January 25, 2020 31

The Unity of the Arabic Language – وحدة اللغة العربية

The Unity of the Arabic Language – وحدة اللغة العربية

Is the Arabic language one language, or is it in reality a family of languages? I was recently at a linguistics conference in Europe, and I heard lots of people express the point of view that the difference between the local dialect in Iraq and the local dialect in Syria and the local dialect in Morocco was very big, as big as the difference between the languages of the Romance language family. The Iraqi dialect might be like Romanian, while the Moroccan dialect might be akin to Spanish. Well, I think this is not true. And I told these people that I, in Dubai, at the American University in the Emirates, every day I see and I hear people from all the different Arabic countries speaking to each other in the same Arabic language with no difficulties. And so I don’t understand why you might think that the Arabic language is not a unified language. And these people also think that there is no benefit in studying the Standard Language (Modern Standard Arabic – MSA). They think you cannot speak the Standard Language in daily life, and the people don’t understand it and don’t want to talk it. And I say to them, well I speak it every day. But they don’t seem to believe me, or they just say, well, that’s your opinion. And so for that reason, I have asked two of my students — here is Fatiha, from Algeria, and here is Sana, from Syria — to talk about this subject. What is your opinion about this matter? Could you please clarify the situation? My opinion regarding the Standard Arabic Language (MSA al-fussha) is a language that everybody understands, young and old, from Morocco to Iraq to the Gulf, we all understand and can speak al-fussha 100% And when it comes to dialects of course there are some differences, for example Emirati, Syrian, Iraqi, we all have our accents, but we still can easily understand and communicate with each other. First of all we have our “White Language,” and secondly if we don’t understand a word or two, we can get their meaning from the context of the conversation afterward. And we so don’t have any difficulty at all in talking to each other. And regarding al-fussha, I was surprised to hear from Dr. Alexander that people think we don’t use and understand it. That is just not true. Al-fussha, we all understand and use it from children to adults And it is the link between us, and I think, for example, that the Holy Quran gives us the Arabic language and keeps it on the right path even in the shadow of the various dialects, it keeps the Arabic language understandable by all. I agree with you completely. In the current day, not everyone can talk al-fussha, but everyone understands it. It is not possible to speak al-fussha and not be understood, that is incorrect. There is the “White Language” today, we use it a lot in our media, for the sake of everyone understanding the subject we are discussing I am from Syria. And if I speak using Syrian words, everyone understands it because popular Turkish soap operas are dubbed into it.. And that’s an effect that we can feel to this day. That these Turkish soap operas that everyone watches use the Syrian dialect. And the same thing is true of the Egyptian dialect. Because of its widespread films, it has become easily comprehensible. For example, the dialects of Algeria and Morocco and Tunisia are a little hard to understand. The Arabic language in the Western Arab states — Algeria, Morocco, Tunis — other people do find it bit hard. It is Arabic, but your ear has to get used to the sounds of the dialect, it makes it hard for people But if you are Arabic and you speak the language, even if you don’t understand this or that word, you can understand Every language can take in some foreign words, for example Emirati has Hindi words, and the same is true for us in Algeria, under the Ottomans we took Turkish words And it is possible that those from other regions won’t understand those words because they are not Arabic And nonetheless it is Arabic, and al-fussa is used a lot in Algeria. Despite the reputation of Algeria There was French literature, and the question of Free Algeria, Algerian identity, there was — so we in Algeria have some great Arabic writers Such as writers like Wasini al-Aruj, like Ahlam Mustghani, And so I feel that we have preserved Arabic language despite the French colonial attempt to suppress the identity of the language And nonetheless we have kept the Arabic language in Algeria, and it is been preserved, for example by studying the Koran. Fatiha, you’re from Algeria, so you speak French just as well as you speak Arabic. Yes. Have you ever been, say, to Spain or to Italy? Yes. And when you hear Spanish as a French speaker and when you hear the local dialect of Iraq or Syria as an Algerian dialect user, is it the same… No, no, no. There’s an enormous difference. French is a very different language from Spanish. I can’t understand Spanish and I can’t speak it. It is possible if I look at something written to recognize lots of words, but to understand it, no I can’t. I feel that they are two different languages and French is fundamentally different from Spanish. And the Arabic dialects? It is all the same in every place — Syria, Iraq, the Gulf, Saudi Arabia — we speak the same language, I understand everything, 100%. Good. It is possible that there are some non-Arabic words in each dialect, but there is no real difference, no