All we learnt about English accents at school was that there were two main ones, British and American – and a third one spoken by our teachers! When you go and live in the UK or the US, however, you discover that there are tens of very different accents grouped together as ‘British’ or ‘American English’.
It is a similar story with Arabic – and pretty much every other major language in the world, for that matter. There are four or five main Arabic dialects, or groups of accents, which roughly correspond to the main geographical regions that constitute what is known as the Arab World:
– the Gulf dialect, spoken in the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq;
– the Levantine dialect, spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine;
– Egyptian and Sudanese;
– the Maghrebi dialect, spoken in North Africa.
Then there are tens of accents within each of these groups, varying to a greater or lesser extent depending on geographical distance, urban/countryside divides, social class and so on.
Some of these vernacular dialects – known as al-darija الدارجة in North Africa and as al-ʿammiyya العامية in the Middle East – differ so much that their speakers can hardly understand one another, even though their dialects share the same origin (Classical Arabic). Syrians and Iraqis can hardly understand Moroccan or Algerian, for example.
But most Arabic speakers can probably understand Egyptian due to the dominance and popularity of Egyptian films and soap operas over the last few decades. In recent years, the Levantine accent(s) also became popular and widely understood due to the dominance of Lebanese pop songs and Syrian TV drama.
To give you a glimpse of how different these dialects could be, the interrogative word ‘what’ is shoo شو in Syria and Lebanon, shinu شنو in Iraq, wish وش in some Gulf countries, ‘eish إيش in Palestine, ‘eh إيه in Egypt and so on. The Classical Arabic word for ‘what’, matha ماذا, has nothing to do with any of them.
Similarly, the phrase ‘there is’ translates as aku in Iraqi and most Gulf dialects, fi in Egyptian and Levantine dialects, kayen كاين in Moroccan and so on. The Classical Arabic word to express ‘there is’ is hunak هناك or yujad يوجد .
Although similar differences may be found in other languages, Arabic has one peculiarity. All these different Arabic speakers share ‘another Arabic’ that is more or less the same. That is Classical Arabic, known as al-fusha الفصحى (meaning ‘the eloquent’), from which all these dialects descend (Arabic is a Semitic language that originated in the Arab Peninsula, so it shares the same origins with Hebrew, Aramaic and Assyrian).
This formal, standardised Arabic – which is often referred to in English as Modern Standard Arabic – is taught in school in all Arab countries and is found in most written texts, news, formal speeches and so on.
The peculiarity is that formal Arabic, or fusha, has hardly changed for thousands of years. True, the lexis and stylistics of Modern Standard Arabic are quite different to those of Classical Arabic, but the morphology and syntax have remained largely the same. In fact, Arabic speakers do not make this distinction; you only hear this when you learn Arabic as a foreigner.
As a result, unlike most other languages in the world, Arabic speakers today can read and understand ancient Arabic texts written over two thousand years ago, albeit with some difficulty. But why?
Like most other languages around the world, the spoken Arabic dialects changed dramatically over time – mainly due to the influence of other aboriginal languages spoken in the areas conquered by the Arabic-speaking Islamic empire, such as Coptic in Egypt and Berber in North Africa, as well as the subsequent influence of conquering languages, such as Persian, Turkish and European languages. But Classical Arabic did not change much, even though it underwent some modernisation and simplification, most notably in the 19th century during the ‘Arab enlightenment’ era.
The main reason for this continuity is the Qur’an, the Muslims’ holy book. The Qur’an was originally recited, and later written down, in the dialect of Quraysh, the tribe of Prophet Mohammed that inhabited Mecca. And since the book was considered the sacred words of God rather than his prophets (as with the Bible), it could not be altered or adapted in any way. Muslims have to learn the Qur’an and recite it as it was originally written. With the spread of Islam to other parts of the world and the expansion of the Islamic empire, Classical Arabic became the language of literature and science as well as the language of religion in those areas.
The Meccan dialect was also the dialect of many great pre-Islamic poets in the Arabian Peninsula. Most Arabic speakers learn and recite their poems at school. Imagine learning, as a school kid, Ancient Greek poems exactly as they were written then, without translation!
Compared to the relationship between Latin and the Romance languages (Italian, French and Spanish), for example, the relationship between Classical Arabic and spoken Arabic dialects is pretty unique. Like Latin and French, they are by now quite different, but both are alive and used to date.
Thus, whichever Arabic dialect you choose to learn, you will practically have to learn two languages at the same time – unless you only want to read and write Classical Arabic and not speak the everyday Arabic that people speak. Of course learning one will help you with learning the other as the general structure is similar, but still.
Learning either one of the dialects or Classical Arabic (or Modern Standard Arabic, as it is called in many Arabic courses) may not be enough because, in real life, Arabic speakers often use a mixture of both depending on the situation and type of conversation. You will notice this listening to any interview with an Arab politician or intellectual – they would often start off with formal Arabic, then switch to colloquial when the conversation becomes more spontaneous or more heated.
The educated and intellectuals would often use a mixture of the two, sometimes even within the same sentence. This type of Arabic is often described as al-ʿammiyya al-fusha (the formal colloquial), or ʿammiyyat al-muthaqqafīn (the colloquial of the intellectuals). Linguists use the term diglossia to describe this phenomenon of using two dialects or closely related languages, one usually ‘high’ and the other ‘low’.
Moreover, spoken Arabic dialects have occasionally been written down as well, particularly in Egypt and Lebanon, where nationalist or regional identities competed with pan-Arabist nationalism that only recognises Classical Arabic as the language of all Arabs. Many songs, plays and poems have been written in these dialects, even translations of great world classics.
With the advance of online chat forums and social media, writing as you speak, i.e. writing down colloquial Arabic dialects, became very common and widespread. Thus, even if you had learnt how to read and write (Classical) Arabic, you will probably find it difficult to have a chat with an Arabic speaker on a popular forum or dating site. Even if you manage, the conversation will probably feel weird and alien to them.