If you know anything about Arabic in the modern world you know that it’s not really “Arabic” so much as a collection of “Arabics,” the various regional dialects that share a common root but diverge from each other (at least in the spoken language) in many, sometimes significant, ways. This blog deals almost exclusively with Modern Standard Arabic, or الفُصحى (al-fuṣḥá), except for the odd colloquial phrase thrown in here and there. MSA will help you learn to read the language pretty well, and can get you through an Al Jazeera broadcast, but I’m afraid that if you’re wandering about any old Arab city or village it’s a 50/50 proposition whether you’ll be understood (a lot of the vocabulary is widely applicable though, which is part of the reason why this is more of a “word of the day”-type blog and not a “let’s learn Arabic” one). This phenomenon, where members of one language community use one dialect in some contexts (formal speech, writing) and another in other contexts actually has a technical name, “diglossia,” and its one of the more interesting things about studying Arabic as a language. In a sense I guess you could compare Arabic today to Latin a millennium or so ago, when its regional dialects predominantly used in speaking, but formal Latin was still used in certain contexts. Except that where those dialects eventually became formal, literary languages in their own rights, widespread literacy and modern telecommunications might keep Arabic in a state of diglossia indefinitely.
Anyway, Slate published a piece a few days back from a legitimate Arabic student (not just Some Guy with 3 years of Arabic under his belt pounding on a computer keyboard) at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London (also a good sign), Michael Erdman, on just this subject (“Arabic” and its variants), that I’m sure would be of interest to the people who stop by this place. Arabic really is unique among most modern languages in the variety and complexity of its dialects:
All language-learners face the difficulties of regional variations or dialects. Usually, it takes the form of an odd word or turn of phrase or a peculiar pronunciation. For most languages, incomprehension is only momentary, and the similarity—what linguists often refer to as the mutual intelligibility—between the standard language taught to foreigners and the regional speech pattern is maintained. For a language such as French, only the most extreme cases of dialectical differences, such as between Parisian and Québécois or Cajun, pose considerable difficulties for both learners and native speakers of dialects close to the standard. For other languages, however, differences between dialects are so great as to make most dialects other than the standard totally incomprehensible to learners. Arabic is one such language.
The problem that faces most learners of Arabic is that the written language is radically different from the various dialects spoken throughout the Arab world. Such differences appear in a variety of forms: pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax, and tenses of verbs. The result is that even the most advanced learner of standard Arabic (or ‘the standard’) might find herself completely at sea on the streets of Beirut, while it is also conceivable for a student to complete a year of immersion in Cairo and not be able to understand a text written in the standard language.
When you consider that the “Arabic World” stretches all the way from the Atlantic coast of North Africa in the west to the Persian Gulf and Iraq in the east, that this vast region once contained a vast array of regional languages that assimilated themselves into the regional Arabic, and that various parts of the region have been ruled over the centuries by a string of non-Arab empires, colonizers, etc. whose languages also affected the development of Arabic in their zone of control, it’s kind of amazing that the whole language has held together as well as it has.