Do Arabs Speak the Same Language?

News Abroad

Ms. Muir is the author of Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England. The working title of her current project is: What Good is a Nation; A Clear-Eyed Look at Nations and Nationalism.

The most important underreported development in the Arab world is the increasing ability of Arabs to talk with one another.  They did not used to be able to.  Arabs in Casablanca speak a language in the Arabic family that is all but unintelligible to Arabs in Cairo, whose language is not understood by Arabs in Baghdad, and so forth.  

Outsiders are blinded to these differences by our habit of calling all of these diverse languages Arabic.  If is as though we called all romance languages Frankish and therefore expected a Sicilian to be able to enter into easy conversation with a Parisian.  In reality, the two can communicate if one has learned the language of the other, or if both know a second language.  Throughout most of European history, that common language was most likely to have been Latin.

Arabs were long in the same situation.  The highly educated did know a second language, Classical Arabic.  It was used, like Latin among Christians and Hebrew among Jews, for learned essays, for legal documents, and for correspondence among the intelligentsia.  Scholars used these languages to converse with one another, but nobody scolded a child or bought groceries in Classical Arabic.  

Nineteenth century intellectuals in the vanguard of Arab nationalism faced one of the standard dilemmas of ethnic groups under foreign rule.  There was little literature in any of the sundry Arabic vernaculars.  These languages varied over short distances and lacked vocabulary to deal with complex ideas.  Only the highly educated could speak Classical Arabic, although even the illiterate heard it in the recitation of the Koran and prayers.

European nations tended to deal with this problem by making a local vernacular into a complex literary language.  In England the language of greater London had already begun to develop into a literary language by the time of Chaucer, and steadily increased its dominance thereafter, extinguishing regional non-Germanic languages (such as Cornish) and regional Germanic vernaculars (such as Yorkshire) in the process.  The particular Germanic vernacular spoken by Luther and, crucially, the one into which he translated the Bible, effectively eliminated the other vernaculars once spoken in the Germanies.  Eighteenth century Czech nationalists successfully undertook a self-conscious program of developing their local Slavic vernacular into a standard national literary language.  The process varied with each people – developments in cultural nations are always unique – but every European nation has a national language that developed out of a vernacular that was once spoken but not written.  None uses Latin, Classical Greek, or Old Church Slavonic as a national language.   

The development of Modern Standard Arabic has some similarity to the path taken by the Greeks.  Two centuries ago, Greek speakers inhabited the Balkan Peninsula, the Islands, and much of the western and Black Sea coasts of Anatolia.  All Greeks spoke Greek in the sense that all Arabs speak Arabic, but the language of the Pontic Greeks of the Black Sea Coast was not intelligible to the people of the large Greek city and region of Smyrna (Turkish Izmir,) whose language was not understood by the villagers in the Peloponnese, and so on across the map.  An early Greek nationalist, Alexander Korais, attempted to unify the Greeks linguistically by creating a modern language based closely on Classical Greek.  It was called Katharevousa (Καθαρε?ουσα,) which translates as clean one; one of Korais’ goals was to clean the Greek tongue by purging all of the vocabulary taken from Latin, Turkish and other foreign tongues.   (Purifying the language of foreign words is a near-universal feature of national language reform.)  Like the myriad national language reformers who followed him, Korais also simplified the classical grammar and created new words to describe modern phenomena unknown to Demosthenes.

Government documents were published in Katharevousa until 1976, when the final capitulation was made to Modern Greek.  This language developed more or less on the model of modern French, a language based on the early modern regional vernacular of the Isle de France, and imposed on speakers of the other regional vernaculars of  France.  Modern Greek, Dhimotiki, is rooted in the nineteenth century vernacular of the Peloponnese, heavily influenced by the linguistic reforms of Katharevousa.  It evolved in nineteenth and early twentieth century Athens as what had been an Ottoman backwater rapidly grew into the capital and largest city of the modern Greek State.  

