Arabic is spoken by over 300 million people all around the world, and its dialects are surprisingly unique. It may sometimes be challenging for speakers of one dialect to understand speakers of another! That's because Arabic is spoken in regions that are both geographically and culturally different: The Islamic conquests of the 7th century spread the language from Southern Spain all the way to Central Asia.
As a result, Arabic has been impacted by the array of different languages spoken in those regions, which explains why Arabic has so many dialects today. Here is how different some of those dialects are!
Moroccan Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, and Syrian Arabic dialects
There are dozens of Arabic dialects, and here we'll compare just 3: Moroccan Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, and Syrian Arabic. These dialects have large speaker populations, are widely represented in the media, and are found in distinct geographical locations.
Here's a simple example of how different Arabic dialects can be—these are basic greetings in each dialect, how you'd ask someone (in this case, a woman) how she's doing:
|"How are you?"||"Very well!"|
There are also some notable pronunciation differences in these dialects. Here is how many speakers of these dialects pronounce the letters ق (qaaf) and ج (jiim):
|Moroccan Arabic||Egyptian Arabic||Syrian Arabic|
|either kind of like “c” in English coffee (except deeper in the throat), or like “g” in English golf||like the gap between uh and oh in English uh-oh, which is also the Arabic letter ء (written as "2")||like ء (written as "2"), just as in Egyptian Arabic|
|like "ge" in English mirage||like "g" in English golf||like "ge" in English mirage, just as in Moroccan Arabic|
There are also particular nuances to the grammar of these dialects. One example is how they each make negative sentences, like I don't remember or The table is not big. Some of them use a 2-part "sandwich" strategy, with part of the negative word coming before the verb or adjective and the rest coming after!
|Moroccan Arabic||Egyptian Arabic||Syrian Arabic|
|not + adjective, like not big||ماشي
|not with verbs, like I didn't||m- before the verb and -sh after||ma- before the verb and -sh after||ما (ma) before the verb|
Unique features of Arabic dialects
There are many additional differences in the words, grammar, and pronunciation of each dialect. Here are a few more examples of the features you can see in each!
Moroccan Arabic: special features
In most Arabic dialects, verbs have different endings for men and women, but for Moroccan Arabic, past tense verbs use the same -i ending whenever you are addressing a single person, regardless of gender. (That -i ending is the feminine ending in other dialects!) For example, شنو قلتي؟ (Shnu gelti?) means “What did you say?” and can be used in Morocco with men and women.
The Arabic word for "the" is ﻟ (l-) (sometimes preceded by a vowel), and in many ways it's used just like the in English: You use ﻟ (l-) to refer to specific people or objects, like a specific kid (the kid) or a particular coffee (the coffee). But in Moroccan Arabic, speakers sometimes use ﻟ (l-) even when referring to a general person or object, like a kid or just coffee—so they might say لقهوة كحلة (l-qehwa ke7la) for "black coffee," even though it literally translates to "the black coffee"!
Egyptian Arabic: special features
One way Egyptian Arabic is different from other dialects has to do with word order. For example, to say "that city," Egyptian Arabic literally says "city that," with "that" coming after the noun: المدينة دي (el-madiina di), where madiina means "city." Most dialects put it before the noun instead.
There are big order differences for questions in Egyptian Arabic, too: Question words like فين (feen, "where") come at the end of the sentence, while most dialects put them at the beginning (like in English). To ask "Where are you going?" in Egyptian Arabic, you'll say رايح فين؟ (raayeH feen), with feen at the end.
Syrian Arabic: special features
Verbs in Syrian Arabic are interesting because they have a few things in common with English! For example, in Syrian Arabic, speakers make a distinction between an activity that you usually do, like she writes, and one you're doing right now, like she is writing. To show that an activity is one you usually engage in, Syrian Arabic uses a ﺑ (b-) at the beginning of the verb—for example, بتكتب (b-tektob) means "she writes"—and عَم (3am) goes before the verb for current actions, as in عم تكتب (3am tektob), "she is writing."
Another interesting feature is how Syrian Arabic expresses that something will happen in the future. Many people in Syria use the short word رح (raH) before the verb for actions that will happen tomorrow. This word is related to the verb راح (raaH), "to go," so it's a lot like how English speakers say they are going to do something in the future! 🙂
How can dialects be so different?!
We've focused on dialect differences here, but of course, these dialects have a lot in common, too: They're all varieties of Arabic!
Like dialects of any language, these features are generalizations that are true for many regions and speakers, but probably not all—after all, these are enormous countries with lots of sub-dialects and accents within them.
The official language of these countries (and 22 others!) is a different variety, called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), and this is the one you'll learn on Duolingo. It's not a dialect that people learn at home. Instead, it's typically acquired later through formal or religious education. This is part of the reason why none of the spoken Arabic dialects have been standardized—and so there is usually more than one way to spell things, in both Arabic and in the transliterations (Latin spellings) we used here. Inevitably, some details can get lost in transl(iter)ation!
Enjoy the tapestry of Arabic dialects!
Arabic is an incredibly diverse language, which makes learning it all the more interesting. Stick with it, and include music and movies from different Arabic-speaking regions to get more practice with different dialects!