What’s the Difference between a Dialect and a Language?: Arabic Edition…


This was originally an aside in an intended post that nonetheless will appear at some point in the future.  But I felt like it deserved a post of it’s own.

A friend of mine in this program speaks Portuguese. I speak Spanish.  When we want to talk about something we don’t other people to know about, we speak these languages to each other.  Granted for whatever reason, Portuguese is a bit grating to my ear, over the course of time I have gotten used to it… a little. I understand her and she understands me (my friend that is, not the Portuguese language). My point being that their  (i.e. Spanish and Portuguese) roots in Latin enable me to decipher what my friend is saying and  she me.

I’ve heard it said that the difference between a language and a dialect is that languages have armies, as I end my formal education in relation to Arabic language I am all the more struck by how true that is.

As I reflect on how far my understanding of the Moroccan dialect has come, much like I did with the Egyptian dialect, I feel that the entire experience is more akin to learning a new language than it is to just acquiring another dialect.  Wait, let me back track.

When I first started learning Arabic (yikes! 10 years ago) I learned Modern Standard Arabic, it’s like Mandarin Chinese (I hope this analogy is a fair one), the standard form of the language.  In the Arab world, Modern Standard is the Arabic that for the most part, books (fiction and non-fiction) are written in, it’s the Arabic you hear on the news and that you read in the newspapers and Magazines.  It’s a language that is spoken daily, but not on the streets.

That is where the dialects come in.  Every country, and even sub-regions within countries have their own dialect of Arabic.  Each dialect has been affected by the historical, geographical and cultural circumstances specific to that region.  For example, Egyptian dialect in terms of sentence structure and even some of it’s words, is highly influenced by the ancient pharaonic language, that is to say that, when Arabs invaded North Africa, they brought their language with them.  Egyptians (Much like the Phoenicians in the Levant—Lebanon, Syria, Palestine etc. and the Amazigh in the rest of North Africa) didn’t completely do away with their native tongue.  I think of it as each region speaking Arabic with it’s own accent and local color.

If you want to communicate with people in everyday life in the Arab world you are better off learning a dialect.  Even if you are understood (and for the most part you will be) people in a lot of places will think of you as weird.  In Egypt, you will be laughed at… ha, ha.  😦

But back to the point of this post, Are these different Arabics really different languages? Or are they just dialects?   On the one hand, Once you understand how the language changes from Modern Standard to a particular dialect, it get’s easier to apply that knowledge to the context of another dialect.  Take me for instance, it took a full calendar year to get to Advanced level understanding of the Syrian dialect, about 9 months to get to near native understanding of Egyptian and now, about 2.5 months  to get to somewhere between advanced and near-native Moroccan… (only test results will tell).

Sometimes it feels like the similarities between dialects start and finish with the Arabic Alphabet…

Some things in grammar are pretty much the same, a lot of sayings and proverbs are the same or very similar.  For Example, in Egyptian Arabic, if you want to say that the old dog was up to his old tricks again, you could say

رجعت ريمة لعداتها القديمة (Rima went back to her old habits) but in Moroccan Arabic you say

رجعت حليمة لعداتها القديمة (Halim went back to her old habits)

Not much change here.

But like I said, these dialects are highly influenced by the culture and language of the local inhabitants.  In the case of Moroccan dialect, intonation and pronunciation are clearly the vestiges of the influence of the Berber (Amazigh) dialect.  This is why even though many of the words in Moroccan dialect are actually Modern standard words, many Arabs from other countries don’t understand when Moroccans are talking (I have literally seen Arabic-language programming where Moroccan callers/commentators/contestants are subtitled!…. same language?  I think not).

That is why, after 2 years of learning different dialects, and getting better at being able to differentiate between them, I am basking in my effort to learning/trying to master a new language.

The state I have been in since I started learning these dialects…. sigh.

Yes, that it precisely what I consider the Arabic dialects that I have earned to be: Languages.  They have about as much in common as French and Spanish have with each other, and yet someone gets credit for being a poly-glot because they mastered 2, 3 or 4 Romance languages and I don’t because I technically know  only Arabic…. Sigh. It is indeed a strange state of affairs.

My experience learning Moroccan Arabic this summer, makes me recall my one-month intensive Catalan language program that I did in 2008.  I had the same wrinkles in my forehead as I tried to remember the slight differences, the big differences and the similarities between the two languages.  Despite the fact that a very good point could be made that Catalan and Spanish are probably more similar than Moroccan and Egyptian.  Despite that after one month, I pretty much understood Catalan and regarded it (mentally) as just Spanish with a different accent, while it would be pretty hard to do that with Moroccan and Egyptian, One of these pairs is a pair of languages and the other is not.

So yes, I indulged in a little first world problems mindset today… (how come Katy gets to say that she speaks 5 languages and I can’t?) But my point, I think still stands).  Questions of Arab unity aside, different Arabic dialects are not like the differences between British, American and Australian English.  They have their own rules, verb conjugations, sentence structures you name it.   Are Arabic dialects different languages? Or not?

One thought on “What’s the Difference between a Dialect and a Language?: Arabic Edition…

  1. Daph

    Just to add my two cents i.e. a more formal linguistic explanation to your larger question, every language is a dialect. Languages are dialects that have gone through a process of selection, grammar, codification and elaboration. Languages are dominant dialects chosen by a a group of people–usually elitists governing the group. A chosen dialect/language is more of a fundamental sociopolitical beast that is a part of defining a culture’s identity and nationality. In other words, embrace the differences in the various Arabic “languages”; they are basically glorified dialects.

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