Varieties of Arabic

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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.[2] There are considerable variations from region to region, with degrees of mutual intelligibility that are often related to geographical distance and some that 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 SIL International, 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.[3]

Quick facts: Varieties of Arabic, Native to, Ethnicit...
Varieties of Arabic
اللهجات العربية
Native toArab world
EthnicityArabs, Arab World
Native speakers
362 million (2022)[1]
Standard forms
Arabic alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3

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. The latter 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 in its natural environment usually occurs 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,[lower-alpha 1] meaning "slang" or "colloquial"; or called الدارجة, ad-dārija, meaning "common or everyday language" in the Maghreb[7]), in different aspects of their lives.

This situation is often compared in Western literature 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, Catalan, 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. Though Arabic speakers typically do not make this distinction, the modern iteration of the formal language itself, Modern Standard Arabic, differs from the Classical Arabic that serves as its basis. While vernacular varieties differ substantially, Fus'ha (فصحى), the formal register, is standardized and universally understood by those literate in Arabic.[8] 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.[8]

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 distinctive conjugation and agreement for feminine plurals. 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, typically amalgamate features from both norms. Geographically, modern Arabic varieties are classified into six groups: Maghrebi, Sudanese, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Levantine and Peninsular Arabic.[2][9] Speakers from distant areas, across national borders, within countries and even between cities and villages, can struggle to understand each other's dialects.[10]