How Arabic Speakers From Different Countries Understand Each Other
- Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW
Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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.
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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