Arabic: A language with too many armies and navies?

For those who revel in linguistic diversity, this is all good fun. For those who want languages in general to “behave”, and for those in particular who want Arabic to be a single, graspable thing, this is a mess. For the language learner, it’s a daunting task. To be competent in “Arabic” means to learn one language to read and write, and a related but rather different language (like Latin and then Italian) to be able to speak. On top of that, the poor foreigner will be limited to understanding only a fraction of the Arab world. Speaking of the decline of pan-Arabism, it’s likely that the inability of Arabs to move around the region, speak naturally and be easily understood is a big reason they do not always feel themselves to be one

The full article is here.

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6 thoughts on “Arabic: A language with too many armies and navies?

  1. What a fantastic piece this is; the story is terrific too. I had no idea Arabic ‘dialects’ were quite this different

  2. Perhaps the toughest thing about learning Arabic is that the dialects lack a standard written form, meaning that you basically have to pick up the local spoken language entirely though conversation (no books, no dictionaries). Given that the dialects are the actual spoken form of the language that you learn to be able to learn in order to be able to communicate with people this is pretty inconvenient. Really beautiful language(s) though.

  3. It’s interesting, but I think the article is overstating its point a bit. For example, a lot of words from MSA are used in everyday talk and are widely understood. Also, a lot of words are used in both dialect and MSA, yet in a slightly different manner. One example from the text is “balad”, which in egyptian may translate as either a specific spot or city — “medina” in MSA — or as “country”, which is the sense in which it is used in MSA — an appropriate example is “bilad as sham”, which is arabic for the Levant. Moreover, colloquial spelling using 7’s and 3’s makes it seem as if we’re talking about a different sound, but that’s just because the transcription is different for colloquial and standard arabic. In other words: حمار = hamaar = 7mar = 7omar. A further point to note is that Maghrebi dialect – influenced to a large extent by tamazight – is much further from Egyptian than for instance Levantan, or Arabic as spoken in the Hejaz and it thus provides a straw man for any argument attributing lack of unity amongst the Arab peoples to linguistic diversity.

    • That’s true, but it’s also true that Arabic speakers from different regions often choose to communicate with one another in a European lingua franca rather that trying to overcome their dialectical differences or speaking in fus7a.

      • Fair enough, although that of course just goes for the ones who speak a European lingua franca or at least speak it well enough to be a good alternative to arabic and outside of North Africa that is still a privileged minority. The majority will probably have ot make due with some form of Arabic. Most salient, especially for housewives, would of course be Egyptian due to its presence in the media – i.e. tv drama.

  4. As for my first point, I meant to say of course that a lot of words can be used interchangeably. For instance, “safar” is also used in Egyptian and expresses the same semantic content as “yeroo7o”. The way the sentence is contructed is different, but the worlds are familiar to all. I think a better comparison than one between latin and portuguese and french would be between Shakespearian english and plain english.

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