Grammatical Reductions in Colloquial Arabic

Matthew Chriswood

New Member
Danish - Denmark
Hello!

Now, I realise that the differences between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Colloquial Arabic (CA) have been discussed here a million times before and I have read a lot of the forum entries myself. However, there is something that I am not certain of and that I was unable to find a forum entry on, which is why I am posting this now.
As I have understood it there are multiple variants of spoken Arabic depending on the region. Some are mutually intelligible (e.g. Egyptian and Lebanese) and some are not (e.g. Algerian and Yemeni). On the other hand there is only one written form of Arabic, namely MSA. This all makes sense to me thanks to the people who have posted entries about it earlier.

What I do not understand is how the grammatical reductions in CA influence the native speakers' ability to write in their language as there is only one written form, MSA. It seems like the grammar of MSA is a whole lot more complicated than that of CA, e.g. Egyptian Arabic. For instance, the verb forms are simplified and case endings are ignored. It also seems like the dual form of nouns tends to be left out in the colloquial variants of Arabic.

My question is this: How do native speakers know how to properly write in their language if the variant of Arabic they speak is so different from the written form (with regards to both grammar and general pronunciation)? Are they taught in school how to use case endings and how to conjugate a given verb into all of its tenses, moods, and voices? It seems to me like these things are required in written Arabic (MSA) but are not generally used in CA.

I hope I made myself clear; any help would be greatly appreciated as this has confused me quite a lot.
 
  • cherine

    Moderator
    Arabic (Egypt).
    Hi,

    We do write in our dialects, but we usually write words the way we pronounce them. This is why you'll find many hard-to-read or almost unreadable words in forums, youtube, twitter and facebook comments...etc. But regarding writing in fuS7a/MSA/Standard Arabic, we learn it at school, along with grammar (conjugation, morphology, parcing....).

    By the way, dual form of nouns is used in dialects; it's the dual of verbs that is not (unless there's a dialect that uses it that I'm unaware of). Some other forms of case endings are also used in dialects (like the tanween).
     

    Matthew Chriswood

    New Member
    Danish - Denmark
    Interesting; thank you for your reply. So does that mean that when you have to write in formal Arabic (MSA/ Fus7a), for instance when writing outside of forums, comment sections, informal settings, etc., you have to include a lot more grammar than you are used to in your native dialect? In other words: when someone like me finds a, say, article on Wikipedia written in Arabic the text is going to contain all the grammatical features of MSA, e.g. case endings, dual forms of verbs, and so forth? Is it not then very difficult for you native speakers to learn how to write in formal Arabic (MSA)?
     

    cherine

    Moderator
    Arabic (Egypt).
    It is not difficult because we learn it at young age (6, 7 years old). Texts written in Standard Arabic should have correct grammar, but unfortunately there's no garantee for this. If you read more threads in the forum, you'll see how many typos and grammatical mistakes are made by writers and journalists everywhere in the Arabic world. My explanation for this is the dicrease in the education level. But those who've received good education, read a lot and write as often as possible don't make mistakes or very few of them.
    For case endings, we don't write them all. Actually, we don't write the short vowels/tashkil/7arakaat/diacritical marks unless necessary for disambiguation. You will also find a couple of threads about fully vowelized texts and or use of vowelization.
     

    Matthew Chriswood

    New Member
    Danish - Denmark
    I see. So does that mean everyone who is fully capable of writing in Fus7a/MSA is also capable of speaking MSA fluently? Because I have heard that a lot of native Arabic speakers who know how to write formal, proper Arabic (MSA) only passively understand spoken MSA, i.e. they can understand it on the news but do not speak it. Does this assumption hold any truth? And if so, how can one be capable of writing in a certain language but not be able to speak it?

    Sorry for all the questions but this is very different from what I am used to in, for instance, English where the grammar of the colloquial language is a lot like that of the formal language.
     

    cherine

    Moderator
    Arabic (Egypt).
    There are previous discussions about this, but in short: speaking a language is a different skill from writing it. I manage fine with writing English, but I don't speak it with the same confidence I have when speaking other languages. Educated speakers can read and write without problem, but the fact that speaking needs practice and the other fact that almost no one speaks in Standard Arabic (except in limited situations) make it hard even for the educated one to speak it properly without mistakes.
     

    emanko

    Senior Member
    Arabic- Egyptian
    I see. So does that mean everyone who is fully capable of writing in Fus7a/MSA is also capable of speaking MSA fluently? Because I have heard that a lot of native Arabic speakers who know how to write formal, proper Arabic (MSA) only passively understand spoken MSA, i.e. they can understand it on the news but do not speak it. Does this assumption hold any truth? And if so, how can one be capable of writing in a certain language but not be able to speak it?