Nineteenth century Arab nationalists began a process of modifying Classical Arabic for use in modern newspapers and other writing.  The process was intensified in the 1920’s and 30’s by national language academies modeled roughly on the Académie française.[1]   Compared with Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (also known as Modern Classical Arabic and, in Arabic, as fusha) makes less use of  poetic structure, has discarded some Classical grammar, created new grammatical forms, and includes a greatly expanded vocabulary.  Some of these new words are loans from other languages, others are carefully reworked forms of old usages - to take one particularly charming example,  the word for “train,” is qitar, the old word for “camel caravan.”  The effect has been to create a new form of Arabic that “can no longer be regarded as identical with” the Classical language.[2]

This creates an ideological problem for some.   No European speaks a language derived from Biblical Hebrew, and only the Greeks speak a language descended from New Testament Greek.  Latin, the language of the Church, never had the sacred status that Arabic has.  For these reasons, European demand for translations of the Bible into the vernacular was insatiable, even in the period when owning one was considered to be legal evidence of heresy, while Arabs have always preferred to have the Quran in Classical Arabic.  Indeed a standard proof of the divine origin of the Quran cited by the pious is that the beauty of the language of the text proves that it cannot have been written by a mere human.  The corollary to this, that Classical Arabic is a perfect language, led some of the creators of Modern Standard Arabic to maintain that they were not altering the language, but, rather, restoring it to the Classical purity it had before it was corrupted by use.   Due to the extreme prestige that the Arabic language has in Arab culture, many Arabs who use Modern Standard Arabic prefer to call it Classical Arabic, while others minimize the differences among the regional varieties of Arabic, asserting that all Arabs speak Arabic.  Modern Standard Arabic is also tainted by its association with the secular pan-Arab nationalism of the early twentieth century in the eyes of both the religious who identify as members of the Muslim ummah and of those secularists who prefer to identify themselves as members of an Egyptian, Syrian or other territorially-defined nation, rather than with an encompassing Arab nation.   

The pretense that Classical and Modern Standard Arabic are one and the same is enhanced by the use of the term “literary Arabic” to refer to both Classical and Modern Standard Arabic.  Wikipedia, where almost all articles on national cultures are the work of ardent nationalists, and attempts to insert objectivity meet with aggressive and immediate reversion to the nationalist version of history, states that “Literary Arabic refers both to the language of present-day media across North Africa and the Middle East and to the language of the Qur’an.” [3]

The important thing to know about Modern Standard Arabic (fusha), however, is not that is as distinct from Classical Arabic as Modern Hebrew is from Biblical Hebrew, but that it is fast becoming a powerful force for Arab cultural unity.  While it has been the language of instruction in schools across the Arab world for upwards of a century, this has become a far more significant fact as more children have come to attend school.   An even more recent development is that whereas educated middle-aged people could write a letter in Modern Standard Arabic upon graduation from high school, they did not speak it and had little chance of hearing it spoken.  This has changed, and the change was brought to you, in part, by Big Bird.  

Sesame Street (Iftah Ya SimSim) began broadcasting in Modern Standard Arabic in 1979.[4]  State-sponsored television and radio broadcast in Modern Standard Arabic, since even within a single state like Egypt and Syria the local vernaculars varied greatly.  The existence of Modern Standard Arabic has enabled  Al Jazeera, launched in 1996, to broadcast to the entire Arabic-speaking world.   Satellite dishes and electrification have increasingly brought these media to even remote hamlets.  Men watching the news in a café will discuss it in the local Arabic vernacular, but from Aleppo to Fez they now largely understand what the newscaster is saying in Modern Standard Arabic.  

The impact of the wildly popular Egyptian movies and soap operas has also been linguistically significant.   A good deal of  Modern Standard Arabic grammar and vocabulary  has crept into the on-screen Egyptian vernacular (lahga masriya) of Egyptian movies, but their popularity of these media has also made vocabulary once peculiar to Egypt familiar throughout the Arab world.   Despite the best efforts of the language academies, words made familiar by the on-screen use of the Egyptian vernacular have entered the Modern Standard Arabic lexicon.  A similar process applies to the somewhat less popular Syrian television programs.   The result is that an Arabic speaker in the Maghreb will understand vernacular Syrian or Egyptian far more readily than her grandparents could ever have done.