real difficulty. Let’s talk about this “White Language.” Sana, when you, as Syrian, speak with someone from Algeria, what is this “White Language?” Do you know subconsciously that if you use a certain Syrian word, she won’t understand, so you don’t use it? Is that it? The White Language consists of a mixture of formal language and colloquial speech. When I arrived in the Emirates from Syria, I had a little bit of difficulty understanding Gulf dialect. For they use a number of different words, and their pronunciation is different, I needed a little bit of time to be able to understand Emirati perfectly. Now I understand it thoroughly As far as Algerian is concerned, when I speak… I have a friend from Algeria and I have a friend from Morocco. When I speak with them, I know, I cannot use the Syrian word “ba’tha,” for they won’t…. For example, if I want to say “how are you?” (MSA), I can still say “how are you?” (Levantine), it makes it easier to understand, but I can’t say “how are you?” (Syrian) Do you know what that means? You don’t know. It is a thick Syrian word, we only use it in Syria, I only use it with my relatives. I think this is very interesting. When I was a trip through northern England, in the countryside, I didn’t understand a thing the people said. That was an English dialect and I didn’t understand anything. And yet people don’t think that English is not a unified language, but rather a language family. And yet when I hear people — not only from India or Nigeria or Singapore — but from England, I don’t understand very much… It’s not the same thing. For instance, if I went to Algeria, and I didn’t understand Algerian dialect and couldn’t speak it, I could speak MSA, and I would be capable of communicating with everyone any person, even a small child. If I can’t speak his dialect, I can communicate with everybody in every place using MSA. This question, Dr. Alexander, is the same thing as, say, someone from New York City, whose pronunciation is not standard, and is very different and hard to understand and I feel there is a big difference between that and, say, someone from Texas in the South. These are dialectical differences in the same country, and while we have different countries, it is about the same degree of difference. It is the same language, but with little differences. You can still communicate. For example right now I’m speaking the White Language and you are speaking MSA. That is the White Language, a mix, a simplification of MSA that simplifies communication. The Arabic language, the White Language, like we said, is a mix of colloquial speech and MSA. and we use it more and more these days since we don’t use MSA much because we are under pressure to learn English, to teach English to children as the global language and for that reason we use the White Language more and more these days as a language that everyone understands. If you are from Algeria, if you are from Iraq, if you are from Egypt — if you hear this language, you understand it It is not a standard language that you can study and learn it, and at the same time, it is not a dialect but takes from all of them in such a way that all can understand. Why do you need this White Language if MSA already exists? Why don’t Arabs speak MSA to each other all the time? Well, it is demanding, you have to be precise in MSA, and we have been influenced so much by English and other languages, so I feel that people find it hard to put all the grammatical markers on the words in MSA speech, so the White Language is easier. But are there any books in the White Language? No. Every book in Arabic is in MSA. It is easier, that is all… Concerning MSA, as I told you earlier, these days schools stress on teaching children other languages from the time they are young, Whereas MSA should be the foundation, and even when I was studying in Syria, MSA was the basis and it was present everywhere. But we didn’t speak it with our friends when we were studying because it is thick, it is heavy, and unfortunately these days, many people can’t speak MSA because of all the rules, the grammatical endings, there are so many rules, it is hard to employ them, so we use the simpler White Language. But when you, when you personally, when you write, you write MSA, don’t you? Yes. And you, personally, when you read a novel, you do it in MSA and you think in MSA when you are doing it, don’t you? Yes, of course you are right. Look, I personally love the Arabic language, it is very beautiful — I agree completely! — And when I read it, it transports me to far places. Even when I read books translated into Arabic, they seem richer than when in original English or French. I read all three languages fluently and I feel that Arabic is somehow richer, wider, more beautiful. “bas”… sorry, means that means “only” in MSA — that’s a dialect word in White language — only when we speak MSA — we could do it in the past — but with time, we lost the practice, and not all can do it For example, in Algeria, we just don’t use it in our everyday life. There is the question of the influence of a Berber language, Amazigh. We could speak MSA if we wanted to, but… it’s hard. Thank you, thank you very much. Good. Let’s go back to the main idea: people think Arabic is not a single unified language. Is that true? That is wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It is one language. We all understand it. It unifies us and it will continue to do so. I think so too. Good. Thank you, thank you.

