One of the most important things to know before learning Arabic is that there isn’t just one Arabic language. In fact, the Arab world covers a large number of countries each of which has their own rooted history. For this reason, there are over 25 different Arabic dialects!
Let me explain to you all you need to know about Arabic dialects and the main differences between them. Furthermore, I’ll help you decide on which dialect you should learn depending on your individual needs.
3 Things You Must Know About Arabic Dialects
Before we have a look at the dialects, let me explain to you a few important particularities about Arabic dialects.
How Many Different Arabic Dialects are There?
Dialects are very common in most languages. Look at the English language for example. There’s American English, British English, Australian English, and many more.
Same as in English, there are several dialects of Arabic. Officially, there are 25 Arabic dialects. In addition to that, there are of course slight differences in pronunciation and vocabulary within a country or region. For example, Levantine Arabic can be divided into Jordanian Arabic, Palestinian Arabic, Lebanese Arabic etc.
What’s very important to know is that there is a major difference between some Arabic dialects. If you’re from the US, you’ll certainly notice that British English sounds different from your own dialect. Pronunciation and certain words are different. However, with a little context, Americans and Britishers are able to understand each other. That’s not necessarily the case with Arab speakers. If a Lebanese and a Moroccan spoke to each other in their own dialect, they wouldn’t be able to understand each other.
Why are Arabic Dialects so Different From One Another?
First, note that there are 22 Arab countries spread over an area of over 13,000,000 km² (5,000,000 sq mi). That’s almost 1.5 the size of the US, which is approximately 9,826,675 km² (3,794,100 sq mi). The Arab league is huge in size, spread over two continents (Asia and Africa).
The Arabic language started to spread slowly, from the gulf region to the Levant all the way until Morocco. In the first instance, the language was spread by nomadic tribes. During the 7th century, Islamic conquerors contributed to the prevalence of Arabic. During these centuries, Arabic picked up certain words from local languages and vice-versa, creating many dialects across this large area.
History is of course a chapter on its own which I won’t discuss in depth here. But this just gives you a rough idea of why there are so many different Arabic dialects which are so different from one another.
Spoken vs. Written Arabic
You might be wondering, why not have one common Arabic language that every Arab will understand? You’re not the first one to ask this question. Neither was I. In the 18th century, Napoleon was the one who aimed to introduce one common Arabic language.
This “common language” is what’s known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) today. It would be great if you could just introduce one common language and make everyone speak it, right? Well, it’s not that easy.
Fast forward, MSA has become the standard for written Arabic. In reality, every country has maintained their own dialect in spoken language. For this reason, there is still not one Arabic, but a large variety of totally different dialects AND a written language on top of that.
Arabic Dialects Comparison
Let’s have a look at the 7 most popular varieties of Arabic: MSA, Egyptian Arabic, Levantine Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, Gulf Arabic, Maghrebi Arabic and Quranic Arabic.
Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)
As mentioned above, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) has emerged from the idea of creating one common Arabic language.
Today, MSA is the standard version in written Arabic. It’s used in literature, law and the media. As such, you’ll find MSA on newspapers, official documents such as diplomas or governmental letters.
What’s important to know is that MSA is widely understood by most native Arab speakers, it’s not spoken as a first language! A person in Jordan will grow up learning Levantine Arabic and later learn MSA in school. He or she will speak Levantine Arabic with their friends and family and read the newspaper in MSA. About 5,000 km (3,100 miles) to the West, a person in Morocco will grow up speaking Moroccan Arabic with his friends and family and reading the same newspaper in MSA.
Since MSA is generally not spoken as a first language, Arabs have to learn it at school. People who didn’t go to school aren’t usually able to read, write and understand MSA. That’s also (one) reason why the Arab region has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world.
Egyptian Arabic is one of the most widely spoken dialects of Arabic. Egypt is the largest Arab country by population with over 105 million inhabitants.
Furthermore, Egypt has a huge film and music industry. Egyptian movies and songs are very popular among the entire Arab league. That’s why Egyptian Arabic is widely understood across the Middle East.
By the way, it’s believed that Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) has emerged (partly) from Egyptian Arabic, reason for which Egyptian is one of the Arabic dialects which is closest to MSA.
Besides, Egyptian Arabic has a lot in common with Levantine Arabic. Surprisingly, it’s quite different from Maghrebi dialects (such as Moroccan Arabic), despite being on the same continent as Morocco.
Levantine Arabic (Amiyya) is the second most popular Arabic dialect. There are over 20 million native speakers in the so-called Levant, ranging from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine to Jordan.
Note that Levantine Arabic hasn’t as many native speakers as certain other dialects (e.g. Sudanese Arabic has over 30 million native speakers). However, Levantine Arabic is a very important and useful dialect. Similar to Egypt, Lebanon is famous for its movie and film industries which are famous far beyond the Middle East.
