Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about Arabic is that there are over 30 modern dialects of the language. What’s more, they’re often spoken in many places that are thousands of miles away from one another. This can be frustrating for someone who has learned Gulf Arabic only to end up working or living in Egypt. Still, when it comes to a language that can be so varied from region to region, Arabic takes the cake. Today we’re going to look at why that is and which dialect you should study when you learn Arabic.
422 million people around the globe speak Arabic making it the world’s fifth most spoken language. In one form or another, it’s the mother language of 25 countries stretching from Morocco to the Gulf. Saying that, there are many differences between Moroccan Arabic and Gulf Arabic. Therefore, if a Saudi wants to talk with a Moroccan, they’d likely use a very simple form of Arabic. In fact, if they both speak English, they’d probably prefer that over English, such is the differences in language. But why is that? That is, how did Arab get to be so varied that two native speakers have a hard time understanding each other?
Arabic started in Yemen about 2,000 years ago as part of the Semitic family of languages. Tribal Yemini nomads spread the language until it eventually reached the Levant region of Jordan and Lebanon. It was there that they married members from other tribes, spreading the language even more. However, it was the 7th century Islamic Conquests that really spread the language until it reach as far as Morocco. All the while, it also picked up some words from the local languages that Arabic replaced. As a result, you have this wide variety of languages that ever so slightly differ the farther away you get. This explains why there is such a big difference between Gulf Arabic and Maghrebi (Moroccan) Arabic.
Sometime in the late 1700s someone said, “It’d be great if Arabs spoke one language that they all can understand.” Indeed, that “someone” was a French guy named Napoleon. Many believe his campaigns in Egypt and Syria were the starting point of the modern Arabic language. After all, as the West started making their way into the Arab world, one language made things a lot simpler. As a result, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) became the set language used throughout the Arab world. It’s still being taught in schools of the Middle East today. It’s also what most foreign students of Arabic learn before moving on to a specific dialect.
Yet, that is not to say that Arabic speaking countries haven’t kept their unique dialects. While MSA is mostly used by media and government, there are five major dialects used in daily life. They are:
Maghrebi Arabic. From Morocco to Libya, this is the language of the countries of North Africa. Known by the locals as derija, it’s Arabic with French, Italian, and Spanish mixed in the language for good measure. As you might have guessed, because it’s the farthest away from where Arabic originated, it’s also the least like MSA.
Egyptian Arabic. Many Arabs living in the Middle East understand Egyptian Arabic. This is mostly due to the country’s film and media presence in the region. Still, that doesn’t mean that Egyptians know other Arab dialects. Many do understand the Arabic of their neighbors, though.
Levantine Arabic. Around 20 million people worldwide speak Levantine Arabic. Still, it’s the day to day language of the Levant region – modern day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
Iraqi Arabic. Iraqi Arabic still contains a little of that old Mesopotamian language known as Aramaic. However, these day it still closely follows the 28 consonants of Arabic, though there can be big differences in how they pronounce them.
Gulf Arabic. Gulf Arabic is mostly spoken in the Arab countries that lie along the Persian Gulf (hence it’s name). These include the over 36 million people living in Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, and other parts of their neighboring countries.
Well, that kind of depends mostly on where you plan to use it. We mean, wouldn’t it seem like a big mistake to learn Gulf Arabic but end up getting a job in Cairo? Starting with MSA is the best idea. This can be a big help if you’re just visiting for a little while. For those who plan on living and working in the Middle East, it’s a little different. That is, once you’ve got MSA down pat, then focus on the dialect of the place you’d like to end up living and working.
That’s right! If you’re mother language is English, you might like to know that English has borrowed some words from Arabic. We find it interesting in Arabic most of these words start with “al” like algebra, for example. Algebra comes from the Arabic الجبر / al-jabr which literally means “reunion of broken parts”. As another example, “syrup” came from the Arabic sharāb meaning “wine”. And speaking of wine, “alcohol” is derived from the Arabic word al-kuḥl meaning al-kohl, the black powder used for eyeliner. (Maybe because a lot of people who drank it got into fights with the result being a black eye. Don’t quote us on that, however.) “Sugar” and “coffee” are other examples of Arabic words borrowed by English.
We hope you enjoyed learning these fun facts about Arabic today as much as we enjoyed writing about them. If you’d like to learn more about Arabic and how enjoyable it can be to learn, visit our website today to learn more. While you’re there, why not download the Kaleela Arabic Language Learning app today and start speaking MSA by tomorrow. Find out how at kaleela.com!