Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with 28 nations claiming it as their official language. The population of the Arab world is around 369.8 million people, with 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 most common version of Arabic, adapted specifically for standardized speech and writing, is Modern Standard Arabic. MSA is used in writing and most formal speech throughout the Arabic world and serves as the linguistic glue of this incredibly diverse cultural landscape. This language has been spoken for centuries, resulting in a split from Classical Arabic. Classical Arabic is commonly found in religious texts like Qu’ran and has been preserved since the 7th century.
In total, Arabic speaking countries have a collective GDP of $2.851 trillion, making Arabic an important language in business and trade. Arab nations hold a considerable amount of the world’s petroleum production accounting for much of their GDP. While petroleum is the most common, it is certainly not the only thing accounting for this areas vast wealth. Jordan has one of the largest banking and financial empires in the world, Arab Bank. This solidifies Arabic as a strong skill for anyone conducting business across the Arab world.
H3: Common differences between Arabic dialects
Though Modern Standard Arabic is the written and scholarly standard, as in many languages, that is not the version people speak in their everyday lives. Arabic dialects and MSA have a few differences, for example, Spoken Arabic-
1. Has a simpler grammatical structure
2. Has some differently pronounced letters, which can also differ based on dialect
3. Has some words or expressions that are distinct to certain dialects
4. Only occurs in written form when a personal or funny touch is desired
5. Has a more casual vocabulary and style
In addition to these differences between MSA and Arabic dialects, there can be many differences between dialects. As in many languages, sometimes these dialect differences are not big enough that native speakers have trouble understanding each other. As a language learner, this is important to be aware of, as difference in dialect are more likely to trip you up when conversing with native speakers.
Here’s a list of the top 10 Arabic dialects and where you can find them.
Egyptian Arabic has over 55 million speakers and is most widely spoken in, you guessed it, Egypt. This is the form of Arabic you are most likely to have heard in movies and TV, as the Egyptian media industry has had a huge impact on the Arabic film world. Because of this, the Egyptian dialect is one of the most widely understood in the Arabic world. It is also one of the most widely studied, making Egypt a great place for Arabic language learners.
Egyptian Arabic is highly influenced by the Coptic language, which was the native language in Egypt prior to the Arab Conquest. This was blended with Classical Arabic to create something specifically Egyptian. Today, it also contains linguistic influences from French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, and English.
The Egyptian vernacular is almost universally written with the Arabic alphabet, though it is commonly transcribed to Latin letters for textbooks for non-native language learners, making it an incredibly accessible dialect for new learners.
Gulf Arabic is a dialect most commonly spoken in Eastern Arabia. There are 36 million native speakers of Gulf, spread throughout the Arab world. This area includes the Persian Gulf in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, parts of eastern Saudi Arabia, southern Iraq, southern Iran, and northern Oman.
Gulf Arabic is not necessarily its own dialect but is more like a collection of dialects that are so close that they can all be understood by the same groups. Within Gulf Arabic, there can be vast differences in vocabulary, grammar, and especially accent. The differences get bigger with distance, so there can be significant differences between dialects that are further away geographically. A good example is the version of Gulf Arabic spoken by people in Kuwait and in Qatar. These dialects can be so different that speakers may have trouble understanding each other.
Hassaniya Arabic is spoken by 3 million people across the Arab world. It is spoken in Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Western Sahara. It was originally spoken by the Beni Hassan Bedouin tribes. These tribes extended their authority over a lot of area between Mauritania, Morocco, and Western Sahara between the 15th and 17th centuries, leaving their linguistic legacy behind.
Phonetically, the Hassaniya dialect can be called both incredibly innovative and incredibly conservative. All of the phonemes present in Classical Arabic are present, but they are joined by many new phonemes. This can make this dialect complicated for new learners. Many educated Hassaniya Arabic speakers also practice code-switching, showing off their linguistic talent. This can occur between Hassaniya Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Spanish, and French.
Levantine Arabic has over 21 million speakers and is spoken in the 100-200 kilometer-wide Eastern Mediterranean coastal strip. This dialect is largely only used as a spoken dialect, while many speakers remain true to MSA when writing.