Furthermore, Levantine Arabic is related to both Egyptian Arabic and MSA. There are a lot of words in common (although the pronunciation slightly differs), which makes Levantine Arabic the second most popular Arabic dialect.
One important thing to note is that there are regional differences in Levantine Arabic. For instance, Lebanese Arabic is slightly different from Jordanian Arabic. However, these varieties of Levantine Arabic aren’t major and Lebanese will be able to perfectly communicate with Jordanians vice-versa.
Iraqi Arabic, also known as Mespotamian Arabic, is widely spoken in Iraq and parts of southeastern Turkey and northeastern Syria.
What’s interesting about Iraqi Arabic is that there are a few sounds that don’t exist in the Arabic alphabet and other Arabic dialects (neither in MSA nor any spoken dialect). Examples include the “p” (as in proud) or the “ch” (as in chain).
Another particularity of Iraqi Arabic is the fact that a small part of this dialect originates from Aramaic, the old Mesopotamian language. Although Iraqi Arabic is quite different from dialects such as Levantine and Egyptian, many are able to understand Iraqis to a certain extent.
Gulf Arabic is spoken by Arabs in Eastern Arabia along the Persian gulf, the so-called Gulf countries. The region includes countries like UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain. Despite being huge in size, there are only about 35 million people speaking Gulf Arabic.
In contrast to Levantine Arabic, the differences between the varieties of Gulf Arabic are quite big. As such, Kuwaiti Arabic, Qatari Arabic, Yemeni Arabic and the Arabic spoken in UAE are considerably different, although they all fall under Gulf Arabic.
About 8,000 km (5,000 mi) west from the coast of the Persian gulf, you’ll find a completely different dialect of Arabic. Maghrebi Arabic (Darija) is an Arabic dialect spoken in the so-called Maghreb region. The latest includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Western Sahara and Mauritania.
Same as with Levantine Arabic, there are different regional variations of Maghrebi Arabic, such as Moroccan Arabic, Tunisian Arabic. The varieties of Maghrebi Arabic are relatively close. As such, Moroccans are usually perfectly able to understand Algerians or Tunisians, vice-versa.
An important fact about Maghrebi Arabic is that it’s very different from all other Arabic dialects. It doesn’t have much in common with MSA and isn’t related to Egyptian or Levantine Arabic.
Furthermore, the Maghreb was long under French influence. As such, Maghrebians use a lot of French words in daily life, which Jordanians (for instance) wouldn’t. If a Moroccan and a Jordanian spoke in their own dialect, they wouldn’t be able to understand each other!
Although not a dialect of Arabic in the conventional sense, Quranic Arabic is a variety of Arabic I don’t want to skip in this list.
Quranic Arabic is also referred to as Classical Arabic. It’s the literary form of Arabic which emerged in the 7th century. Quranic Arabic (Classical Arabic) is the language in which the Quraan (the holy book in Islam) was written by prophet Muhammad (PHUB).
Additionally, Classical Arabic was used for poetry in the Middle Ages, such as Umayyads literature.
Quranic Arabic is an old and challenging form of Arabic. It’s most related to Modern Standard Arabic. However, even Arabs mastering MSA will have to make efforts to fully understand it.
Which Arabic Dialect to Learn?
If you’re reading this article, you’re most likely interested in learning Arabic. Maybe you didn’t know that Arabic has so many dialects which are so different from one another. Or you were wondering whether you should learn MSA or a dialect of spoken Arabic.
So, which Arabic dialect to learn? The truth is that there is no universal answer to that. Which Arabic dialect is the most suitable for you largely depends on your individual situation.
If you have connections to a specific country (e.g. Morocco, Jordan…), I’d encourage you to learn the dialect of that specific country. For example, if your husband is from Morocco, it makes most sense to learn Moroccan Arabic (Maghrebi Arabic). If you’re looking to live in Jordan as an expat (e.g. for work), learn Jordanian Arabic (Levantine Arabic).
If your goal is to read and understand the Quran, learn Quranic Arabic.
You might also wonder, should I learn Modern Standard Arabic? In fact, many people start by learning MSA. It’s the common type of Arabic thought at universities abroad and in most apps/websites teaching Arabic. I’ve seen many people studying MSA for a while coming to Jordan only to see that they aren’t able to understand anything!
It’s totally possible to start with MSA and later learn a spoken Arabic dialect (e.g. Levantine, Egyptian…). Even Arabs master both MSA and their dialect. However, most people will likely be confusing the two dialects or be frustrated when they can’t understand much when visiting an Arab country after learning MSA.
Unless you’re intending to learn Arabic to work in the media/government as a main purpose, I recommend that you start with a dialect instead of MSA.
If you don’t have any preference for any dialect due to ties to a specific region, Egyptian or Levantine Arabic will be your best bet.
To get an impression on how the different Arabic dialects sound, check out this video which compares some common phrases and verbs between MSA, Egyptian and Syrian Arabic.