Introduction to the Arabic Language – What do you know about the Arabic Language?

1. How many people use Arabic today?

Arabic is the native language of 220 million people living in 22 Arab countries. Being the language of the holy Quran, Arabic is highly respected across the Muslim world. Many non-Arab Muslim children begin learning Arabic at early age, to enable them to read and understand the Quran. Arabic is one of the world’s great languages with its graceful script, magnificent style and rich vocabulary that give the language a unique character and flavour. Arabic is written from right to left.

2. What is classical Arabic?

Arabic has been used 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). 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. 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. MSA is loosely uniform across the Middle East. Regional variations exist due to influence from the spoken dialect. TV hosts who read prepared MSA scripts, for example, are ordered to give up their national or ethnic origins by changing their pronunciation of certain phonemes (e.g. the realization of the Classical jīm ج as [ɡ] by Egyptians), though other traits may show the speaker’s region, such as the stress and the exact value of vowels and the pronunciation of other consonants.

4. What is colloquial Arabic?

Colloquial Arabic is the spoken Arabic used by Arabs in their everyday 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 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

 

6. 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 used for oral communication. Arabic as a spoken language has thus become more flexible. In spite of the differences between all Arabic dialects, their underlying structures are quite similar.

7. 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.

8. 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

 

North African dialects are more unique in structure and vocabulary, and can be a real challenge to understand, even to Arabs of the Middle East. 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.

9. Should a non-native Arabic learner study MSA, one of the dialects, or both?

Before starting to learn Arabic, 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. However, 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.

10. 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.

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