Even the highly educated continue to speak a local vernacular at home, not Modern Standard Arabic.  In conversation, they mix Modern Standard and the local vernacular in proportions that vary according to the nature of the occasion.  The existence of Modern Standard Arabic does, however, give every educated Arab the ability to speak with and to understand every other educated Arab.  

To see how this plays out even for an American who is not a native speaker of any kind of Arabic, listen to the blog post of “Aboo Imraan al-Mekseekee,” who lists his occupation as, “inviting to Islam,” and who works among the “English/Spanish speaking Salafee community.”[5]  “[F]or those of us who are practising sunee/salafee muslims then al-Fushaa (Literary Arabic) is sufficient enough. Many of the brothers who studied in the Islamic Universities in Saudi or even in Dar-ul-Hadeeth in Dimaaj (a village in Sa'dah, Yemen), got along just fine without having to learn any "Ammiyyah" (vernacular.)”  This native English speaker was able to live and study in Saudi madrassas with no need of any Arab vernacular.   

The introduction of Modern Standard Arabic has enabled the existence of media that reach the entire Arabic-speaking world, but these new media have simultaneously influenced the development of and spread the use of this new language.  The result of this synergy between Modern Standard Arabic and the television industry is that an Arab national language has emerged.   Ideas expressed in Modern Standard Arabic can instantly reach the entire Arab-speaking world, giving the Arabs a new capacity to  converse and respond as a single cultural nation, with results that it will be interesting to watch as they play out.

[1] Versteegh, Kees, The Arabic Language, Columbia University Press, 1997.

[2] Versteegh, Kees, The Arabic Language, Columbia University Press, 1997.

[3] Wikipedia article on Arabic, accessed 9/28/06   Eliding the differences between Modern Standard and Classical Arabic is not restricted to Wikipedia.  It is the accepted discourse in some academic circles.  See, for example, Haeri, Niloofar, “The Reproduction of Symbolic Capital: Language, State and Class in Egypt,” Current Anthropology, vol 38, no. 5, Dec. 1997 p. 795 – 816 in which Haeri merges the two forms into a single language, “Classical Arabic,” with “varieties” that “move along the axis of ‘older’ or ‘newer’ syntax and lexicon and ‘heavier’ or ‘lighter’ style.”   Like the question of when we perceive a sub-species, and when a new species, the question of when a form of any language is sufficiently distinct to be given a separate  name is difficult.  In general, however, names are given because they are functional.  To refer to modern and ancient forms of a language as Modern English and Middle English, or Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew, or Modern Greek and Classical Greek is to make a useful distinction.  Making a distinction between Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic is similarly functional.   

[4] Abu-Amir, Samir, “A Characterization of the Language of Iftah ya Simsim: Sociolinguistic and Educational Implications for Arabic,” Language Problems and Language Planning,  v14 n1 p33-46 Spr 1990

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Ms Muir post is launched with a false, deliberately misleading sentence, viz:

"The most important underreported development in the Arab world is the increasing ability of Arabs to talk with one another. They did not used to be able to. Arabs in Casablanca speak a language in the Arabic family that is all but unintelligible to Arabs in Cairo, whose language is not understood by Arabs in Baghdad, and so forth."

The falsehood here lies in the deliberate omission of a cardinal fact about Arabic; that there are two sets of Arabic; the vernacular (patois) that varies from major country to major country such as between Syria and Morocco and modern classical Arabic that is one and the same from the most north-easterly point in north Syria and Iraq to the most south-westerly point, along the Atlantic, in Morocco!

