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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Arabic Dialects or Varieties (But Were Too Overwhelmed to Ask)

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Which Variety of Arabic Should You Learn?
Varieties of Arabic
Arabic Dialects in 10 Minutes
Arabic Dialect Project
Arabic Variant Identification Aid
A Language with too Many Armies and Navies?
Arabic Dialects: Egyptian, Levantine, Gulf and North African
Is Arabic Really Just One Language?
The Relationship between Classical Arabic and Modern Arabic Dialects
Standard Arabic or Dialect?
An Arabist's Guide to Egyptian Colloquial Arabic

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or fus'ha is the formal variety of Arabic that is written and spoken throughout the contemporary Arab world in certain situations. Most native speakers learn MSA in school or from exposure through formal television programs, such as the news, or through some movies. However, they speak a different form of Arabic at home, on the street and with their friends.

The numerous spoken varieties of Arabic, sometimes called "dialects" or "varieties", differ considerably from Modern Standard Arabic. However, in most cases, they tend to do so in predictable ways. In some cases, the differences between one particular variety and MSA will be greater than the differences between one variety of Arabic and another. In other cases, two different varieties will each be closer to MSA than they are to each other. Geographic reasons are part of this. The further apart the countries are, the greater the differences (and unintelligibility) will be between the varieties, but each will still show a kinship to MSA. Speakers of each dialect tend to believe that their variety is the closest to MSA.

In addition to culture differences in the various Arabic-speaking countries and regions, the main variations typically involve 1) pronunciation, 2) grammar and 3) vocabulary. The good news for language learners is that there is typically a set of predictable differences between MSA and the dialects and varieties (just like there is a set of predictable changes between Spanish and Portuguese).

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With regard to pronunciation, there is a small set of letters that show the most differentiation between varieties: (qaaf, jiim, etc.). For example, the word for pen is pronounced qalam in MSA, but 'alam in Egyptian Arabic and galam in Saudi Arabic. Once you recognize this fact, you must simply learn how the particular dialect you want to learn pronounces these letters. This is similar to learning the difference between the Spanish and Portuguese "s" or palletizing the "d" and "t" sounds in Brazilian Portuguese.

Then there is the pronunciation of unwritten vowels (including those used in verbs - (yashrab, yeshrab, yushrab, etc.) which may (or may not) differ from MSA and differ between dialects. This is like learning to pronounce Spanish final "o" as a "u" in Portuguese or perceber vs. percibir, escrever vs. escribir.

One of the most frequent divergences from MSA grammar is that fact that almost all of the regional varieties eliminate (to one extent or another) the grammatical case endings and change the form of the possessive pronouns (baytka vs. baytak for "your house (m)."

In terms of vocabulary, there is a set of words that almost always differ from MSA, but each variety does so differently. For example, you can expect that the words for "to want" "to see" "to go" will both differ from MSA and differ between dialects. With exposure to the varieties, you will begin to notice a pattern that certain words or expressions will almost always have dialect equivalents that differ from MSA.

In some cases, completely different words are used (ariid, abghee, biddee for "I want"). The MSA verb "I am going" is adh-hab, but the Egyptians say ba-rooh. The word "I" is ana in MSA, but ani in Iraqi Arabic. This is like Portuguese which uses obrigado instead of gracias or joelho instead of rodilla.

Other times it is simply the position of vowels in and around the word that differ which can be difficult to recognize at first (example: mata, imta for "when"). Remember, Arabic uses a triliteral root system, so the consonants are there, but with different intersecting vowels.

Once you know MSA and one local variety, you will of course not be an automatic speaker of another dialect, but you will have considerable insight about which features of the language are most susceptible to variation and most likely to have a different "counterpart" in the new variety.

Many people will tell you that you can get by just speaking MSA. However, a native speaker's degree of competence and comfort ability in using MSA would differ depending on several factors (level of education, experience, fatigue, shyness, unwilling to make embarrassing mistakes, etc). Thus, even though you may be able to get along fine with just MSA, communication would be limited since the speech and ideas of some speakers would be inhibited due to their level of ability or shyness to speak MSA (which may be akin to speaking a foreign language to them).  

There is considerable debate as to whether one should learn a dialect first and then MSA, or learn MSA followed by a dialect, or learn them concurrently. Whichever path you choose, awareness of these differences can help shed some light on the inevitable confusion when you encounter Arabic lessons on-line or in a book that differ from something you have already learned.

If you are looking for a comprehensive introduction to Arabic, then Ultimate Arabic is a great book. This 535-page textbook and reference guide not only teaches you Modern Standard Arabic (Lessons 1 - 15), but also Egyptian Arabic (Lessons 16 - 20), Iraqi Arabic (Lessons 21 - 25), Lebanese Arabic (Lessons 26-30) and Saudi Arabic (Lessons 31 - 35). You can also get the version with CDs so that you can hear all the dialects.

Related Post:

Here are some other courses about specific Arabic dialects:


  Modern Iraqi Arabic

A Basic Course in Iraqi Arabic

Kalaam Gamiil: An Intensive Course in Egyptian Colloquial Arabic

Colloquial Arabic of the Gulf

An Introduction to Moroccan Arabic and Culture

Moroccan Arabic: Shnoo the Hell is Going On H'naa? A Practical Guide to Learning Moroccan Darija

1 comment:

Zasmain Callejon said...

The amount of research you put into your posts is terrific! I for a long time have wished to learn Arabic, but couldn't due to many reasons. May be, I lack inspiration sometimes or it's just my busy routine. I have so far managed to learn three languages and Arabic would be fourth.

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