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Updated July 2017

Which Arabic?

by Kasey Merten

Which Dialect of Arabic?

The spoken dialects—colloquials—of Arabic are varied and many. Depending on where in the Middle East or Africa the speakers grow up, the dialect of Arabic a speaker uses in everyday life will likely be different than the dialect of their neighbor.

It’s common for Arabic speakers to know both a local dialect (that doesn’t have a written form) and the official language of the Arab world (that does). Rather than being connected by a shared spoken dialect, speakers of all Arabic dialects are connected through the two forms of writing they share. The official written form children are taught as they learn to read in secular schools is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). The written form used to write the Quran and other Islamic spiritual texts is called Classical Arabic.

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Classical Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic?

Written Arabic comes in two varieties: Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Although one derives from the other, they are considered two different forms of the Arabic language and are used for different purposes.

  • Classical Arabic (also known as Quranic Arabic) is the written form of Arabic you find in the Quran (the holy book of Islam) and other early Islamic literature. Because of Classical Arabic’s special relationship with Islam, respect for the language’s spiritual value has kept Classical Arabic mostly unchanged since the Quran was written in 7th century CE. Although most Arabic speakers who practice Islam will be familiar with Classical Arabic because of their religious education, today, the language is no longer spoken or written. Instead, it lives as an important cultural artifact of the Arab world’s spirituality.
  • Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) derives from Classical Arabic but includes major differences in vocabulary and style. It is the official language of Arab speaking countries and is used in varying degrees in government, the workplace, and the media, today. Children across the Arab world are taught to read and write MSA from a young age. Like Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic isn’t spoken as a first language—instead, children learn MSA in addition to the local dialect they speak. Although some dialects of spoken Arabic can be transcribed and written down, most Arabs will say that they find Modern Standard Arabic easier to read because their local dialect might not have a consistent spelling system. Generally, Arabic speakers in the United States understand Modern Standard Arabic even if they only have elementary MSA reading and writing skills.

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*Note: Audio materials do not follow these guidelines. They should be matched to the spoken language of your audience.

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