The Arabic language consists of several linguistic strands: two – Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic – are prevalent across the Arab world. Then there are various Arabic dialects that differ across regions.

Across the Arab World

Modern Standard Arabic fusHa

MSA is the mother tongue of no one: It is the language taught in schools and spoken formally, the language of the elite and the cultured. In comparison to Arabic dialects, MSA will sound clearer and more measured. In the same way, it is easier to speak with other learners of a language rather than native speakers as they slow down to think about their speech.

Classical Arabic 3rabiya klasikeya

The sacred language of the Quran and the predecessor to MSA. This form of Arabic is learnt by Muslims worldwide in order to read their Holy Book and is not read so much as recited melodically in a beautiful stream of the most formal Arabic, where grammatical cases flow into structured, poetic rhythm. Like MSA, there are no native speakers of Classical Arabic.

The diversity of Arabic dialects

There is a myth that Arabic dialects differ as widely as French from Spanish. However, on closer inspection, you can see that they are one and the same language. Dialects of neighbouring areas will have closer sounding dialects.

Egyptian ammiyah

Egyptian Arabic is well known throughout the Arab world due to the plethora of films, music and books published in this dialect. Many foreign television shows also are dubbed in ammiyah, including very popular Turkish soap operas and heavily censored Game of Thrones episodes. A few pronunciation peculiarities of the region are pronouncing jeem as ‘G’, a phoneme otherwise not found in Arabic (there isn’t a letter for it). Also, Qaaf becomes a glottal stop in Ammiyah, pronouncing QaHwa (coffee) as ‘aHwa.

Levantine shaami: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine

Like ammiyah, the shaami dialect is also used to dub foreign films and TV programmes and can be found broadcast into Arab homes across the world. Primary differences from MSA include daily language such as greetings and expressions and simplification of verbs.

North African maghribi: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya

North African dialects, often known as darija, are influenced by French, a remnant of French occupation of the region, and somewhat by Amazigh, the Berber language. This can be found particularly in the accent and some key vocabulary. I.e. the letter jeem in dajaaj (chicken) sounds like the J in bonjour rather than the J in James. Moroccan in particular is known to sound very fast. Arabs from other regions can find they require much concentration to understand maghribi dialects.

Gulf khaleeji : Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Saudi

Many consider that the khaleeji dialect is the closest to MSA. It has fewer loan words from other languages – such as Persian, French, English, Hebrew – than the other dialects.

Examples of Language

Let’s consider some fundamental day-to-day words – interrogatives – and how they differ across these regions:

What Where When How Why Who
fusHa maatha ayna mataa kayf limaatha man
aamiyah eih feen imta izzayy leih miin
shaami shoo wayn imta keef leesh meen
maghribi shnoo feen foquash kifash 3lash shkoon
khaleeji maa aysh ayn mata kayf limih man

Do you notice the similarities and differences? From this example, which Arabic dialect do you think is the closest to MSA?

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