Arabic and its variations

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The first decision you must make when you decide to study Arabic is which 'Standard' of Arabic to study. Most Universities focus their studies on Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Students interested in religion or history might be interested in Classical Arabic/MSA. People who want to live in the Arabic World would be interested in studying the Colloquial language of that region.

In this section we have attempted to explain the variations or dialects of the Arabic language existing in the Arab world. We hope to add some meaning to the acronym MSA and the words Classical Arabic and Colloquial Arabic.  

Dialect and Diglossia

Diglossia is the term used to describe the phenomena of two distinct varieties of a language coexisting within a particular society. Typically, one variety is reserved for formal use and is both written and spoken  Classical/Modern Standard Arabic), while the other is usually a more informal language (Colloquial Arabic/local dialects) spoken between family, friends and casual acquaintances. The second variety almost always lacks a writing system.

Classical Arabic

Classical Arabic is also sometimes referred to as ‘Fusha’ in Arabic. The Quran was revealed in Classical Arabic, which is the main reason why the language has preserved its purity throughout the centuries.

Throughout Islamic history Classical Arabic has been the language of royal and princely courts, the bureaucracy and the learned.

Thus for a student to understand the Quran, books of Hadith, classical works by various Scholars and appreciate classical poetry, he must understand Classical Arabic.

Most Muslims would also like to be able to communicate with Arabic speaking brothers and sisters. In such circumstances, Classical Arabic is not a sufficient means of modern-day communication. Though it is undoubtedly the most beautiful, special language in the world, the fact is that people just don't walk around speaking Classical Arabic. Doing so would be the equivalent of 21st century Americans chit-chatting in Shakespearean English.

It is our hope that we change the current attitude towards Classical Arabic, and revive the language to its previous lofty status; a unifying factor between Muslims and the single means of communication in our every day lives. May Allah (swt) unite the Muslims and give us the understanding of His Deen.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), as its name indicates, is the modern counterpart of Classical Arabic. The main difference between MSA and Classical Arabic lies in the vocabulary. MSA reflects the needs of contemporary expression whereas Classical Arabic reflects the needs of older styles.

Most Universities and Language Institutes focus their studies on Modern Standard Arabic. MSA is a good alternative to Classical Arabic. Somebody who studies MSA formally can expect to get a good overview of the Arabic language, as it is used in well-educated circles. He will also learn to read and write. These basic skills make an excellent bench mark to further your studies in either Classical Arabic or one of the many Arabic dialects.

Note: Just like Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is also refered to as ‘Fuss-ha’ in Arabic.

Colloquial Arabic

Colloquial Arabic, sometimes referred to in Arabic as the ‘lahja’, or ‘amiya’ is a collection of languages all of which share some of their features with Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic.

Colloquial Arabic is the spoken Arabic used by Arabs in their every day lives. Unlike modern standard Arabic that is uniform in all Arab countries, colloquial Arabic is subject to regional variation, not only between different countries, but also within regions in the same country.

Phonetic variation of Colloquial Arabic

Qaaf'Qaaf' changes widely from variety to variety. In Bedouin dialects from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia, it is pronounced 'g', as in most of Iraq. In the Levant and Egypt (except in Upper Egypt (the Sa'id) where it is influenced by that of Arabia), as well as Malta and some North African towns such as Tlemcen, it is pronounced as a glottal stop, apart from rural Palestine where it becomes emphatic 'k'. In the Gulf, it becomes 'j' in many words, and is 'g' otherwise. Elsewhere, it is usually realised as uvular 'q'.

Jeem'Jiim' too varies widely. In some Arabian Bedouin dialects, and parts of the Sudan, it is still realized as the medieval Persian linguist Sibawayh described it, as a palatalized 'gy'. In Egypt and Yemen, it is a plain 'g'. In most of North Africa and the Levant, it is 'zh', apart from Algeria. In the Gulf and Iraq, it often becomes 'y'. Elsewhere, it is usually like English 'j'.


'Kaaf' often becomes 'ch' in the Gulf, Iraq and in some Bedouin dialects. In a very few Moroccan varieties, it affricates to 'ksh'. Elsewhere, it remains 'k'.


Raa'Raa' is pronounced like French 'R' in a few areas: Mosul, for instance, and the Jewish variety in Algiers. In much of the Maghreb, a phonemic distinction has emerged between plain and emphatic 'r', thanks to the merging of short vowels.


'Thaa', 'Dhaal' become 's', 'z' in the Levant, and 't', 'd' in much of Egypt and North Africa. In one Arabic-speaking town in Turkey, they become 'f', 'v'.