early days of the Arab expansion. It seems like over time, the sedentary varieties (which were more prestigious) have become vastly more spoken, to the point that Bedouin dialect speakers form a tiny minority of Arabic speakers today. It also seems like modern Bedouin varieties are quite influenced by their neighbouring sedentary dialects, but are still generally more conservative than them.

The Maltese language is also a descendent of Arabic (in particular, of the Maghrebi dialect once spoken in Sicily), but has diverged so much (with so many Italian loanwords) that it is definitely not described as an Arabic dialect today.

For the most part, speakers of neighbouring dialects can understand each other pretty well, but the further away two dialects are spoken, the less likely it is that there’ll be mutual intelligibility between them. The Maghrebi dialects are particularly divergent from the rest. As such, based on that criterion of mutual intelligibility, it would be more accurate to describe Arabic as a family of languages (comparable to the Romance languages, which also form a dialect continuum with high mutual intelligibility between neighbouring languages but less and less the further away you get), but because of the high status of Fusha and the role it plays unifying the Arab-speaking world, it is not usually perceived that way. The relatively high media output of Egypt and Levantine countries also means speakers from other parts of the Arab world tend to have some familiarity with these dialects, increasing understanding even more but asymmetrically.

Like other Semitic languages, Arabic words are derived from three-letter roots that carry some core semantic meaning, and vowel patterns that build on that core meaning and carry grammatical/syntactic meaning.

Arabic is a highly inflected language (and its classical form was even more so); MSA verbs, for example, are marked for person, number and gender, and inflect for two major “paradigms” (perfective and imperfective), four moods (indicative, subjunctive, imperative, jussive – and in Classical there were also two types of “energetic”), and two voices (active and passive). In MSA, nouns and adjectives inflect for case (nominative, accusative or genitive), number (singular, dual, or plural), gender (masculine or feminine) and definiteness. Dialects have simplified some of this, with for example no case distinctions, the dual number no longer marked on adjectives (and not always even on nouns), and the loss of the original subjunctive and jussive moods (although some dialects have recreated these distinctions in new ways).

Did you know? I’ve posted other content tagged ‘Arabic’! If you want to see what else I’ve written on this topic, you can do so here.