How Arabic Speakers From Different Countries Understand Each Other
- Written byDonovan Nagel
- Read time2 mins
I received an email recently from a subscriber who shared a video interview with me from Alexander Arguelles’ YouTube channel on the Arabic language.
Professor Arguelles is an American professor working somewhere in Emirates and he seems to speak fluent MSA (Modern Standard Arabic).
The interview was between him, an Algerian woman and a Syrian woman (who I assume are his coworkers).
In the video, they talked briefly about spoken dialect differences, Modern Standard Arabic and something that Arabic speakers call “white language”.
I explain in the video above what this term means.
What is Arabic ‘white language’ and is it useful to learners of Arabic?
‘White language’ is basically when native Arabic speakers change their speech to be closer to MSA in order to be understood by speakers from a very different geographical region (e.g. Algeria and Syria).
The spoken dialects of these two countries are vastly different (see TalkInArabic.com for samples of these differences – or read this review) and present challenges for mutual comprehension between speakers.
So native speakers will use an adaptation of Modern Standard Arabic which they refer to as ‘white language’ in order to be universally understood.
It’s not 100% MSA strictly speaking but it’s like a blend of their own colloquial language and accent with MSA.
Speakers who are geographically and linguistically closer (e.g. Egyptians and Palestinians) generally do not need to do this.
This is not a creole or a separate language of its own – just an adjustment in speaking style much the same way that an Australian will adjust words and expressions to be understood by Americans in English.
Since it’s not a language separate to colloquial dialects and MSA, it’s not something you can buy a textbook on and learn how to speak (Arguelles raises this question in the interview).
As for whether or not a student should learn MSA or a spoken dialect first, I still say that in most cases the answer is a spoken dialect.
Nobody anywhere speaks MSA as a native language (read more here).
You might also like to see this list of Arabic girl names we put together which tend to be used across the Arabic-speaking world, and compare accent variations geographically.
What are your thoughts? Comment below.
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Might be a good idea to give respondants the option to indicate their interest in/fluency in more than one language.
I’ve been (alas no more) fluent in five languages (English, French, German, Russian and Hebrew and somewhat knowledgeble in a few more (Yiddish and a touch of Turkish).
I find written Spanish fairly easy to understand too.
Though it depends on the person’s type of language learning skills, I agree it’s best to focus on learning one language at a time - at least, for starters.
Past a point, if I don’t have the opportunity to use them actively (immersion style, for me it comes to kind of method acting) I find myself mixing up vocab and accents.
PS I’m having a lot of fun watching fairly recent Israel series and movies, especially Fauda and Shtisel. Drives me nuts, though, if I can’t vary the subtitle font size and location.
My goal of course is to manage entirely without subtitles (not counting Arabicn- unlike you as it’s not one of mine) but depending on the clarity of the audio language - mumbling, speed and slang are big negatives) I try to vary the size of subtitles so I can gradually approach the no subtitles level.
Too bad some of the Israeli shows are so trashy, but I’m still relying on them by default despite the low level of artistry.
So I guess it is something like Globish?
Definitely a similar concept but from what I know of Globish, it’s mostly a lexically “thin” version of English (i.e. replacing complex terms and expressions with simpler alternatives, albeit still in English).
Arabic white language is different in that it’s a local dialect speaker using what many regard as a separate language (MSA).
Why do they call this “white language”?
I honestly don’t know the origin of the name ‘white language’ or why they call it that. Maybe something to do with plainness?