    Sorry for all the questions but this is very different from what I am used to in, for instance, English where the grammar of the colloquial language is a lot like that of the formal language.

    You don't have to apologize for asking. We're all here to help each other :)

    1- We as Egyptians learn colloquial Arabic since the age of 0 days, but we start learning about MSA at the age of 4 (KG).
    2- MSA vowel system is complex, so we have written long vowels but short vowels are represented by tashkeel (parcing) and are rarely written. In fact, it's said that back in the old days (centuries ago) , it was considered a shame to need parcing to be able to read Arabic.
    3- To speak correct MSA, you have to be careful about your word endings. Most probably, they will end in the short vowels a- i -u.
    4- And because in the Egyptian dialect, we don't need to add these suffixes, speaking in MSA requires some effort because we have to think about the suffixes. And these suffixes are not added haphazardly. There are rules. For example, subjects (singular nouns) receive an "u" and objects receive an "a"..etc.
    5- If you manage to practice using tashkeel a lot, you will be able to speak MSA fluently. However, that's not the case for a lot of Arab speakers.

    I hope this helps.
     

    Matthew Chriswood

    New Member
    Danish - Denmark
    However, that's not the case for a lot of Arab speakers.

    Interesting, thank you for your response. So would you say that MSA does not function as the lingua franca of the Middle East? That is at least what I have heard a lot online in other forums. If that is the case then what do you do when you talk to someone from Algeria or Iraq? Do you use another language, e.g. English, or do you simplify/ modify your own speech?

    I was also wondering about another thing: what dialects are mutually intelligible to Egyptian Arabic (if any)? Levantine? Gulf Arabic?
     

    cherine

    Moderator
    Arabic (Egypt).
    Do you use another language, e.g. English, or do you simplify/ modify your own speech?
    Unfortunately, MSA is not the lingua franca because no one (or almost no one) speaks it fluently and easily. We read it, we understand it, but we don't really speak it. So yes, we either use another language, English or French, and/or we simplify our speech: speak slower, avoid very local colloquialisms...etc. But also with some mixing of the commonly known/used MSA words and expressions.
    I was also wondering about another thing: what dialects are mutually intelligible to Egyptian Arabic (if any)? Levantine? Gulf Arabic?
    Levantine is more common and easy for us, especially in the last few years with the increased number of popular Turkish (and maybe also Indian?) series dubbed in Levantine. Gulf Arabic is easier for those of us who've lived in the Gulf.
     

    analeeh

    Senior Member
    English - UK
    Yeah, MSA is often sold to students as the 'lingua franca', but as Cherine says, this simply isn't true. Even those who can and do speak MSA sometimes (professors, etc) are unlikely to use it to communicate with, say, a taxi driver outside their own dialect area, though you might end up resorting to maal if, say, maSaari and then even fuluus fail to get a result.

    The impression I get from mixing with lots of Arabs outside their own country is that if they've been there for a while they tend to start adapting to the local dialect significantly, without actually making an effort to speak it as though it were another language. What I mean is that they keep lots of features of their own dialect but also introduce other dialectalisms - Syrians living in Egypt might say gibt in one sentence and then jib@t in the next, or say doolaab for cupboard (which is what it means in Egypt) but also for wheel (which is what it means in Syria). In less fixed circumstances people seem to default to Egyptian.
     

    badde

    Member
    American English
    Here are my two cents as a non-native.

    I have some examples of how Arabs from different parts of Arabia talk when one of their dialects is somewhat unintelligible to the other party. These are examples I've come across while learning Arabic myself.

    All of my examples involve Levantine.

    In a Soula interview, Assala is a native speaker of Syrian (Levantine) and Mona Amarsha is a native speaker of Maghrebi. Levantine is the more popular dialect, so the speaker of the less popular dialect will adjust their speech. In the interview, Mona Amarsha, the native speaker of Maghrebi Arabic, "Levantinizes" her speech to make herself understood. She uses Levantine words and expressions that I assume aren't used in her native dialect. She mixes them with Maghrebi words (that aren't obscure). She says so herself at one point.

    In a Mouzika interview, Viviane Mrad, a Lebanese pop singer, is being interviewed on a Maghrebi (Tunisian) radio show. When she has trouble understanding a word, the interviewer gives her the fuS7a equivalent.

    In a Melody interview, Elissa, a Lebanese pop singer, is being interviewed by an Egyptian interviewer. At one point she doesn't understand an expression, so the interviewer paraphrases the meaning using different Egyptian words.

    Here, a native speaker of Maghrebi doesn't understand lyrics in Egyptian, so they ask for the English meaning of the lyrics. (I think this was before all the lyrics websites that are around these days.)

    And this, in my experience, is how Arabs talk.

