Ahlan wa Sahlan!
We’ve noticed that when people want to learn more about the variations of Arabic, they are most likely to search for phrases like “Syria language”, “Egypt language”, “Lebanon language”, “Jordan language”, and so on. We’re here to shed some light on the subject, as this is incorrect. These countries don’t speak different tongues, but dialects of the same language – Arabic!
Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with 25 independent nations using it as their official language. As many as 420 million people around the world speak Arabic, with most of these people being those living in the Arab world, a geographical area stretching from Morocco to Dubai. With such a large space to cover, it’s no wonder that this language has so many different and important dialects.
The Arabic language is classified into three different forms: Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic and Dialectal (Colloquial) Arabic. Classical Arabic or Quranic Arabic is more common in literature and writing. It is the language used in the Holy Quran and the predecessor of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). This form of Arabic is learned by Muslims around the world in order to read their Holy Book and is not read so much as recited melodically in a beautiful stream of the most formal Arabic, and most likely the reason for which there are no native speakers of Classical Arabic.
Modern Standard Arabic is the mother tongue of no one; rather, it is the language taught in schools and spoken formally, and mostly considered to be the language of the elite and the cultured. In comparison to Arabic dialects, MSA will sound clearer and more measured. Though Modern Standard Arabic is both the written and scholarly standard, it is not the version people speak in their everyday lives, as they choose Colloquial Arabic.
The different Arabic dialects are a result of the mingling of Arabic with the local, native languages. Over the last few hundred years, new words, pronunciations and structure has brought about the diversification of the Arabic language. In comparison to MSA, spoken Colloquial Arabic has a few differences:
1. It has a simpler grammatical structure.
2. It has some differently pronounced letters, which can also differ based on dialect.
3. It has some words or expressions that are distinct to certain dialects.
4. It only occurs in written form when a personal or funny touch is desired.
5. It has a more casual vocabulary and style
In addition to these differences between MSA and Arabic dialects, there can be many differences between the dialects themselves. As in many languages, sometimes these dialect differences are not significant enough to cause native speakers trouble in understanding each other. As a language learner, this is important to be aware of, as differences in dialect are more likely to trip you up when conversing with native speakers.
So here’s a list of the top Arabic dialects and where you can find them.
This dialect is a continuum of mutually intelligible varieties of Levantine Arabic. One syllable of every Jordanian word has more stress than the other syllables of that word. Some meaning is communicated in Jordanian by the location of the stress or the tone of the vowel. This is much truer than in other Western languages in the sense that changing the stress position changes the meaning; for example, ‘katabu means they wrote while katabu’ means they wrote it. This means one has to listen and pronounce the stress carefully.
This is a Southern Levantine Arabic dialect, spoken by most Palestinians in Palestine and Israel and in the Palestinian diaspora populations. Palestinians, in general, speak the same words but in a different way than in north Levant and their accent seems “rougher” than the Northern Levant accent. The words almost use the same phonetics (there are no g/j differences), just with slight variation in pronunciation.
The Lebanese dialect is a branch of the Levantine Arabic spoken in Lebanon. It is somewhat comparable to the Syrian, Jordanian, and Palestinian Arabic dialects spoken in the rest of the Levant region. Despite the regional dialect similarities, the Lebanese dialect closely resembles the Syrian dialect for the most part. Many Lebanese people are trilingual; fluent in Arabic, French and English. The dialect is so unique due to the multilingualism in the country, and people tend to mix the three languages when speaking. If you hear a Lebanese person speaking, you’ll most likely hear some French words and phrases thrown in with their Arabic!
The Syrian dialect is also a branch of Levantine Arabic. One of the most distinctive features of a typical Syrian accent, which is mostly pronounced in the old quarters, is the lengthening of the last vowel of interrogative and exclamative sentences. This peculiar intonation has a musical feeling which leads some to call it as “singing” rather than speaking when compared to Egyptian Arabic.
Egyptian Arabic is well known throughout the Arab world due to the plethora of films, music and books published in this dialect. This dialect is comprehensible for many Arabs due to the huge influence and historical presence of Egyptian media industry; be it music, movies or dramas. Egypt has dominated the Arab cinema from as early as the mid 1920’s, spreading its films and dramas extensively across the Arab countries. That explains why most Arabs are, to a large extent, very familiar with the dialect!
Many consider the khaleeji dialect as the closest to MSA. It has fewer loan words from other languages – such as Persian, French, English, or Hebrew – than the other dialects.
There are three main ethnic groups in Iraq: Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. The dominant ethnic group, however, is the Arabs. From Mesopotamia to the Ottoman Empire, Iraq’s history and multicultural inheritance heavily influenced its spoken dialect. Hence, there are extensive borrowings from the Turkish and Persian languages. Iraq is the only country that uses ane (أني) for I (first person). The rest of the Arab countries use ana (أنا).
After learning about all of these dialects, the question arises: Can all Arabs understand each other? The answer is: It depends. However, we’d definitely say that all Arabs can, more or less, understand one another.
If you are curious to see how different dialects sound, then feel free to download our Arabic app, Kaleela, as it offers audio samples of each dialect.