Varieties of Arabic

The varieties (or dialects or vernacular languages) of Arabic, a Semitic language within the Afroasiatic family originating in the Arabian Peninsula, are the linguistic systems that Arabic speakers speak natively.[1] There are considerable variations from region to region, with degrees of mutual intelligibility (and some are mutually unintelligible). Many aspects of the variability attested to in these modern variants can be found in the ancient Arabic dialects in the peninsula. Likewise, many of the features that characterize (or distinguish) the various modern variants can be attributed to the original settler dialects. Some organizations, such as Ethnologue and the International Organization for Standardization, consider these approximately 30 different varieties to be different languages, while others, such as the Library of Congress, consider them all to be dialects of Arabic.[2]

In terms of sociolinguistics, a major distinction exists between the formal standardized language, found mostly in writing or in prepared speech, and the widely diverging vernaculars, used for everyday speaking situations, which vary from country to country, from speaker to speaker (according to personal preferences, education and culture), and depending on the topic and situation. In other words, Arabic usually occurs, in its natural environment, in a situation of diglossia, which means that its native speakers often learn and use two linguistic forms substantially different from each other, the Modern Standard Arabic (often called MSA in English) as the official language and a local colloquial variety (called العامية, al-ʿāmmiyya in many Arab countries,[a] meaning "slang" or "colloquial"; or called الدارجة, ad-dārija, meaning "common or everyday language" in the Maghreb[6]), in different aspects of their lives.

It is a situation generally compared to the Latin language, which maintained a cultured variant and several vernacular versions for centuries, until it disappeared as a spoken language, while derived Romance languages became new languages, such as Italian, French, Castilian, Portuguese and Romanian. The regionally prevalent variety is learned as the speaker's first language whilst the formal language is subsequently learned in school. The formal language itself varies between its modern iteration, Modern Standard Arabic, and the Classical Arabic that serves as its basis, though Arabic speakers typically do not make this distinction. While vernacular varieties differ substantially, Fus'ha (فصحى), the formal register, is standardized and universally understood by those literate in Arabic.[7] Western scholars make a distinction between "Classical Arabic" and "Modern Standard Arabic," while speakers of Arabic generally do not consider CA and MSA to be different languages.[7]

The largest differences between the classical/standard and the colloquial Arabic are the loss of grammatical case; a different and strict word order; the loss of the previous system of grammatical mood, along with the evolution of a new system; the loss of the inflected passive voice, except in a few relic varieties; restriction in the use of the dual number and (for most varieties) the loss of the feminine plural. Many Arabic dialects, Maghrebi Arabic in particular, also have significant vowel shifts and unusual consonant clusters. Unlike other dialect groups, in the Maghrebi Arabic group, first-person singular verbs begin with a n- (ن). Further substantial differences exist between Bedouin and sedentary speech, the countryside and major cities, ethnic groups, religious groups, social classes, men and women, and the young and the old. These differences are to some degree bridgeable. Often, Arabic speakers can adjust their speech in a variety of ways according to the context and to their intentions—for example, to speak with people from different regions, to demonstrate their level of education or to draw on the authority of the spoken language.

In terms of typological classification, Arabic dialectologists distinguish between two basic norms: Bedouin and Sedentary. This is based on a set of phonological, morphological, and syntactic characteristics that distinguish between these two norms. However, it is not really possible to keep this classification, partly because the modern dialects, especially urban variants, are typically an amalgamation of features from both norms. Geographically, modern Arabic varieties are classified into five groups: Maghrebi, Egyptic, Mesopotamian, Levantine and Peninsular Arabic.[1][8] Speakers from distant areas, across national borders, within countries and even between cities and villages, can struggle to understand each other's dialects.[9]

The greatest variations between kinds of Arabic are those between regional language groups. Arabic dialectologists formerly distinguished between just two groups: the Mashriqi (eastern) dialects, east of Libya which includes the dialects of Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, Levant, Egypt and Sudan; and the other group is the Maghrebi (western) dialects which includes the dialects of North Africa (Maghreb) west of Egypt.[10] Within each of those two groups the mutual intelligibility is high but between those two groups the intelligibility is asymmetric in which the Maghrebi speakers are more likely to understand Mashriqi and not vice versa.

