Praise & Disparagement
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Formal Arabic is largely derived from Classical Arabic (Arabic spoken about 1000 years ago), with new added words, styles, and expressions. Formal Arabic is the only written form of Arabic.
Modern spoken Arabic, or modern colloquial Arabic, is not really one language like the standard formal Arabic. Modern spoken Arabic has many varieties across the Middle East and North Africa. These regional verities are called the modern "dialects" of Arabic. Dialects are called in Arabic lahjaat لَهْجَاْتٌ .
The dialects constitute the everyday spoken language. They are not typically written, although a certain amount of literature (particularly plays and poetry) exists in many of them. They are often used to varying degrees in informal spoken media, such as soap operas and talk shows.
Modern dialects differ from formal Arabic and from one another in pronunciation of letters, in vocabulary, and in grammar. They are less complex and less inflective than formal Arabic, and they often use different words than those used in formal Arabic, although related to them most of the time.
The dialects are usually labeled according to major geographic areas, such as North African, Levantine, Egyptian, Gulf, etc. Within these broad classifications, the daily speech of urban, rural, and nomadic speakers can be distinctively different. The truth to say is that dialect changes from town to the next one in the Arab world.
Formal Arabic is the official language of all Arab countries and is the only form of Arabic taught at schools at all stages. The sociolinguistic situation of Arabic in modern times provides a prime example of the linguistic phenomenon of diglossiathe normal use of two separate varieties of the same language, usually in different social situations. In the case of Arabic, educated Arabs of any nationality can be assumed to speak both their local dialect and their school-taught literary Arabic (to an equal or lesser degree).
How much is the difference between all the forms of Arabic?
Classical Arabic (including the Arabic of the Koran) and modern formal Arabic have very much in common. They share a unified grammar, and the difference is only in words, styles, and expressions. I have been presenting them together in this site, and this is what is usually done in teaching Arabic at Arab schools.
The modern spoken dialects, on the other hand, are rather different from both the classical and modern standard Arabic. They have different pronunciations of letters from the formal language and from each other, and they have different grammars, vocabulary, and styles.
Learning the formal Arabic alone will not enable the learner to understand or talk in most of the dialects, although it will certainly make it easier to learn them. Learning one modern dialect will help in understanding other dialects to variable degrees, depending on the relations between the dialects. For example, learning a Gulf dialect will certainly help in understanding a Saudi dialect, because of the relations between the two regions. However, it will not help as much with e.g. an Egyptian dialect.
Origins of the Modern Dialects
Spoken Arabic did not start out as a single thing then broke into several new things. At least this was not the case by the time of Muhammad and the Koran. We have shown in the page about the history of Arabs that the ancient Arab tribes had already different languages by the time they were called Arabs. Thus, the modern spoken dialects are the outcome of centuries of evolution of several variants of Arabic not only one.
We will now briefly discuss the major factors that have contributed to the development of the modern spoken dialects of Arabic.
Variants of Classical Arabic
Classical Arabic refers today mostly to the standard language of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, which is mainly the language of ancient western Arabia, and more specifically the language of Muhammad's tribe, Quraysh.
However, this was not the only Arabic spoken in Arabia. Arabs spoke different dialects of Arabic from the beginning. Each one of the four regions of Arabia, namely the west (Hijaz), the center (Najd), the east (Bahrain), and the south (Yemen), had its specific dialect; and each tribe within each general region usually had its own touch to add to the region's dialect.
Those dialects could be rather different from each other, I am going to present here quick examples of differences between the dialect of ancient Hijaz (west) and other regions of Arabia.
The conjugation of the imperfective verb in formal Arabic was derived from the ancient dialect of western Arabia. However, nearly all of the other Arabian dialects had different ways of conjugating imperfective verbs. This explains why most of the modern dialects conjugate imperfective verbs differently from formal Arabic.
An example regarding the pronominal prefixes is the conjugation of fa"il(a) verbs in the imperfective. Following is the imperfective conjugation of the verb "amil(a) عَمِلَ = "(he) worked" in different old dialects. The left column shows the western Arabian standard conjugation, and the right column shows conjugations that were used elsewhere else in Arabia.
The variants in the right-hand column are the ancestors of the conjugations in most of the modern spoken dialects.
Attached Feminine Pronoun "Thee"
We have explained that, in formal Arabic, it is not possible to stop talking right after pronouncing a short vowel. Therefore, short vowels at the end of words are omitted when the word is the last thing said.
