Arabic and the vernaculars, part 2

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To refresh our collective memory and to provide the context for the present post and the other posts in this series, I repeat the following questions:

1. Is there such a thing as "Classical Arabic"?  If there is, how do we describe / define it?

2. What is "Standard Arabic"?

3. What is Quranic Arabic?  How different is it from Standard Arabic?

4. How many vernacular Arabic languages are there?  Egyptian? Syrian?  Lebanese?  Are they quite different from Standard Arabic?  Are they mutually intelligible?  Do they customarily have written forms and a flourishing literature?

You may also wish to revisit the introduction with which the first post in the series began.  It was followed by a lively, informative discussion in the comments.

Devin Stewart offered the following illuminating response:

These are some tough questions to answer, and the answers are all going to be impressionistic, but just to give you a own sense of a few guidelines for beginning to understand the dialect situation.

At least in part because of modern political history, most Arab nations have a standard spoken dialect, usually that of the capital city, even though the spoken language is never recognized as an official language. All of these are distinct from those of the other nations. Despite this, there is significant variation within many nations. As mentioned, Sa`idi dialects differ significantly from the standard Egyptian dialect. There is a divide between southern and northern Iraqi dialects, Palestine is actually linguistically complicated despite the small area—qāf is pronounced as q, g, ', or k, depending on the region, and just as an example, there is a divide between speakers who say halla' for "now"—like other Levantine speakers—and halkēt.
I would characterize Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Syrian Arabic as mutually intelligible, relatively close, and exhibiting variance similar to that which obtains among the different varieties of Spanish. Overall, though, the Arabic dialects are much further from each other than the varieties of Spanish.
There is a significant divide between various forms of Bedouin Arabic and the Arabic of settled societies, the most obvious sign of which is the retention of the feminine plural verb forms, pronouns, etc. which in most dialects are replaced by the masculine plural forms.
There is a major divide in the middle of Libya, which is a thousand miles of desert with two settled areas on either end. The North African dialects are quite different from those east of Libya. If you want, you could say that there are about four or five major groupings of dialects in the Arab world that are somehow similar to each other.
In my view, the difference between Moroccan Arabic and Egyptian or Lebanese Arabic is certainly wider than the difference between Italian and Spanish and more comparable to the difference between French and Spanish. The phonetics are quite different and so are a large percentage of the common vocabulary and expressions.

There are many more messy details and lots of room for dispute of any generalization.

Often in linguistics, as in life in general, there are no clear cut, categorical answers.  That is why it is good to be open to the possibility of fuzzy borders and boundaries.

More TK.


Selected reading


  1. Thaomas said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 9:02 am

    Should we be talking about "dialects" or languages. Portuguese and Catalan are not "dialects" of Spanish, nor much less of Latin.

  2. Coby said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 12:00 pm

    The reference to "a major divide in the middle of Libya" points to the futility of the international community's efforts to maintain a unified Libya, which existed only because Italy decided, for administrative convenience, to combine its possessions of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (which had never been united) into "Italian Libya", which meant just "Italian Africa", Libya being the ancient Greek term for Africa. The Italians were fond of giving their African possessions ancient Greek names — witness Ethiopia (instead of Abyssinia) and Eritrea.

  3. Gene Anderson said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 12:14 pm

    Certainly Moroccan Arabic is a different language from Standard (whatever that is). Trying to get along in baby Arabic in Morocco certainly convinced me of that. It would be interesting to do mutual-intelligibility tests on various forms of Arabic.

  4. Tom Dawkes said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 1:16 pm

    Trentman, Emma, and Sonia Shiri. "The Mutual Intelligibility of Arabic Dialects." Critical Multilingualism Studies 8.1 (2020): 104-134. available as download at

  5. Tom Dawkes said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 1:18 pm

    See also Soliman, Rasha Kadry Abdelatti Mohamed. "Arabic cross-dialectal conversations with implications for the teaching of Arabic as a second language." PhD Dissertation. University of Leeds, 2014.

  6. Fred said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 1:32 pm

    I speak (some) Moroccan Arabic, having lived there as a kid; and I can always immediately tell when somebody speaks Arabic if they're from North Africa (excluding Egypt) or not, though I can't really differentiate between Moroccan, Algerian or Tunisian, at least not immediately. Libyans already sound different, but perhaps then they're from eastern Libya. In trips to Syria (in happier times) my Moroccan came in very useful, though many simple expressions are completely different and on occasion they really had no idea what I was trying to say, and this was not because of my accent (which is good) or my grammar (which is not so good), but because Moroccan is just so different; even the word for 'two' is completely different, plus the phonotactics, plus the Tamazight loans, plus different adaptation of French loanwords (which you'd expect Syrians to know in principle), plus Spanish loanwords, verbal circumfixes in negation, etc. etc.). I remember as well that many Moroccans were very proud that the former king (Hassan V) spoke MSA very well, as opposed to e.g. Saddam Hussein, even though they personally disliked his politics, the rampant corruption and cronyism, and the fact that in all his palaces spread over the country dinner had to be made for 30 people every night just in case the king would turn up.

  7. Rodger C said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 3:52 pm

    Thaomas: I don't see any reference to Portuguese and Catalan in Stewart's allusion to "varieties of Spanish." I supposed he meant Mexican, Caribbean, Argentinian, Chilean (very peculiar), etc.

  8. Alexander Browne said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 3:59 pm

    Rodger C: I almost submitted nearly the same comment as you, but reading their comment again, I think Thaomas was referring to Arabic: Moroccan and Iraqi are not "dialects" of Egyptian, nor much less of Classic Arabic.

  9. Benjamin Geer said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 4:51 pm

    It’s worth mentioning that many native speakers understand or can speak more than one dialect, and that some dialects are much more widely understood than others. Egyptian has long enjoyed the privilege of being well-understood across the Arab world, thanks to the widespread popularity of Egyptian films and TV shows. As a result, Moroccans, for example, can generally understand Egyptian, but most Egyptians can’t understand Moroccan at all.

  10. ohwilleke said,

    March 8, 2022 @ 9:18 pm

    I got some first hand input on this question over winter break from a guest in our home whose parents were born and raised in Algeria, who was herself born in Paris and then moved to New England as an elementary school student (who is in good touch with French Algerian, Italian Algerian, and Algerian extended family).

    In the view of her and her parents, the Arabic spoken on Al-Jazeera and other Arabic language news services from the Eastern Mediterranean are basically unintelligible to native speakers of Algerian Arabic, although they can pick out some words, especially from context, and know the meaning of the words in Arabic language Islamic prayers.

    She also noted that the dialect of French spoken in Algeria is almost identical to the Parisian dialect of French, much more so, for example, than the geographically closer French dialect spoken in Southern France. Many listeners would mistake her for a white Parisian in her native tongue, which is Parisian French, until they saw her in person, but the French dialect spoken by her relatives in Algeria was almost identical to hers.

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