Have you ever heard of diglossia? It’s when a language has different spoken and written varieties and it describes the Arabic language perfectly. In fact, if you are a native Arabic speaker, chances are you speak your local Arabic dialect as a mother tongue and that you learned to read and write Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) in school.
So why do students of Arabic as a foreign language need to learn dialects? Because anyone learning MSA will likely want to travel and actually hold conversations while abroad. Communicating with locals means leaving classical MSA behind and entering into the diverse and sometimes bewildering world of spoken Arabic dialects.
But not every dialect is built the same way. Learn what sets different varieties of Arabic apart and why you want to go to the trouble of learning them in the first place.
Arabic Dialects and Diglossia
Unless you’re watching a news broadcast or a formal speech, Arabic is not always spoken the way it is written. This is at the heart of diglossia, when a language has different written and spoken varieties. In the case of Arabic, classical Modern Standard Arabic is used as a writing system across the Middle East, where as the spoken language changes depending on the region.
And when it comes to local dialects, there is more than just a change of accent to account for. In fact, the entire grammar and vocabulary can be different, let alone the pronunciation rules. Arabic dialects vary so greatly that they are not always mutually intelligible across the Arab world. For example, while a Moroccan might understand a Syrian, the same might not be true for the Syrian listening in on the Moroccan’s language.
The use of certain dialects in films (Egyptian for example) and songs (Levantine) make some dialects more well known and understood than others, but when it comes down to it, you should learn the dialect(s) you think will be most useful for where you plan to travel/live/work and use your Arabic.
Why start here? Because Egyptians like to think of their dialect as superior to all others and closest to classical Arabic. While this may or may not be true, (some say Levantine is closest to MSA) Egyptian is certainly one of the most popular due to the thriving Arabic language film and music video industry based in Egypt.
The easiest way to pick out an Egyptian dialect by ear is to listen out for the letter ج which Egyptians pronounce as a hard ‘g’ instead of a ‘j’ sound. That means instead of ‘jamila’ as it is pronounced in MSA, you’ll hear ‘gamila,’ for beautiful. Have you ever heard a song where the woman sings “Albi, Albi” while holding her heart? This is because in the Egyptian language you don’t need to pronounce the ق and can pretty much just skip it altogether when you say ‘my heart’ or قلبي. Egyptian Arabic also has a lot of بص ‘bs’ in it (this means ‘look’) and uses some pretty unique greeting like izzayek (how are you?) and qwais ouwi (very good).
The more Arabic dialects you encounter, you’ll see they all have new takes on negation. In Egyptian Arabic, the word of choice is مش or ‘mish’ where as in North African they add an ‘a’ and an ‘ee’ sound so it becomes more ‘mashi.’
Spoken in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Israel, I’ve always found that the vocabulary of Levantine Arabic is the most similar to Modern Standard Arabic. The Levantine dialect also sounds the closest to MSA because there is no shift in stress patterns as with Egyptian and North African variations. For this reason, Levantine is probably a good choice if you are learning classical Arabic and simply want to dabble in spoken language.
This dialect definitely does a good job of glottal stops and the way its speakers say a hamza instead of ق, usually gives them away. As with Egyptian Arabic you won’t hear ‘el-mah’ for water but rather ‘maya’ and the question words also get a new spin with ‘where’ becoming ‘wen’ (vs. ‘wafin’ or ‘fin’ in the North African dialects) and ‘what’ turning into ‘shoo.’
The local language has a habit of placing ‘b’ before verbs when the subjunctive is needed and if you want to ask someone how they’re doing in Levantine Arabic, you’ll need to say ‘kifak.’ Another great way for telling the dialects apart is to listen for the words ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ which are quite common in conversation and change dramatically across the Middle East. In Syria and Egypt you will hear ‘mbhera’ instead of أمس and ‘bokrah’ for tomorrow.
The easiest way to describe Gulf Arabic in one word might be ‘guttural.’ I tend to think it sounds both hard and at times nasal against the more delicate pronunciation of Levantine Arabic and the distinct sounds of Egyptian. However, it can vary vastly from the UAE to Kuwait, Saudi and Oman there are all local expressions and takes on pronunciation. In general though, you can listen out for the letter ق which can get a hard ‘g’ sound in Gulf Arabic dialects (thus, guttural). Along the coast and in Iraq, ق can even go from sounding like ‘g’ to ‘j’ (in stark contrast to the glottal stop heard on the Mediterranean coast).
If you’re trying to pick out a Gulf speaker you can also pay attention to the short vowels in their language. Arabic speakers in this region like to take the ‘u’ sound of the damma and make it into an ‘i’ reminiscent of a kasra. So you might hear ‘kill’ instead of ‘kull’ or ‘gilt’ instead of ‘gult’ for ‘said.’
North African Dialects
By far the most distant versions of Arabic, North African dialects, including Moroccan ‘darija,’ have been heavily influenced by both Berber and French. Some people say that listening to a Moroccan speak Arabic is like hearing someone with drums in their mouth as they remove almost all vowels and cluster consonants together so they come out sounding quick, accentented and well, drum-like.
Instead of ‘baarid’ you’ll hear a Moroccan say ‘brd’ for ‘cold’ which can be a bit difficult to pronounce and or process in the beginning. The Tunisians have slightly more delicate language than the Moroccans and Algerians but you’ll find some features are shared amongst them all including the conjugation of verbs using kan, kat, kay etc. So you will hear someone say ‘kan raqs’ for I dance or ‘kan sug’ for ‘I drive’ instead of using the MSA first person form of these verbs.
There is also plenty of unique vocabulary including words that look nothing like their Modern Standard counterparts, for example ‘sharjm’ is used for window and ‘saroot’ instead of ‘miftah’ for key.
To greet someone you might ask ‘kulchi beheer’ meaning ‘is everything good?’ and the response will typically be ‘labaas’ or ‘mzyena.’ There are many ‘z’ and ‘j’ sounds to be found in this dialect, including the ever popular local word for ‘beautiful’ which is ‘zwaina.’ For a Levantine or Gulf speaker, this variety almost doesn’t sound like Arabic, but its roots are still recognizable and if you imagine a few extra vowels sprinkled in, you might be able to follow the local conversation.
So many dialects!
So, how do Arabic speakers understand each other? This is a fair question given not everyone is so well educated as to speak proper MSA and many Arabic speakers communicate primarily in their dialect. For Arabs who travel frequently to do business across the Middle East, a sort of “Middle Arabic” is developing that uses mostly vocabulary from Fusha/MSA but puts it into a more colloquial grammar. For Arabic learners who speak English, the US State Department does courses in this version of Arabic that you might want to check out.
Nonetheless, if you are planning a trip abroad you will want to learn a few local phrases so you can express yourself and greet locals in their dialect. Local Arabic question words will also be important to learn as you can’t always ask for directions or buy a bus ticket if you only speak Modern Standard.
Keep in mind that while the abundance of dialects can seem overwhelming, they are actually great fun to learn and you can find more and more courses for them online. Feel free to use Lingua.ly’s free dictionary tool to store your new vocabulary and don’t forget to keep your feet wet in MSA as you’ll need it for all written and formal communication, regardless of how fluent you become in a particular Arabic dialect.