Most students of Arabic are aware that there are many varieties of the Arabic language spoken throughout the Arab world. However, not everyone is familiar with these distinctions.
Hence, with Qasid offering vernacular, Ammiya classes starting within the first couple of weeks of each academic term, we thought of giving a backgrounder on the different streams and dialects of the Arabic. Let’s start by looking into the phenomenon of diglossia.
And what is diglossia?
Well, a brief definition would describe it as a sociolinguistic phenomenon in which different varieties of a language exist in accordance to specific social contexts often relating to formal and informal situations.
As far as diglossia is concerned, Arabic has—for various practical reasons—been categorized into three variants: Classical (Fusha), Modern Standard (MSA), and Colloquial (Ammiya).
Fusha is the oldest form of Arabic and is the language of the Quran, sacred texts, poetry and religious sermons. Until a couple of decades ago, it was the most commonly taught type of Arabic on college campuses. It was first used in pre-Islamic Arabia and had continued to be widely adopted by Arabs up until the Abbasid Caliphate.
Modern Standard Arabic is derived directly from Fusha and has become the language of correspondence and discourse, the media, contemporary literature. MSA is still considered a formal, mainly written language that is not really used in daily interactions, but is largely taught in Arab schools and used at workplaces, business circles, and governmental offices.
On the other hand, colloquial Arabic, or Ammiya, refers to national and regional dialects that occupy popular culture media; including movies and music, and public communications. The Middle East and the North African region carry numerous forms of Ammiya that differ according to geography, socio-economic, as well as religious concerns. Linguists have generally considered a dialectical division existing between the Middle East and North Africa, followed closely by a division between conservative Bedouins and sedentary dialects.
Generally speaking, Arabs; particularly those living close in proximity, are able to understand and follow the various dialects that exist in other parts of the region. At its extreme, however, these dialects may not even be mutually intelligible and some linguists may even categorized some as being a completely different language vis a vis Arabic altogether.
It is popularly held that even though Arabic speakers are able to understand one another in a general sense, they often have trouble understanding the North African dialects, apart from Egyptian, which has gained popularity through the spread of technological media.
Nevertheless, the ability to comprehend one another, and familiarity with the variant dialects depends on the level of education and exposure to other dialects, which often occurs by picking it up through music, soap operas, and contemporary poetry, as well as through their command of the MSA, which many learn through formal schooling.
MSA is, in a way, the lingua franca among Arabs of differing nationalities. However, many Arabs grow up knowing Fusha and Ammiya, and would often interchange between the two in their conversations based on differing context and counterparts.
Students who have reached a point in their studies where they are comfortable enough to pick up a dialect to complement their Arabic learning, then often wonder which form of Ammiya they should choose.
Teachers say that the decision returns to one’s own preference and also the availability of qualified teachers, textbooks and tutors. It is nonetheless useful to keep in mind that the Egyptian Ammiya is the most widely-spoken dialect in the Arab world.
The Levantine dialect is also an excellent choice due to its breadth of usage in the region, with Syria promoting a growing number of television shows, and other popular preferences for the Levantine dialect.
For those planning travel to the Gulf or Maghrib realms to pursue an Arabic related career or for conducting research in these two geographies, then it would be best to select one of these regions’ dialects. Students at any level of interest are invited to speak with one of Qasid’s student advisers for further guidance.