The Situation of Arabic Today—one language, two registers:

Arabic is not an easy language to learn for English speakers. One of the difficult parts is navigating its severe diglossia. Diglossia is when a language has two separate registers, a formal one and an informal one, which may differ in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. While many languages in the world are diglossic, the situation of Arabic is extreme.

Arabic is also unique for its dizzying variety of local dialects. Speakers of some of these dialects cannot understand each other, e.g. Syrians and Moroccans. However, most dialects are mutually intelligible to some degree, especially nowadays with increased media exposure.

To understand why this is so, we must look at the language’s history, from its origins in pre-Islamic Arabia, to its massive spread as the result of Islamic conquests, and finally to its modernization in recent times.

A Brief History of Arabic:

Arabic is classified in the Semitic family of languages, so it is closely related to Hebrew, Aramaic, and others. It is difficult to know much about the early history of Arabic because it came to be written down relatively late compared to other Semitic languages. While pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions do exist, and there is a body of pre-Islamic poetry that was recorded later, it wasn’t until after the advent of Islam that Arabic became a significantly literary language.

Dialectical variation existed in Arabic before the rise of Islam. For example, there is some variation over the form of the definite article. The Hijaz dialect used the familiar al-, but Himyaritic from Yemen used am-, and Ancient North Arabian used ha-, which is also the definite article of Hebrew.

It’s also possible that diglossia existed in Arabic before Islam, although this is unclear.

With the rise of Islam and the example of the Qur’an, a single variety of Arabic gained prestige and was spread far beyond Arabia with the Islamic conquests. This variety was codified and standardized by Arab grammarians, thus becoming Classical Arabic (فصحى التراث).

It is tempting to believe that all modern dialects of Arabic descend directly from Classical Arabic, each diverging in its own way. However, there is evidence that this is not the case.

As the Arabs suddenly became a highly mobile population, with various dialects coming into close contact with one another after having previously been separated, the need arose for a single unified dialect for inter-communication. Interestingly, it appears that this need wasn’t fulfilled by Classical Arabic, but rather by an unwritten Arabic koine dialect. This koine is the ancestor of almost all modern Arabic dialects, according to sociolinguist Charles A. Ferguson (1959).

His essential argument is that nearly all modern Arabic dialects have many features in common with each other, but none of which are shared with Classical Arabic. Therefore they must not have each descended individually from Classical Arabic, but rather from a unified conversational dialect. I will explore some of these shared features in later posts.

Newly conquered lands were slow to adopt Arabic as the daily spoken language. Local languages held on for a while, and in some places they’re still holding on. These local languages had a significant influence on how Arabic came to be spoken in the countries where it was adopted. Levantine Arabic shows significant influence from Aramaic, and Egyptian Arabic has traces of Coptic, and Maghreb dialects are strongly influence by Berber languages, and so on. Some of the details of how Arabic has been influenced by substrata will explored in later posts.

Modern Arabics:

Mass literacy came to the Arab world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As sophisticated literary works became more accessible to the wider public, Classical Arabic began reasserting its influence on colloquial dialects. But words that were recently borrowed from Classical Arabic tend to follow different, more conservative rules of pronunciation than words that already existed in the dialects. For this reason it is important to be aware of the distinction between basilect words and classicisms. These two terms will be used frequently throughout this blog.

At the same time, local dialects and foreign languages also left their mark on Classical Arabic, creating Modern Standard Arabic (فصحى العصر). While it is not the main purpose for this blog, I intend to explore some of the differences between Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic.

If all of this seems complicated, that’s because it is. But that’s what makes it so interesting!