Arabic is one of the world’s greatest languages, with expansive vocabulary, gorgeous calligraphy, and rich history. It is considered the most important language in the Semitic family, due to its large number of speakers. The language is designated into three classes: Classical, Modern Standard, and Colloquial. Classical Arabic is the Arabic used in the Quran. Modern Standard Arabic is the formal Arabic that is taught to students and used in legal texts, media, and translations. Colloquial Arabic is the spoken form of Arabic that differs from region to region. The difference could be so great that two Arabic speakers might not understand one another. This article will delve into each type of Arabic provide a summary of each.
Arabic is part of the Semitic family that includes languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic. This family was born in the Arabian Peninsula and after many years spread to other parts of the Middle East. As it spread, changes occurred to the language due to the mixing of different semantics. Before Islam and the revelation of the Quran, Arabic was already a rich language and many speakers prided themselves in it. When the revelation of the Quran came to Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), it shocked listeners as the linguistics and style of the Quran surpassed the Arabic used at the time. Even more shocking was the fact that the messenger was unlettered. Just the beauty of the language alone made many poets and people revert. Allah even challenged those who disbelieved to recreate a chapter:
And if you are in doubt about what We have revealed to Our servant, then produce a sûrah like it and call your helpers other than Allah, if what you say is true. (Quran 2:23)
As Islam spread, the Arabic language spread with it and evolved taking grammar and style from the Quran. It became a prominent language for highly educated people. During Muslim rule, one had to learn Arabic if one wanted to succeed. It was a similar situation with how English is in the present day and age. Due to several centuries of people needing to know Arabic as their second language, Arabic vocabulary became mixed with other languages. Turkish, Urdu, Bengali, and even Spanish and English have either the same word or the same root.
Even after the fall of the Islamic Empire, Arabic is still the 6th most spoken language in the world. Not accounting for the many who learn to read it, so they can recite the Quran! (Learn how to read Arabic and improve your Quran recitation.)
Arabic in the present can be broken up into three classifications:
Classical Arabic is the Arabic in which the Quran was revealed. It is also referred to as Quranic Arabic due to this. This Arabic is the enhanced version of the medieval Arabic used at the time. It was used as the basis to create the Modern Standard Arabic. Although they have the same sentence structure; the context and vocabulary of the language are much different since Classical Arabic does not have many words used in day-to-day living. The writing is different due to the symbols helping the reader elongate certain words and pause at important phrases to add emphasis when reciting the Quran. This is the Arabic to learn if one wants to have a deeper understanding of the Quran. Since this form of Arabic is based on one finite book, it is easier to learn since one can learn Arabic grammar and Quranic vocabulary to easily grasp it. (Master Quranic Arabic and grammar with Quranic!)
Modern Standard Arabic
Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the primary Arabic used today on Earth. This form is used in almost every form of media, be it news, movies, translations, and literature, etc… Due to dialectal differences from region to region, this form of Arabic is used to understand one another. It is the universal Arabic that speakers will most likely understand. It contains more vocabulary and phrases that are not used in the Quran as it is more focused on day-to-day communication. MSA is not “modern” literally as it is the Arabic style that has evolved from medieval Arabic yet enhanced by Classical Arabic. Many scholarly texts were written in this form during the Islamic golden age. Such as religious, scientific, mathematical, astronomy, and more. Like any language, it evolves with time. If one were to learn Arabic in school, no matter where the education takes place, it will most likely be MSA. It is unique in that there is no local dialect and is the same all over the world. Due to this, the confusion from dialects is solved. If one were to learn MSA, it opens up the entire Arab world! That being said, many speakers still speak in their local dialect and use MSA only when needed.
Colloquial Arabic is the Arabic that is used in informal speaking which differs from area to area which is referred to as dialects. This is something common throughout the world for many languages. Depending on the area where one is from, their accent and idiom usage differs, which can sometimes result in not understanding the person even though they are speaking the same language. For Arabic, MSA solves that issue. In general, Colloquial Arabic has a simpler grammatical structure than MSA, and the pronunciation of words can differ greatly. There are also unique expressions found in one dialect that may not be found in another. For the most part, people do not write in their colloquial dialect, except when writing spoken dialogue for creative writing. So how many dialects are there and how can they be broken up? Arabic is a broad language that is used in many countries. Let alone the differences from country to country, there are differences within the country itself (like urban or rural). That being said, some dialects are similar while others can be completely different.
The Seven Regional Dialects
Due to the spread and longevity of Arabic, there are many dialects, in fact over 30! These dialects can be put into groups due to their region. Below provided is a brief summary of the seven regional dialectal groupings:
The Levantine dialect can be heard in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria. There are many dialects within this group, some having influence from European countries and some from Turkish. This is also one of the more widely spoken dialectal groups since even countries along the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean use it.
The Maghrebi dialect group is heard in Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia. There are differences in each country’s dialect, but they all have Berber, French, and Spanish influence. Not only do the dialects within the group borrow words from those languages, but they also use their linguistic styles, thus making it a harder dialect group for other Arabs to understand.
The Peninsular dialect group is heard in Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq, UAE, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. There are many dialects within this group. In just Saudi Arabia, there are five separate dialects. This group retains a lot of the Classical Arabic vocab and style compared to other dialects, but it is still different. There are two different dialect groups within this group. One originated from settled populations while the other from Bedouin tribes. Usually, the urban dialect supersedes the rural dialect as it is used more.
The Mesopotamian dialect is heard in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Southeastern Turkey. There is Persian, Turkish, Aramaic influence within this group which stems from the multicultural background of Iraq.
The Sudanese dialect group is heard primarily in Sudan and Chad but can be heard in Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria, especially near Lake Chad. This dialect group is also quite different from mainstream Arabic due to its Nubian Language influence.
The Andalusian dialect group was spoken in the areas now known as Portugal and Spain. It is rarely used nowadays, but it has had a big influence on many other dialects mentioned earlier that take from Spanish or French. There is a community of Muslims that are called Andalusian Muslims which still use it.
This article briefly talked about the three main overarching Arabic that exists in this world today: Classical, Modern Standard, and Colloquial. Along with a summary of each dialectal group: Egyptian, Levantine, Maghrebi, Peninsular, Mesopotamian, Sudanese, Andalusian. Languages continue to evolve, and it is important to enhance whatever language one speaks to improve communication. The richness of the Arabic language cannot be understated and learning it can help reach other people. If this article sparked a fire within, then continue learning about the language using the resources below.
What do you think? Share your reflections below!
Bernadine Racoma, Arabic Language: Tracing its Roots, Development and Varied Dialects, DayTranslations, October 2015.
Dr. Muhammad Sabo, Influence of Qur’an on Arabic Language, International Journal of Research and Innovation in Social Science, July 2019