Levantine Arabic was produced along with North Mesopotamian Arabic, Anatolian Arabic, and Cypriot Arabic through a language shift from Aramaic to Arabic. This process occured through generations of Aramaic and Arabic bilingualism. This shift began to occur in the 7th century and, some argue, continues to occur today. This means Levantine Arabic is an incredibly interesting dialect that can be a study in the impact of ancient languages on the way we live today.
Maghrebi Arabic has over 70 million speakers spread across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Western Sahara, and Mauritania. This dialect encompasses many smaller ones, like Moroccan Arabic, Algerian Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, Libyan Arab, and Hassaniya Arabic. It has many differences in its spoken variety from Modern Standard Arabic.
In fact, it has so many differences that speakers of Maghrebi Arabic have their own name for their language. They call is Derja, Derija or Darija. In Arabic, this is written as الدارجة and it means “to rise or advance step by step”. Maghrebi Arabic continues to rise and advance through its speakers, who are slowly evolving and integrating new concepts into the language. This is most noticeably happening with the integration of French and English words in technical fields, and replacing old French or Italian words with words from Modern Standard Arabic. Through this evolution, speakers of Maghrebi Arabic are constantly rising and advancing.
Mesopotamian Arabic is also known as Iraqi Arabic and has over 15 million speakers. It is made up of a continuum of varieties of Arabic native to the Mesopotamian basin. This includes Iraq, parts of Syria, Iran, and southeastern Turkey. Like Levantine Arabic, this dialect has sprung from the shift from Aramaic to Arabic.
Due to Iraq’s incredible multiculturalism, this dialect also draws from Akkadian, Persian, and Turkish in its origins. Due to the differences between many speakers of this dialect, phonology can be hard to pin down. It follows the 28 consonants of Arabic pretty closely, but there can be wide variations in the emphatic sounds used.
Sudanese Arabic is spoken throughout Sudan and has over 17 million native speakers. This dialect is similar to Egyptian Arabic due to the geographical closeness of the two countries but has distinctive characteristics that warrant its own dialect. Overall, Sudanese Arabic is more closely related to Hejazi Arabic in pronunciation.
Sudanese Arabic has been referred to as a pure and archaic interpretation of Arabic. This is because Sudanese Arabic has maintained many archaic pronunciations and writing sequences that other dialects have long banished. This marks a stark change from Egyptian Arabic, which is fairly true to the current modern standard.
Yemeni Arabic is another great example of Arabic dialects that has maintained many classical practices and tones. Yemeni Arabic is spoken by over 15 million people in Yemen, southwestern Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Djibouti. Because of the vast array of speakers, Yemeni Arabic can be subdivided into many different dialect groups. It maintains many classical features that are not used in other parts of the Arabic-speaking world.
Yemeni Arabic remains a language that is only spoken, and many within the area that uses Yemeni Arabic use MSA for all written purposes. Linguistically, Yemeni Arabic is influenced by Himyaritic, Modern South Arabian and Old South Arabian languages. These languages lend some different vocabulary to Yemeni Arabic and help to distinguish it from MSA.
Hijazi Arabic is also known as Hejazi Arabic or, more commonly, West Arabian Arabic. This dialect is spoken by over 14 million people in the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia. This dialect is further divided along city and country lines, with both an urban and rural version. The urban version is spoken most widely in the cities of Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina.
This dialect is interesting because it exhibits features of both a sedentary and Bedouin dialect. It incorporates classical forms that are typically more present in Bedouin dialects with new standards. This dialect was born out of the joining of many different tribes and cultures in the 7th century and persists today.
Maltese is an interesting dialect because it is so markedly different from MSA. It is even classified separately from Arabic, as it has many marked differences. It is descended from Siculo-Arabic, which is an extinct variety of Arabic developed in Sicily before being introduced to Malta. This occurred first in at the end of the 9th century and continued throughout the 12th century.
Maltese contains a variety of different vocabulary from many different linguistic backgrounds. About 30% of the language is comprised around the original Semitic base, while around 50% is derived from Italian or Sicilian.
Maltese is written in Latin script, unlike literary Arabic, and has been for as long as historians can trace its origins. The earliest surviving example of Maltese is from the late Middle Ages. This makes Maltese the only surviving Semitic language written in Latin script.
Check out these articles to up your language learning game:
The Best Apps to Learn Arabic for Free
Ordering Food in Spanish – How Not to Starve! [INFOGRAPHIC]