Modern classical Arabic i.e. Arabic minus al "tahrik" ( the fatha, dammeh etc) is the written , read , universally used and fully understood language by, practically,ALL Arabs, fom one edge to the other of the Arabic world.
It is the one and only language of mass media (newspapers, magazines, TV stations News bulletins and cultural programs), of modern Arabic literature and cultural discourse, of school and university teaching, of all school and university books, of governments correspondence and of the courts of law.

The Koran is still, and will always be, printed, read and understood via orthodox classical Arabic i.e. with the full traditional "tahrik" that ensures the exactness of the meaning of words.

This set up dates back practically from the advent of the printing press , in the late eighteenth century ,and its wide spread use and the swell of literacy. Its prevalence as the common national language of all Arabs have always depended on the pervasiveness of literacy .

If any thing at all Arabic in this respect is like British English with a vernacular (cockney and others), modern classical (BBC & Oxbridge)) and Shakespearean English.

Worth noting in this respect is that some secessionist non/anti Arab movements, mainly in Lebanon and Egypt, did try to develop their own local vernacular into a distinct, different language but all have dismally failed particularly with the abundance of printed material ,the advent of radio broadcasting with a wide and large reach and the coming of satellite TV stations.

This however does not apply to the distinct "national" languages of large minorities as for Kurdish and Kabila both of which are ful fledged distinct languages with their own grammar, classical and vernacular nor of minor, size wise, minorities as of the Assyrians and Syriacs .

Why the “false, deliberately misleading sentence,” of Ms Muir?
The answer lies in the ever present Zionist and western imperialist long held design and ambition for a further fragmentation of the Arab nation, as a whole cultural entity starting with the fragmentation of the Arabic language, that Ms Muir seem to reluctantly and regretfully abandon.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

"Tahrik"; had I known the exact or an approximate English word for it I would have used it.
I was hoping somebody who does will eventually come in with the correct term.
However "tahrik" is the use of certain signs, sub letters as it were, above or below, a certain letter in a word in ARABIc script to stress its correct pronunciation and hence its exact meaning as distinct from another word that has the same letter construction.
The nearest analogy I have is the "accent grave", "accent aigue" etc in French though the sets of signs , sub letters as it were, in both are neither the same nor do the same function.
To illusrate both words"Jamal" and "Jammal" are written in Arabic with the same order of the same letters wheras their meanings differ greatly; "Jamal" meaning "beauty and "Jamaal" meaning camel driver!

I hope a linguist will jump in and be of much greater use than me in this respect.

Andrew D. Todd - 12/14/2006

Oh, I see what you mean. Linguists call them diacritical marks. They turn up in Hebrew as well, of course, but they are also found in a range of Asian languages which got their writing systems from Sanskrit, together as part of a package with Buddhist missionaries from India. Interestingly, Yiddish, which is basically a dialect of German, with a dash of Slavic, is written in Hebrew (without diacritical marks). At the time Yiddish was coming into existence, the vast majority of German speakers were illiterate, and did not write one way or the other.

Similar Spread of the Greek writing system in Eastern Europe


Andrew D. Todd - 12/14/2006

In the first place, for those of us who are not Arabists, can you define your terms? What is "tahrik," for example?

Incidentally, I think I would go further than you about the English language. Classical English is generally understood to include Chaucer, and also _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_. In particular, take a look at the Tolkien-Gordon-Davis edition of Sir Gawain (1925-1967).

"God morun, Sir Gawain,' sayde [th]at gay lady / [3]e ar a sleper vnsly[3]e, [th]at mon may slyde hider"


"Good morning, Sir Gawain, said that gay lady / you are a sleeper unwary, that one may slip in here"

(lines 1208-1209; [th] is the thorn, the Nordic equivalent of the Greek theta. [3] is a consonant which does not exist in Modern English, and to which the editors devoted an extended footnote)

Of course, at this point, the largest number of people who know Sir Gawain at all know it through the Sean Connery film of that title. The film's use of BBC English is the least of the liberties it takes with the text.