31 Replies to “The Unity of the Arabic Language – وحدة اللغة العربية”

  • Said Oudou says:

    I guess there is something tremendously important (and 🙂 I wonder why linguists don´t even notice this) that should be taken in consideration to understand why (some or most doesn´t matter) Arabic speaking people from different countries understand each other?! it is because they are exposed since their childhood to the other Arabic dialects through the media, not at the same extent though, and that´s why Moroccans, for example, understand dialects like Levantine or Egyptian one while people from Egypt or Lebanon understand less Moroccan dialect. Example. I remember once I was sitting with my aunt in Morocco who have never attended school and therefore could neither write nor speak standard Arabic, she was watching an Egyptian TV series, a thing that she used to do literally every day as the most of women at that time. me being fluent in standard Arabic and knowing tons of things in Arabic including religion and literature and even studying everything in Arabic; maths, geography … I could not understand anything from those Egyptian series!!!!!! but of course, after I got exposed for some months to the Egyptian Arabic I started to understand it and now I even can speak it to some extent! I am sure if all people from different countries would study latin like standard Arabic is taught in North Africa or middle east, I am sure the Spanish people will understand Italian, Portuguese people.. the same way the people who had standard Arabic in school.

  • Samuel Freitas says:

    There are a few problems with the subtitles. Around 4:00, the Syrian woman is talking about Turkish soap operas and series dubbed in Syrian dialect, not about Ottoman era! And close to the end of the interview the Algerian woman intorduces the Berber language (Amazigh) question – but the subtitles don’t mention it at all.

  • Crockett says:

    I haven't studied Arabic in a long time now, but this conversation made me reconsider that. Thanks for posting this! I only reached a very basic understanding when I studied it, but I recognized a lot more words than I thought I would. I really don't get why a lot of people don't like the sound of the language. To me, it really is one of the most beautiful languages in the world. In fact, I think it's similar to French aesthetically in many ways. I can't really point out what it is but I feel there are a lot of similarities. It could be just me.

  • drax325 says:

    You could probably make many parallels to Rome. With both the vulgar and classical Latin, with the white language being like vulgar Latin. Latin spread a longer time ago giving time for the daughter languages. While Arabic spreading is much younger, so it sounds like it is only starting to diverge. But, modern communication might suppress it in comparison.

  • AnAmericanlinguist says:

    I really appreciate you making this video. I'm glad you brought in two speakers from parts of the arab-speaking world to comment and share their experiences! I would be interested in hearing the opinions of people like Benny Lewis and especially Donovan Nagel (from Mezzofanti guild, who has a substantial amount of experience learning arabic) on this, since both of them have publicly encouraged a more dialect based learning approach, and given their widespread readership I think their opinions have directly affected the polyglot communities opinion of MSA's utility and comprehensibility across arab-speaking nations.

  • nathanpiazza says:

    Dr. Arguelles puts out a new video: DROP EVERYTHING AND WATCH IT.

    Great video, especially since I have never heard of the 'White Language' before! This makes me want to learn MSA…

  • jrdking1 says:

    100% agree (Arabic is a unified language), being a native Spanish speaker who has been studying Arabic (Egyptian Dialect), I’ve been able to communicate with people throughout the Arab world without much strain. On the other hand, I was listening to Romanian news and other than the occasional word, I didn’t understand almost anything let alone be confident in having a conversation (Italian a little less, Portuguese don’t understand much but I can read in all the romance languages). I understand that this is due to the years of separation of the romance dialects from Vulgar Latin. We are in a day and age that technology has made the world a smaller place and I don’t believe the divergence in Arabic will continue and dialects of Arabic will continue to be mutually intelligible between regions more so than the Romance languages. Sorry for the long post 😂

  • polynickglot says:

    Thank you for this video! It certainly motivates me to start learning Arabic again 🙂 it was also great to hear about this topic from the two guests with different backgrounds

  • ܤܡܝ ܦܠܕܢܝܘܤ says:

    To Anglophones assumably, an intimidating language. . . . until one takes a look at something like the latest edition of
    "Instant Arabic" by Fethi Mansouri & Yousef Alreemawi.

