Why Arabic is not a “one-size-fits-all” Language

Date: 3rd November 2021

Author: Julia Nasri

As an English speaker who has spent the last 3 years in Dubai, teaching in private schools and now opening my own branch of Idiomatic Translations, one huge realization for me has been that Arabic is a language with sweeping differences. Not only is it extremely difficult to learn (think new alphabet, reading from right to left, inconsistent masculine/feminine noun transformations, wildly different pronunciations), but you can’t really “learn” some universal form of Arabic.

Now, that isn’t to say that there isn’t some sort of standard. Classrooms will use Modern Standard Arabic in teaching, which really refers to the literary Arabic that evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries. This Arabic is used in formal education, politics, journalism, but is not spoken by everyday speakers. Think Shakespearean English. This of course is an even greater step from Fusha (pronounced Fus-ha with a heavily aspirated ‘h’), which was the Arabic used between the 7th and 11th centuries at the time of the Quran and early Islamic literature. So that gives us two forms of written Arabic.

So, what do Arabic speakers, you know, actually speak? Well, it depends what country you’re in. The Arab world consists of 22 countries (find a full list of them here) across the Middle East and North Africa. Each one of these countries has a unique dialect of Arabic that is spoken, and often multiple dialects across each country depending on the size. Though newspapers in Iraq and Algeria may use the same Arabic in their publications, people speaking on the street would sound vastly different.

Does this mean Arabic speakers from different countries can’t understand each other? No, not necessarily. Just like someone from Belgium and someone from France would be able to hold a conversation in French, Arabic speakers across the Middle East are able to communicate with varying levels of inconvenience. For example, the Egyptian dialect pronounces the letter ج (jeem) as G ( as in Gulf), while most other dialects will pronounce it like dʒ (as in Giraffe). So, the word Jamila (ʤəˈmɪlə), which is the feminine adjective for pretty, is pronounced gəˈmɪlə in Egypt.

These kinds of discrepancies also happen in vocabulary. The word "a lot" for instance, varies across countries: in Algeria it's بزاف (bizzef), in Tunisia برشا (barsha), in Egypt and some Middle Eastern countries كثير (katheer), and in Saudi Arabia مرة (marra).

Because the UAE is a melting pot of nationalities and cultures, Arabic speakers will encounter people from all over when they come here and interact. Being open-minded and patient with speakers of other dialects is crucial in terms of communicating and knowing how to “shift” your dialect to adapt to your conversation partner can put you at a huge advantage linguistically. A good translator can identify these shifts and particularities based on the demands of the target audience, ensuring that the message works in the target language. Idiomatic Translations Dubai ensures that our translators are masters at this skill and will pair the perfect translator to fit each of our client’s needs.