However, this could cause ambiguity between the singular masculine pronoun "you" -k(a) and the singular feminine pronoun -k(i), because both will sound the same when one stops on them. Many of the ancient Arabian dialects solved this issue by changing the final -(i) of the feminine pronoun -k(i) to consonants such as -s or -sh.
The effects of these variations are evident in many of the dialects spoken in modern Arabia and Iraq.
The Long A Vowel
The standard long A vowel (aa) sounds like the a in "far" or "star." However, many old tribes, especially tribes that inhabited Najd (central Arabia), had a different pronunciation for this vowel. They pronounced it as a long E instead of long A; this sounds like the ai in "air" and "fair."
This is similar to the standard American pronunciation of a in "make" and "cake."
This pronunciation of the long A still shows today in many places in where old Najdi tribes settled, especially tribes of Qays-Aylan قَيْسُ عَيْلانَ . It most notably shows in north Syria, Mount Lebanon, some parts of Egypt, Libya, and the Maghreb in general (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco).
Paradoxically, this pronunciation is not heard today in Najd itself, although there are traces of it.
The diversity of the ancient Arabian dialects played THE major rule in creating the diversity of the modern spoken dialects of Arabic. Each ancient Arabian tribe had its own dialect, and as tribes migrated to other regions of the modern Arab world, such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa, they carried with them the features of their dialects to the dialects of their new homes.
Formal Arabic does not exactly reflect this diversity, and it can be primarily regarded as the dialect of the Quraysh tribe, the tribe of prophet Muhammad which inhabited the western region of Arabia or Hijaz الْحِجَاْزُ .
Some of the characteristics of Hijazi dialect, which became characteristics of formal Arabic, were almost unique to Hijazi dialect and they are hardly heard in any spoken dialect today except in Hijaz itself.
The mere passing of time can change any language, and this has indeed happened with all the dialects of Arabic.
The changes are many; one of the most important changes is the total loss of case and mood inflection (different endings for the same word). Although there are still some traces of case and mode inflection in some modern dialects, the fact is that it has been lost. The dual ending has also been lost from everything except nouns.
Other changes involve pronunciation of consonants. This has also evolved dramatically from the classical pronunciation. An example is the pronunciation of the letter qaaf ق . This letter has at least five different pronunciations in the modern dialects:
Example, the word qaal(a) = "(he) said" pronounced in five different ways:
*you may click on the word to hear it pronounced.
Pronunciation of vowels has also evolved very much. There are new vowels in the modern dialects that were not present in the classical language.
An important development is the appearance of combined vowels or diphthongs instead of the classical vowel combinations.
*you may click on the word to hear it pronounced.
The appearance of these diphthongs has led to changes in the pronunciation of many words. These diphthongs are present in all of the modern dialects with few exceptions, like e.g. rural Syrian dialect which preserves the classical vowel pronunciation.
Examples, click on the word to hear its pronunciation:
As we have mentioned, grammar rules in the spoken dialects have evolved different from the formal language, this includes, for example, verb structures and the way tenses are expressed.
A good example is how the present progressive tense is expressed in the spoken dialects. It is very different from formal Arabic, and it is also very different from one dialect to the other.
Example, the phrase "I am writing" expressed in different dialects.
* e means a schwa like in "telephone."
Arabs began migrating outside Arabia about 2000 years ago, and as they settled in new regions, which were mainly Syria and Iraq at first and North Africa later, they did absorb a good deal of language from the native populations.
The influence of indigenous languages on the different spoken dialects is evidenced by both loanwords and grammatical influence. The indigenous influence on Syrian and Iraqi dialects came mainly from old Semitic languages such as Syriac. Egyptian was somewhat influenced by Coptic, Sudanese was influenced by Nubian and by other African languages. The main influencer on North African dialects was the Berber languages.
The influence of indigenous and foreign languages on dialects appears mostly in dialects spoken on the periphery of the Arabic-speaking world. Most notably in northern Syria, Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), and Sudan.
Persian, or Farsi, had a great influence on classical Arabic, and it has continued its great influence on the different dialects of Arabic throughout the centuries. There are many Persian loanwords in Arabic, both formal and colloquial.
(See: Persian influence on Arabic)
Turkic languages also influenced modern Arabic greatly, as the Arab world was part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. Many Turkish personal titles and Turkicized names of people and professions are still heard in several dialects of Arabic.
Other influencer languages included Kurdish, Italian, and Spanish. French and English became very important during the colonization period in the last century. Many French and English loanwords are still used in the dialects of many Arab countries.
See this page for example sentences in modern Arabic dialects.