  • The Lord Of Confusion says:

    I have to questions for Dr. Arguelles –
    1) do you know if your talk in Iceland on poly-literacy is ever going to be available?
    2) could you talk about the novel you are writing at some time in the future?
    Thank you for making videos again!

  • Ryan Boothe says:

    Thank you, danke, cпасибо, gracias, tak, köszönöm, dankie, obrigado, 谢谢, merci, متشکرم, grazie and–of course–شكرا

  • Ryan Boothe says:

    Please also thank Fatiha, Sana, and your camera man as well.

  • Ryan Boothe says:

    My follow up question is how should one learn Arabic then? Arabic exists on multiple registers. 
    1. Should the novice simply stick to MSA unless exposed to a particular dialect? 
    2. Is it best to learn a dialect first and then jump into MSA? 
    3. Or is it best to learn a mix of the two, simultaneously?

  • Nicolasgtalco al 8 says:

    Very interesting language!. Thanks for sharing!.

  • Mb Nattdal says:

    First I am an Arab..
    Learn MSA .. don't wait, every Arab understands it and it will always be.
    My advice is simple "start learn MSA".
    Don't waste your time with dialects.

  • Naif Bakarman says:

    شكرا جزيلا بروفسور

  • Naif Bakarman says:

    شكرا جزيلا بروفسور

  • anmbanmbanmb says:


  • فهود القحطاني says:

    ليش التعليقات بالانجليزية ؟!! ههههههههههههههههه

  • I Can Speak Arabic says:

    صحيح جدا جدا. نتكلم لغة الفصحى في كل بلاد عربي.
    Go for MSA 100%
    greeting from Thailand. ❤

  • i aj says:

    في كل مره تقول" لغة" بدلا عن لهجه يرتفع ضغطي جدا

  • Maciej Komorski says:

    The great effort the lady from Syria is putting into expressing herself in MSA is a proof that it isn't natural for her at all. Why? Because the Syrian dialect is so widely understood that she can use it anywhere (with exception of the most local or rural expressions). On the other side, the lady from Algeria is much more fluent in Fusha because she is bound to use it as nobody would understand her Algierian dialect full of Amazigh and French words and expressions.
    I have the impression that this video tries to prove that learning MSA is enough to get around freely in the Arab world. That is not true. Of course, you can talk to educated people who will do you the favor to answer and talk to you in MSA but it will be unnatural and awkward. Moreover, you won't be able to immerse fully into the culture nor to understand casual conversations of local people. You won't be able to understand movies or songs. That's why I regret having started my adventure with Arabic from MSA. I should have begun with the dialect which is the natural language for informal conversations and everyday topics and move afterwards to MSA which is the language of literature, science or politics.

  • Luna Moon says:

    Interesting conversation. I study MSA and would like to know more about this „White language“. I also doubt a little bit about what the Algerian lady says concerning books translated to Arabic that would be more beautiful than their original version in French or English. I think it is always better to read any novel in its original language. The questions related to translation are worth to be discussed in another video. In Italian they say „traduttore traditore!“ In a way the translator is always betraying to a certain extent what the writer intended to communicate. That’s why I am looking forward to read someday Arabic literature in Arabic.

  • Ant Ab says:

    الشيء الذي اعجبني هو انهم يقولون بان الناس لا يستطيعون التكلم بالعربية الفصيحة وهم ذاتهم لا يستطيعون التكلم بها ههههه

  • BiggieSmallz1988 says:

    Keefkun..Ana adrusu allugha arabiyah fusha wa allugha arabiyah ammiyaat fi nafs waqt fi bayti kul lowm. Binisbatili, ana atakalam shey qareeb min hadha 'white arabic' huna (shey fi tareeq bayna fusha (MSA) wa ammiyah) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMK62zXgBp4 Shoo rayukun?

  • M. Neuville says:

    J'ai appris des choses. Merci.

  • عبدالله says:

    اذا تكلمنا عن العربيه نرجع لاهلها وهم قبائل الجزيرة العربيه

  • draden haven says:

    أحب اللكنة السورية حبا جما.

  • cxn271 says:

    14:00 I love the accidental code-switching. THE JIG IS UP!

  • Brury Rosally says:


  • tomi lan says:

    interesting i learn msa and this video strengthen me that my decision is right

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