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A Starter Guide to Arabic Dialects

By Sean Patrick Hopwood | Published: July 1, 2022

One of the main reasons why immersing in a language through its culture (and, if possible, by traveling) is highly recommended is that there are profound differences between how a language is taught and how it is used in real life.

The Arabic you learn from handbooks and instructive videos might be a good foundation. Usually, news broadcasts, technical literature and official documents use Classic Arabic/Literary Arabic. This variety of language has been labeled by Western scholars as “Modern Standard Arabic.” This is probably the variety of Arabic you are learning.

But the language you’ll encounter when chatting with natives and watching the Arabic translation of your favorite TV shows is far different.

One of the main differences you’ll find will have to do with dialects and accents. In this post, we’ll share some interesting facts about the most spoken and influential Arabic dialects.

Arabic is such a complex and diverse language that speaking of “dialects” as monolithic entities can be considered simplistic. Rather, when explaining the linguistic diversity within Arabic, we should begin by referring to dialect groups within a continuum.

Let’s take a look at some majority dialect groups:

North African Arabic

While Middle Eastern dialects tend to be mutually intelligible, North African dialects have a particular structure and vocabulary that might be challenging for Arabs from other regions to understand.

Hassaniya Arabic

The dialects of the Beni Ḥassān tribes (that started to consolidate in the 16th and 17th Centuries) derive from the Zenaga language and other native tongues from Niger and Congo. Unlike other Bedouin languages, these dialects were able to retain the main features of Classical Arabic. They are characterized by a rich dictionary of non-Arabic agricultural, medical and geographical terms, consequent with the Bedouin lifestyle.

Egyptian Arabic

Egyptian Arabic or Masri is the most prestigious and widely-spoken dialect in Egypt. This variety of the language is currently used by over 50 million people. Since Egypt is a film superpower in the Arabic region, Egyptian Arabic is also the dialect of the entertainment industry.

This variety of Arabic is deeply influenced by the Coptic language spoken in the territory before the Arab Conquest. This influence is, above all, grammatical. This variety of Arabic was also influenced by English, French, Turkish, Greek and Italian.

Levantine Arabic

Due to the region’s political history, the Arabic dialects spoken in The Levant (modern-day Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Jordan) have had strong Ottoman, English and French influences. Due to these influences, Levantine Arabic has several alterations in the pronunciation of most letters and works with a simplified phonetic alphabet.

In Levantine Arabic, grammar has also been simplified. These dialects have fewer differentiations between masculine and feminine pronouns, and have dropped the use of the dual form (muthanna) in oral communication.

Still, due to the cultural relevance of The Levant, as well as due to its considerable migration waves, most Arab speakers are well-accustomed to Levantine dialects, and communication problems are rare.

Iraqi Arabic

Mesopotamian Arabic is a continuum of mutually intelligible dialects spoken in the Mesopotamian basin of Iraq, Syria, Iran, southeast Turkey - and, of course, the Iraqi diaspora.

This Aramaic Syriac substrate has been heavily influenced by Iraq's multicultural history and borrows heavily from Greek, Kurdish, Persian, Turkish, Babylonian, Sumerian and Akkadian.

Gulf Arabic

Gulf dialects are spoken throughout Kuwait’s Persian Gulf, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, parts of Saudi Arabia, southern Iraq and Iran and northern Oman.

While these dialects have enough commonalities to be approached together, the further apart the geographical regions where dialects we compare are spoken, the fewer similarities we find.

Hejazi Arabic & Najdi Arabic

Hejazi Arabic is spoken in Western Saudi Arabia, while its counterpart is spoken in the central region of the country.

These can be treated together. First, because they have plenty in common. Second, because, with increased integration between Saudis living in Hejazi-speaking and in Najdi-speaking regions, differences between these dialects are in the process of disappearing.

The main difference between is phonological, with some particular incongruences in vocabulary (for instance, "wallet" is "muhfaza” in Hejazi, but "buk" in Najdi).

While Najdi retained more consonant phonemes from Classical Arabic than its counterpart, the opposite is true regarding vocals.

Yemeni Arabic

Spoken in Yemen and the southwestern region of Saudi Arabia, Yemeni Arabic has no official status, with Modern Standardized Arabic being the language of official documents within this region. Within this dialect subgroup, we can distinguish four main dialects: San'ani, Ta'izzi-Ibb, Tihamiyya, Hadhrami and Yafi'i. The main traits of these dialects has to do with syntax, prefix use (with "am-" replacing the definite article "al-" in the Tihamiyya variety), and phonology (with variances in the pronunciation and explosiveness of the "qāf" characters).

About the Author

Sean Patrick Hopwood is CEO and founder of Day Interpreting, a phone interpreter services company. 

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