Questions from Prospective Students on the varieties of Arabic Language
1. How many people use Arabic today?
Arabic is the native language of 220 million people living in 22 Arab countries. It was declared an official language of the UN in January 1974. The 6 official languages at the UN are: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Arabic is also the language in which Islam"s holy book, the Quran, was revealed. Hence, it is the liturgical language of the nearly one billion Muslims around the world, who comprise 20% of the world"s population. Muslims today are spread across more than 60 countries.
2. What is classical Arabic?
Arabic has been in usage in the Arabian Peninsula for at least 2000 years. Classical Arabic is the formal version that was used in the Al-Hijaz region 1500 years ago. Written records of the language include poetry that was composed in pre-Islamic times (ca. 600 AD). The Quran was revealed in Classical Arabic, which is the main reason why the language has preserved its purity throughout the centuries. Arabs consider Classical Arabic as an important part of their culture. Throughout Islamic history Classical Arabic has been the language of royal and princely courts, the bureaucracy and the learned. Literary expression was conducted mainly in Classical Arabic. Mastery of Classical Arabic and the exhibition of this mastery, using both written and oral mediums, has always led to respect and awe.
3. What is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)?
Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), as its name indicates, is the modern counterpart of Classical Arabic. It is the official language of 22 Arab countries where it is used in the oral and written form on all formal occasions. The main difference between MSA and Classical Arabic lies in the vocabulary. MSA reflects the needs of contemporary expression whereas Classical Arabic reflects the needs of older styles.
4. What is colloquial Arabic?
Colloquial Arabic is the spoken Arabic used by Arabs in their every day lives. Unlike MSA that is uniform in all Arab countries, colloquial Arabic is subject to regional variation, not only between different countries, but also across regions in the same country.
5. What has made it possible to preserve classical Arabic for so long?
The fact that a language has survived for fourteen hundred years, over such a vast area of land, and spoken by so many different people is a miracle in its own right.
What has stood against the fragmentation of Classical Arabic into different languages?
1. The presence of the Classical Arabic "model" document - the sacred Quran. The Quran has been read, recited, analyzed and studied by all Muslims throughout the centuries.
2. The establishment of codified rules for Classical Arabic and the great emphasis given to mastering these rules were instrumental factors in the continued survival of the language.
6. What are the main Arabic dialects?
Whereas MSA is the same throughout the Arab world, the dialects vary according to the geographical location. The further away the countries, the greater the variation between the dialects. In a broad sense there is a wide difference between the dialects of eastern countries (Arabian Peninsula) and dialects of western countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and western Libya). Dialects in the Middle East, may be broadly classified as follows:
• Dialects of Egypt and Sudan
• Dialects of the Arabian Peninsula
• Dialects of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine
• Dialects of Iraq
• Dialects of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and western Libya
Within each category, further sub-classification takes place, depending amongst other factors - on the location, level of education, and degree of urbanization.
7. Is the Arabic language uniform throughout the Arab world?
Whereas all Arabs use MSA for the exchange of printed information, especially on formal occasions, Arabic dialects are predominantly used for oral communication. Arabic as a spoken language has thus become more flexible. Although all dialects may have descended from a single source (which is either Classical Arabic or another spoken variety of it), their development was not tied to the norms or rules of Classical Arabic. However, in spite of the differences between all Arabic dialects, their underlying structures are quite similar.
8. What is diglossia?
When two languages, or two varieties of the same language, exist side by side over the years, each being assigned specific functions, a state of diglossia is said to exist. This is the case in Arab countries, where Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) coexists with the spoken dialects. The roles of each are well defined. MSA is considered as the formal or cultural variety. It is used in lectures, public speeches, religious sermons, and in the media and most publications. On the other hand, colloquial Arabic is used in all informal contexts.
9. Does Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) ever overlap with colloquial Arabic?
They certainly do overlap; as a matter of fact it is very difficult to find a situation where one type is used exclusively. For example, MSA is used in formal speeches or interviews. However, just as soon as the speaker diverts away from his well-prepared speech in order to add a comment or respond to a question, the rate of colloquial usage in this speech increases dramatically. How much MSA versus colloquial is used depends on the speaker, the topic, and the situation - amongst other factors. At the other end of the spectrum, public education, as well as exposure to mass media, has introduced MSA elements amongst the least educated so it would be equally difficult to find an Arab speaker whose speech is totally unaffected by MSA.
10. Can Arabs from different regions communicate with each other in their respective dialects?
Arabic speakers from various parts of the world do communicate in their respective dialects.
However, the degree and ease of comprehensibility depends on two factors:
• The geographical location pertaining to the dialects
• The level of exposure to each dialect
With regards the first factor, Algerians may have more trouble communicating with Saudis than they would with Tunisians, as Algeria is much closer to Tunisia than it is to Saudi Arabia. With regards to the second factor, the average Arab throughout the Arab world has no problem whatsoever understanding the Egyptian dialect as they are all exposed to it via popular TV programs, films and documentaries produced in Egypt.
11. Should a non-native Arabic learner study MSA, one of the dialects, or both?
Before venturing on a learning journey, you should choose the learning exercise that would best match your objectives. If your goal is to do research, be able to read/understand Arabic books or the media, or use Arabic in formal situations, then MSA is what you need to study. If you are going to use Arabic mainly in the spoken form in order to communicate with people on the streets, then colloquial Arabic may suffice. It is important to note that by studying MSA as the basis of your Arabic language knowledge, you easily acquire the colloquial form, as it is in many ways a simplified version of MSA.
12. Which dialect should a non-native Arabic learner study?
If you know in advance the region or country where you may use Arabic, then, you should choose its dialect. If, on the other hand, no such plans are definite, then it may be wiser to choose one of the dialects that is most easily comprehensible throughout the Arab region, such as the Egyptian one.