However, Arab dialectologists have adopted a more accurate classification for modern variants of the language, which is divided into five major groups: Peninsular; Mesopotamian; Levantine; Egypto-Sudanic; and Maghrebi.[1][9]

These large regional groups do not correspond to borders of modern states. In the western parts of the Arab world, varieties are referred to as الدارجة ad-dārija, and in the eastern parts, as العامية al-ʿāmmiyya. Nearby varieties of Arabic are mostly mutually intelligible, but faraway varieties tend not to be. Varieties west of Egypt are particularly disparate, with Egyptian Arabic speakers claiming difficulty in understanding North African Arabic speakers, while North African Arabic speakers' ability to understand other Arabic speakers is mostly due to the widespread popularity of Egyptian Standard and to a lesser extent, the Levantine popular media, for example Syrian or Lebanese TV shows (this phenomenon is called asymmetric intelligibility). One factor in the differentiation of the varieties is the influence from other languages previously spoken or still presently spoken in the regions, such as Coptic in Egypt; French, Ottoman Turkish, Italian, Spanish, Berber, Punic or Phoenician in North Africa and the Levant;[11] Himyaritic, Modern South Arabian and Old South Arabian in Yemen; and Syriac Aramaic, Akkadian, Babylonian and Sumerian in Mesopotamia (Iraq).[12][13] Speakers of mutually unintelligible varieties are often able to communicate by switching to Modern Standard Arabic.

Western varieties are influenced by the Berber languages, Punic or Phoenician and by Romance languages.

Egyptian varieties are influenced by the Coptic language, and Sudanese varieties are influenced by the Nubian language.

Mesopotamian varieties are influenced by the Eastern Aramaic languages, Turkish language, and Iranian languages.

Levantine varieties are influenced by the Canaanite languages, Western Aramaic languages, and to a lesser extent, the Turkish language and Greek and Persian and ancient Egyptian language.

Jewish varieties are influenced by the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. Though they have features similar to each other, they are not a homogeneous unit and still belong philologically to the same family groupings as their non-Judeo counterpart varieties.

Arabic is characterized by a wide number of varieties; however, Arabic speakers are often able to manipulate the way they speak based on the circumstances. There can be a number of motivations for changing one's speech: the formality of a situation, the need to communicate with people with different dialects, to get social approval, to differentiate oneself from the listener, when citing a written text, to differentiate between personal and professional or general matters, to clarify a point, and to shift to a new topic.[14]

An important factor in the mixing or changing of Arabic is the concept of a prestige dialect. This refers to the level of respect accorded to a language or dialect within a speech community. The formal Arabic language carries a considerable prestige in most Arabic-speaking communities, depending on the context. This is not the only source of prestige, though.[15] Many studies have shown that for most speakers, there is a prestige variety of vernacular Arabic. In Egypt, for non-Cairenes, the prestige dialect is Cairo Arabic. For Jordanian women from Bedouin or rural background, it may be the urban dialects of the big cities, especially including the capital Amman.[16] Moreover, in certain contexts, a dialect relatively different from formal Arabic may carry more prestige than a dialect closer to the formal language—this is the case in Bahrain, for example.[17]

Language mixes and changes in different ways. Arabic speakers often use more than one variety of Arabic within a conversation or even a sentence. This process is referred to as code-switching. For example, a woman on a TV program could appeal to the authority of the formal language by using elements of it in her speech in order to prevent other speakers from cutting her off. Another process at work is "leveling", the "elimination of very localised dialectical features in favour of more regionally general ones." This can affect all linguistic levels—semantic, syntactic, phonological, etc.[18] The change can be temporary, as when a group of speakers with substantially different Arabics communicate, or it can be permanent, as often happens when people from the countryside move to the city and adopt the more prestigious urban dialect, possibly over a couple of generations.

This process of accommodation sometimes appeals to the formal language, but often does not. For example, villagers in central Palestine may try to use the dialect of Jerusalem rather than their own when speaking with people with substantially different dialects, particularly since they may have a very weak grasp of the formal language.[19] In another example, groups of educated speakers from different regions will often use dialectical forms that represent a middle ground between their dialects rather than trying to use the formal language, to make communication easier and more comprehensible. For example, to express the existential "there is" (as in, "there is a place where..."), Arabic speakers have access to many different words:

In this case, /fiː/ is most likely to be used as it is not associated with a particular region and is the closest to a dialectical middle ground for this group of speakers. Moreover, given the prevalence of movies and TV shows in Egyptian Arabic, the speakers are all likely to be familiar with it.[20] Iraqi aku, Levantine fīh and North African kayn all evolve from Classical Arabic forms (yakūn, fīhi, kā'in respectively), but now sound very different.

