Colloquial Arabic, Not Just for the Street

by Meridian
(Washington, DC USA)

I just love Arabic because it comes in so many different varieties. Specifically, I like the various colloquial versions--Levantine, Gulf, Northwest African, Egyptian, Sudanese. Of these, I particularly like Levantine. It just sounds so very standard and broad to me whereas the others are very regional specific.


The Egyptian dialect may be the one everyone is familiar with because of all the Egyptian films. That may be so, but I think it's a very marked accent and while it may be very popular and entertaining to hear, it sounds very abrasive to me. I like the sound of Gulf Arabic--it really does sound very bedouin, very reminiscent of the desert.

These are of course my own perceptions, nothing that can be measured. Northwest African Arabic is very enigmatic to me. I view it as the most exotic. It baffles most native Arabic speakers from other lands because it is probably has deviated the most from the root Arabic.

Yet if you examine the roots of Arabic, all of these regional versions that I mentioned have their bases in Classical Arabic. As far away as they have "strayed", you can see their roots in Classical Arabic.

I guess, instead of Classical Arabic, I'm supposed to say Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). This (MSA) is the version that is often taught when one tries to learn Arabic. This is the version that you are expected to know if you are getting a job requiring Arabic.

Yet I don't find anything modern or standard about it. It's standard because this is the written language across countries. It's what the news is broadcast in and maybe college classes are taught in it but it is not the language of daily life--anywhere.

So, I respect it but I don't like it because I feel it is imposed and I think it has an elevated status that seems to devalue the regional dialects. It just seems so forced and unnatural to me.

The word colloquial seems to suggest slang or street language, non-educated language. But I think this would be an unfair way to describe Arabic colloquials. They are spoken by educated, non-educated, rich, poor in varying degrees of quality. It describes the local language used for every day communication. To me, MSA is comparable to Latin (or maybe Shakespearean English).

So it would be like reducing Latin languages like Spanish, French, Italian to mere colloquial or slang languages. Imagine that!

Comments for Colloquial Arabic, Not Just for the Street

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It's the other way around.
by: Anonymous

Arabic dialects devalue Modern Standard Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic DOES NOT devalue the Arabic dialects.

Mostly Agree
by: Chris Traub

I agree with most of your review of Arabic. However, don't forget that Modern Standard Arabic is the only way that many Arabs can communicate. I have a Palestinian friend who says he can understand about half of Libyan Arabic but none of the Western dialects, i.e. Tunesian, Algerian, Moroccan. He can communicate with them in MSA but not with colloquial speech.

I, too, find Levantine Arabic very beautiful and I find Egyptian rather harsh. Levantine is what I've studied most besides MSA. I have a phrase book of Moroccan Arabic which I intend to study thoroughly before I visit there.

The debate is a sociolinguistic phenomenon.
by: Anonymous

Classical and MSA are elevated to high prestige. This sociolinguistic construct is artificial and the dialects are, indeed, denigrated. It's BS. Study the dialects.

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