The Many Sides of Arabic

September 1, 2022
Adam Sedia

“Translate this into Arabic,” might be a customer’s request, but it is not as easy as it sounds. The name “Arabic” gives a deceptive impression that it is a single language, but in reality it is best thought of as a family of languages.

The official Arabic used internationally – the language of literature, academia, and mass media – is Modern Standard Arabic – also known as Quranic Arabic. That is, it is the Arabic that is used in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, originally delivered orally by Mohammed, Islam’s founder, in the seventh century.

Except Modern Standard Arabic is a dead language. Nobody grows up speaking it, and while it is used at business meetings and official events, nobody speaks it at home or on the street. Instead, each Arabic-speaking region has its own version of Arabic. In the Gulf States like Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, Gulf Arabic is spoken. In Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, Levantine Arabic is spoken. Egypt has its own version of Arabic, heavily influenced by Coptic, the now-extinct descendent of the Ancient Egyptian language. And Morocco has Maghrebi Arabic, heavily influenced by the Berber language, which is still spoken.

All of these different versions of Arabic are not mere dialects, but properly understood as separate languages. They often lack mutual intelligibility and have vastly different common words. For example, “nose” in Modern Standard Arabic is ‘anf. In Gulf Arabic it is khashem. And in Egyptian Arabic it is marakheer. These words bear no resemblance to each other at all.

In this respect, the Arabic-speaking world resembles Europe a thousand years ago. At that time, Latin was the official language of the public sphere, but it was dead. The descendants of Latin that were becoming Italian, Spanish, French, and others, were each different languages and all different from Latin, but did not develop their own identities as languages yet. Modern Standard Arabic has the role in the Middle East that Latin once had in Europe, and all the other Arabic languages are really separate languages, just without the prestige that Italian, French, and Spanish have acquired.

When translating or interpreting Arabic, understanding this important feature makes the difference between success and an embarrassing failure. What is the nature of the task? Is it an official task appropriate for Modern Standard Arabic, or everyday speech? If the latter, what region is the speaker or the writing from? Getting the wrong regional Arabic is no different from sending a Spanish speaker to interpret a French speaker. UNIDA TRANSLATION is a professional translation company that understands these important linguistic differences and can arrange services appropriate for each language.

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