Sometimes a certain dialect may be associated with backwardness and does not carry mainstream prestige—yet it will continue to be used as it carries a kind of covert prestige and serves to differentiate one group from another when necessary.

A basic distinction that cuts across the entire geography of the Arabic-speaking world is between sedentary and nomadic varieties (often misleadingly called Bedouin). The distinction stems from the settlement patterns in the wake of the Arab conquests. As regions were conquered, army camps were set up that eventually grew into cities, and settlement of the rural areas by nomadic Arabs gradually followed thereafter. In some areas, sedentary dialects are divided further into urban and rural variants.[citation needed]

The most obvious phonetic difference between the two groups is the pronunciation of the letter ق qaf, which is pronounced as a voiced /ɡ/ in the urban varieties of the Arabian Peninsula (e.g. the Hejazi dialect in the ancient cities of Mecca and Medina) as well as in the Bedouin dialects across all Arabic-speaking countries, but is voiceless mainly in post-Arabized urban centers as either /q/ (with [ɡ] being an allophone in a few words mostly in North African cities) or /ʔ/ (merging ⟨ق⟩ with ⟨ء⟩) in the urban centers of Egypt and the Levant. The latter were mostly Arabized after the Islamic Conquests.

The other major phonetic difference is that the rural varieties preserve the Classical Arabic (CA) interdentals /θ/ ث and /ð/ ذ,[citation needed] and merge the CA emphatic sounds /ɮˤ/ ض and /ðˤ/ ظ into /ðˤ/ rather than sedentary /dˤ/.[citation needed]

The most significant differences between rural Arabic and non-rural Arabic are in syntax. The sedentary varieties in particular share a number of common innovations from CA.[specify] This has led to the suggestion, first articulated by Charles Ferguson, that a simplified koiné language developed in the army staging camps in Iraq, whence the remaining parts of the modern Arab world were conquered.[citation needed]

In general the rural varieties are more conservative than the sedentary varieties and the rural varieties within the Arabian peninsula are even more conservative than those elsewhere. Within the sedentary varieties, the western varieties (particularly, Moroccan Arabic) are less conservative than the eastern varieties.[citation needed]

A number of cities in the Arabic world speak a "Bedouin" variety, which acquires prestige in that context.[citation needed]

The following example illustrates similarities and differences between the literary, standardized varieties, and major urban dialects of Arabic. Maltese, a highly divergent Siculo-Arabic language descended from Maghrebi Arabic is also provided.

True pronunciations differ; transliterations used approach an approximate demonstration. Also, the pronunciation of Modern Standard Arabic differs significantly from region to region.

"Peripheral" varieties of Arabic – that is, varieties spoken in countries where Arabic is not a dominant language and a lingua franca (e.g., Turkey, Iran, Cyprus, Chad, and Nigeria) – are particularly divergent in some respects, especially in their vocabularies, since they are less influenced by classical Arabic. However, historically they fall within the same dialect classifications as the varieties that are spoken in countries where Arabic is the dominant language. Because most of these peripheral dialects are located in Muslim majority countries, they are now influenced by Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic, the Arabic varieties of the Qur'an and their Arabic-speaking neighbours, respectively.

Probably the most divergent non-creole Arabic variety is Cypriot Maronite Arabic, a nearly extinct variety that has been heavily influenced by Greek, and written in Greek and Latin alphabets.

Maltese is descended from Siculo-Arabic. Its vocabulary has acquired a large number of loanwords from Sicilian, Italian and recently English, and it uses only a Latin-based alphabet. It is the only Semitic language among the official languages of the European Union.

Arabic-based pidgins (which have a limited vocabulary consisting mostly of Arabic words, but lack most Arabic morphological features) are in widespread use along the southern edge of the Sahara, and have been for a long time. In the eleventh century, the medieval geographer al-Bakri records a text in an Arabic-based pidgin, probably one that was spoken in the region corresponding to modern Mauritania. In some regions, particularly around the southern Sudan, the pidgins have creolized (see the list below).

Even within countries where the official language is Arabic, different varieties of Arabic are spoken. For example, within Syria, the Arabic spoken in Homs is recognized as different from the Arabic spoken in Damascus, but both are considered to be varieties of "Levantine" Arabic. And within Morocco, the Arabic of the city of Fes is considered different from the Arabic spoken elsewhere in the country.

