The Multiplicity of the Arabic Language
To the Western World, the Arabic-speaking world is a single, homogenous unit. In fact, ask most Arabs about their native tongue and they will proudly the espouse the virtues of the oneness of Arabic language. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Arabic in modern times is a prime example of the linguistic phenomenon of diglossia, where two separate varieties of the same language are used by a single language community.
The reason Arabs take pride in the idea of a unified language is because Arabic is the language of the Quran. The Quran is written in Classical Arabic — a formalized version of Arabic that is consistent across the Arabic-speaking world. A modernized version of Classical Arabic, known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), is widely taught in schools and universities. While there are spoken and written differences between the two, generally they are lumped together and normatively called fusha (FOOS-ha).
If you were to ask a Moroccan to have a conversation with an Iraqi, however, they would barely understand each other. This is due to the wide variety of native, mutually unintelligible dialects that exist amongst Arabic-speaking countries. Many of these dialects linguistically constitute separate languages which may have dialects of their own. These colloquial dialects are commonly known as haki, which simply means “speech” in Arabic.
Of the twenty-six countries where Arabic is the official language, there are twenty-six major dialects. You would be mistaken, however, to think that each country has a unique dialect. Certain countries can contain three or more different dialects, depending on the region of the country. Iraq contains four distinct dialects. Saudi Arabia and Algeria both contain six dialects.
When it comes to all the different Arabic dialects, how does one go about choosing which to learn? First one must learn Modern Standard Arabic as a base. While very few actually speak MSA, nearly all Arabic speakers understand it. Second, choose a predominant dialect within the area in which you wish to travel or live. For example, Levantine Arabic is widely spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan, and yet it can be mostly understood by those from Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. For someone living in Northern Africa, a Moroccan or Algerian dialect would be more beneficial.
Finally, if in doubt, learn the Egyptian dialect. Egypt is known for its movie industry, and they broadcast their movies and television shows across the Arab world. For this reason alone, the Egyptian dialect is the most widely understood.
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Zena Bjorgen is a native of Amman, Jordan, in the Middle East. Zena attended Princess Sumaya University for Technology in Amman where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. She has been teaching a variety of subjects since 2007, including Mathematics, Information Technology, and English as a Second Language. Zena has been the Head of Department for Information Technology and Assistant Head of Professional Development for an online school based out of Oxford, England.
Zena enjoys traveling and learning about other cultures. She has traveled to 28 countries and speaks three languages: Arabic, English, and Slovak. Zena currently resides in North Carolina with her husband, David, and her dog, Scarlett.