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A Guide to Spoken Arabic
Spoken Arabic refers to any of the Arabic dialects (or varieties or vernacular languages) that Arabic speakers speak natively. There are considerable variations from region to region, with degrees of mutual intelligibility (and some are mutually unintelligible). Many aspects of the variability attested to in these modern variants can be found in the ancient Arabic dialects in the peninsula. Likewise, many of the features that characterize (or distinguish) the various modern variants can be attributed to the original settler dialects. Some organizations, such as Ethnologue and the International Organization for Standardization, consider these approximately 30 different varieties to be different languages, while others, such as the Library of Congress, consider them all to be dialects of Arabic.
In terms of sociolinguistics, a major distinction exists between the formal standardized language, found mostly in writing or in prepared speech, and the widely diverging vernaculars, used for everyday speaking situations, which vary from country to country, from speaker to speaker (according to personal preferences, education and culture), and depending on the topic and situation. In other words, Arabic usually occurs, in its natural environment, in a situation of diglossia, which means that its native speakers often learn and use two linguistic forms substantially different from each other, the Modern Standard Arabic (often called MSA in English) as the official language and a local colloquial variety, in different aspects of their lives. It is a situation generally compared to the Latin language, which maintained a cultured variant and several vernacular versions for centuries, until it disappeared as a spoken language, while derived Romance languages became new languages, such as French, Castilian, Portuguese and Romanian. The regionally prevalent variety is learned as the speaker's first language while the formal language is subsequently learned in school. The formal language itself varies between its modern iteration, Modern Standard Arabic and the Classical Arabic that serves as its basis, though Arabic speakers typically do not make this distinction. While vernacular varieties differ substantially, Fus'ha (فصحى), the formal register, is standardized and universally understood by those literate in Arabic. Western scholars make a distinction between "Classical Arabic" and "Modern Standard Arabic," while speakers of Arabic generally do not consider CA and MSA to be different languages.
The largest differences between the classical/standard and the colloquial Arabic are the loss of grammatical case; a different and strict word order; the loss of the previous system of grammatical mood, along with the evolution of a new system; the loss of the inflected passive voice, except in a few relic varieties; restriction in the use of the dual number and (for most varieties) the loss of the feminine plural. Many Arabic dialects, Maghrebi Arabic in particular, also have significant vowel shifts and unusual consonant clusters. Unlike other dialect groups, in the Maghrebi Arabic group, first-person singular verbs begin with a n- (ن). Further substantial differences exist between Bedouin and sedentary speech, the countryside and major cities, ethnic groups, religious groups, social classes, men and women, and the young and the old. These differences are to some degree bridgeable. Often, Arabic speakers can adjust their speech in a variety of ways according to the context and to their intentions—for example, to speak with people from different regions, to demonstrate their level of education or to draw on the authority of the spoken language.
In terms of typology classification, Arabic dialectologists distinguish between two basic norms: Bedouin and Sedentary. This is a classification based on a set of phonological, morphological, and syntactic characteristics that distinguish between these two norms. However, it is not really possible to keep this classification, partly because the modern dialects, especially urban variants, are typically an amalgamation of features from both norms. Geographically, modern Arabic varieties are classified into five groups: Maghrebi, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Levantine and Peninsular Arabic. Speakers from distant areas, across national borders, within countries and even between cities and villages, can struggle to understand each other’s dialects.
The greatest variations between kinds of Arabic are those between regional language groups. Arabic dialectologists were formerly distinguished between just two groups: the Mashriqi (eastern) dialects, east of Libya which includes the dialects of Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, Levant, Egypt and Sudan; and the other group is the Maghrebi (western) dialects which includes the dialects of North Africa (Maghreb) west of Egypt. Within each of those two groups the mutual intelligibility is high but between those two groups the intelligibility is asymmetric in which the Maghrebi speakers are more likely to understand Mashriqi and not vice versa.
In the western parts of the Arab world, varieties are referred to as الدارجة ad-dārija, and in the eastern parts, as العامية al-ʿāmmiyya. Nearby varieties of Arabic are mostly mutually intelligible, but faraway varieties tend not to be. Varieties west of Egypt are particularly disparate, with Egyptian Arabic speakers claiming difficulty in understanding North African Arabic speakers, while North African Arabic speakers' ability to understand other Arabic speakers is mostly due to the widespread popularity of Egyptian Standard and to a lesser extent, the Levantine popular media, for example Syrian or Lebanese TV shows (this phenomenon is called asymmetric intelligibility). One factor in the differentiation of the varieties is the influence from other languages previously spoken or still presently spoken in the regions, such as Coptic in Egypt, French, Ottoman Turkish, Italian, Spanish, Berber, Punic or Phoenician in North Africa and the Levant, Himyaritic, Modern South Arabian and Old South Arabian in Yemen and Syriac Aramaic, Akkadian, Babylonian and Sumerian in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Speakers of mutually unintelligible varieties are often able to communicate by switching to Modern Standard Arabic.
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