Geographically distant colloquial varieties usually differ enough to be mutually unintelligible, and some linguists consider them distinct languages.[21] However, research by Trentman & Shiri indicates a high degree of mutual intelligibility between closely related Arabic variants for native speakers listening to words, sentences, and texts; and between more distantly related dialects in interactional situations.[22]

Egyptian Arabic is one of the most widely understood Arabic dialects due to a thriving Egyptian television and movie industry, and Egypt's highly influential role in the region for much of the 20th century.[23][24][25]

Another way that varieties of Arabic differ is that some are formal and others are colloquial (that is, vernacular). There are two formal varieties, or اللغة الفصحى al-lugha(t) al-fuṣḥá, One of these, known in English as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), is used in contexts such as writing, broadcasting, interviewing, and speechmaking. The other, Classical Arabic, is the language of the Qur'an. It is rarely used except in reciting the Qur'an or quoting older classical texts.[26] (Arabic speakers typically do not make an explicit distinction between MSA and Classical Arabic.) Modern Standard Arabic was deliberately developed in the early part of the 19th century as a modernized version of Classical Arabic.

People often use a mixture of both colloquial and formal Arabic. For example, interviewers or speechmakers generally use MSA in asking prepared questions or making prepared remarks, then switch to a colloquial variety to add a spontaneous comment or respond to a question. The ratio of MSA to colloquial varieties depends on the speaker, the topic, and the situation—amongst other factors. Today even the least educated citizens are exposed to MSA through public education and exposure to mass media, and so tend to use elements of it in speaking to others.[27] This is an example of what linguistics researchers call diglossia. See Linguistic register.

Egyptian linguist Al-Said Badawi proposed the following distinctions between the different "levels of speech" involved when speakers of Egyptian Arabic switch between vernacular and formal Arabic varieties:

Almost everyone in Egypt is able to use more than one of these levels of speech, and people often switch between them, sometimes within the same sentence. This is generally true in other Arabic-speaking countries as well.[29]

The spoken dialects of Arabic have occasionally been written, usually in the Arabic alphabet. Vernacular Arabic was first recognized as a written language distinct from Classical Arabic in 17th century Ottoman Egypt, when the Cairo elite began to trend towards colloquial writing. A record of the Cairo vernacular of the time is found in the dictionary compiled by Yusuf al-Maghribi. More recently, many plays and poems, as well as a few other works exist in Lebanese Arabic and Egyptian Arabic; books of poetry, at least, exist for most varieties. In Algeria, colloquial Maghrebi Arabic was taught as a separate subject under French colonization, and some textbooks exist. Mizrahi Jews throughout the Arab world who spoke Judeo-Arabic dialects rendered newspapers, letters, accounts, stories, and translations of some parts of their liturgy in the Hebrew alphabet, adding diacritics and other conventions for letters that exist in Judeo-Arabic but not Hebrew. The Latin alphabet was advocated for Lebanese Arabic by Said Aql, whose supporters published several books in his transcription. In 1944, Abdelaziz Pasha Fahmi, a member of the Academy of the Arabic Language in Egypt proposed the replacement of the Arabic alphabet with the Latin alphabet. His proposal was discussed in two sessions in the communion but was rejected, and faced strong opposition in cultural circles.[30] The Latin alphabet is used by Arabic speakers over the Internet or for sending messages via cellular phones when the Arabic alphabet is unavailable or difficult to use for technical reasons;[31] this is also used in Modern Standard Arabic when Arabic speakers of different dialects communicate each other.

Three scientific papers concluded, using various natural language processing techniques, that Levantine dialects (and especially Palestinian) were the closest colloquial varieties, in terms of lexical similarity, to Modern Standard Arabic: Harrat et al. (2015, comparing MSA to two Algerian dialects, Tunisian, Palestinian, and Syrian),[32] El-Haj et al. (2018, comparing MSA to Egyptian, Levantine, Gulf, and North African Arabic),[33] and Abu Kwaik et al. (2018, comparing MSA to Algerian, Tunisian, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Egyptian).[34]

Sociolinguistics is the study of how language usage is affected by societal factors, e.g., cultural norms and contexts (see also pragmatics). The following sections examine some of the ways that modern Arab societies influence how Arabic is spoken.

The religion of Arabic speakers is sometimes involved in shaping how they speak Arabic. As is the case with other variables, religion cannot be seen in isolation. It is generally connected with the political systems in the different countries. Religion in the Arab world is not usually seen as an individual choice. Rather, it is matter of group affiliation: one is born a Muslim (and even either Sunni or Shiite among them), Christian, Druze or Jew, and this becomes a bit like one's ethnicity. Religion as a sociolinguistic variable should be understood in this context.[35]

Bahrain provides an excellent illustration. A major distinction can be made between the Shiite Bahraini, who are the oldest population of Bahrain, and the Sunni population that began to immigrate to Bahrain in the eighteenth century. The Sunni form a minority of the population. The ruling family of Bahrain is Sunni. The colloquial language represented on TV is almost invariably that of the Sunni population. Therefore, power, prestige and financial control are associated with the Sunni Arabs. This is having a major effect on the direction of language change in Bahrain.[36]

The case of Iraq also illustrates how there can be significant differences in how Arabic is spoken on the basis of religion. Note that the study referred to here was conducted before the Iraq War. In Baghdad, there are significant linguistic differences between Arabic Christian and Muslim inhabitants of the city. The Christians of Baghdad are a well-established community, and their dialect has evolved from the sedentary vernacular of urban medieval Iraq. The typical Muslim dialect of Baghdad is a more recent arrival in the city and comes from Bedouin speech instead. In Baghdad, as elsewhere in the Arab world, the various communities share MSA as a prestige dialect, but the Muslim colloquial dialect is associated with power and money, given that that community is the more dominant. Therefore, the Christian population of the city learns to use the Muslim dialect in more formal situations, for example, when a Christian school teacher is trying to call students in the class to order.[37]

All varieties, sedentary and nomadic, differ in the following ways from Classical Arabic (CA)
All dialects except some Bedouin dialects of the Arabian peninsula share the following innovations from CA
The following innovations are characteristic of many or most sedentary dialects

When it comes to phonetics the Arabic dialects differ in the pronunciation of the short vowels (/a/, /u/ and /i/) and a number of selected consonants, mainly ⟨ق⟩ /q/, ⟨ج⟩ /d͡ʒ/ and the interdental consonants ⟨ث⟩ /θ/, ⟨ذ⟩ /ð/ and ⟨ظ⟩ /ðˤ/, in addition to the dental ⟨ض⟩ /dˤ/.

Emphasis spreading is a phenomenon where /a/ is backed to [ɑ] in the vicinity of emphatic consonants. The domain of emphasis spreading is potentially unbounded; in Egyptian Arabic, the entire word is usually affected, although in Levantine Arabic and some other varieties, it is blocked by /i/ or /j/ (and sometimes /ʃ/). It is associated with a concomitant decrease in the amount of pharyngealization of emphatic consonants, so that in some dialects emphasis spreading is the only way to distinguish emphatic consonants from their plain counterparts. It also pharyngealizes consonants between the source consonant and affected vowels, although the effects are much less noticeable than for vowels. Emphasis spreading does not affect the affrication of non-emphatic /t/ in Moroccan Arabic, with the result that these two phonemes are always distinguishable regardless of the nearby presence of other emphatic phonemes.

Note: most dialects of Arabic will use [q] for ⟨ق⟩ in learned words that are borrowed from Standard Arabic into the respective dialect or when Arabs speak Modern Standard Arabic.

The main dialectal variations in Arabic consonants revolve around the six consonants; ⟨ج⟩, ⟨ق⟩, ⟨ث⟩, ⟨ذ⟩, ⟨ض⟩ and ⟨ظ⟩.

Classical Arabic ⟨ق⟩ /q/ varies widely from a dialect to another with [ɡ], [q] and [ʔ] being the most common:

Classical Arabic ⟨ج⟩ /ɟ/ (Modern Standard /d͡ʒ/) varies widely from a dialect to another with [d͡ʒ], [ʒ] and [ɡ] being the most common:

Classical interdental consonants ⟨ث⟩ /θ/ and ⟨ذ⟩ /ð/ become /t, d/ or /s, z/ in some words in Egypt, Sudan, most of the Levant, parts of the Arabian peninsula (urban Hejaz and parts of Yemen). In Morocco, Algeria and other parts of North Africa they are consistently /t, d/. They remain /θ/ and /ð/ in most of the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Tunisia, parts of Yemen, rural Palestinian, Eastern Libyan, and some rural Algerian dialects. In Arabic-speaking towns of Eastern Turkey, (Urfa, Siirt and Mardin) they respectively become /f, v/.