    They:

    1) speak a "watered down" version of their own dialect

    2) adjust to the more popular dialect, eg. Egyptian or Levantine, or whichever one is more widely understood

    3) paraphrase the expression in their own native dialect

    4) give the fuS7a equivalent

    5) give the English/French word

    But they usually manage to each talk in their own native dialect. One person talks in Egyptian, the other answers in their own native dialect, and vice versa. Or they use a slightly "watered down" version of their own native dialect, so as to meet their interlocutor in the middle. Only when they don't understand a word or expression do they "adjust" their speech in one of the above ways.

    Now, I'm not sure if this is reflective of conversations "on the street", but it's what I've gathered from watching interviews with various Arab artists and reading forum posts written in the dialects.

    I do remember seeing a clip from a Lebanese (I think) TV show where Arabs from different parts of Arabia can't understand eachother and laughs ensue. I can't remember which show it was, though, so I don't know what to google. Does anyone know which one I mean?

    EDIT: I was asked to remove the YouTube links, so you'll have to google these interviews if you're interested.
     
    Last edited:

    emanko

    Senior Member
    Arabic- Egyptian
    If that is the case then what do you do when you talk to someone from Algeria or Iraq? Do you use another language, e.g. English, or do you simplify/ modify your own speech?

    I was also wondering about another thing: what dialects are mutually intelligible to Egyptian Arabic (if any)? Levantine? Gulf Arabic?

    I agree with badde; when we talk with someone who has a different dialect, we mostly use our dialect and in case there's any misunderstanding, we use fussha or paraphrasing. Please note that a lot of Arab speakers don't know good English, so I doubt that English is an option in most cases.

    I agree with Cherine on that the media really helped a lot. A few years ago before the spread of Turkish dramas dubbed in Syrian, it was hard for us Egyptians to understand the Leventine dialect. But slowly, the dialect became fully intelligible by many of us, especially those who watch Turkish dramas. And bit by bit, more dialects have been introduced in media, such as Gulf and Maghribi. Gulf is easier and more common in media than Maghrebi. And of course, Egyptian is intelligible for almost everyone due to the spread of Egyptian media since the 1940s.

    What makes it easy for us to understand someone with a different dialect is that it's the same language, but we sometimes use different vocab., grammar or pronunciation.
    Check out the following simple sentence:
    I want to buy a car.
    Fussha: oridu an ashtari sayyara
    Egyptian: awza ashtiri arabeyya
    Leventine: baddi ishtiri siyyara
    Gulf: abgha eshtiri sayyara

    You can see of course the resemblance. And also, "awza" and "abgha" have their Fussha roots, so they are not far away from Fussha. Probably, "baddi" is a bit distorted. I don't know it's origin.
     

    elroy

    Imperfect mod
    US English, Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    "baddi" is a bit distorted. I don't know it's origin.
    It comes from بِوِدّي; you're right, it's not as transparent as عاوزة and أبغى. But I feel like any non-Levantine speaker who knows anything at all about Levantine knows this word. ;)
     

    Hemza

    Senior Member
    French, Mor/Hijz Arabic (heritage)
    I don't know if it's useful but I would like to share my experience, as an Arab who was born and raised in France and whose native language is French and the dialects of Arabic I'm used to speak, are Moroccan and to a much lesser extent, Hijazi (not perfectly but enough to be able to communicate easily).

    I study Arabic and English and I have friends from many Arab countries (my university welcomes a looot of foreign students). My closest friends are two Egyptians and I have Palestinian friends too. I talk with all of them in Moroccan, they reply in their own dialect. At first (two years ago), we both had hard time to understand each other (except one Egyptian who was often around Algerians thus he understands me with no problem). I couldn't understand easily Egyptians especially, they were talking really fast for me and use some words I didn't know and although they knew I'm not really a native Arabic speaker and I'm not Egyptian, they made few efforts to make it understandable for me while I was avoiding using some words in Moroccan they wouldn't be able to understand (or teach them sometimes). Today, I understand them with no problem (Egyptians and Palestinians) as well as they do.

    I think it's just a matter of getting used to other's accents and dialects. More you're exposed and more you understand.

    What makes it easy for us to understand someone with a different dialect is that it's the same language, but we sometimes use different vocab., grammar or pronunciation.
    Check out the following simple sentence:
    I want to buy a car.
    Fussha: oridu an ashtari sayyara
    Egyptian: awza ashtiri arabeyya
    Leventine: baddi ishtiri siyyara
    Gulf: abgha eshtiri sayyara

    I totally agree with what you said and if you allow me, these are the expressions used in the Maghreb:

    Moroccan: nibghi/bghit nishri tomobil/siyyara
    Algerian: n7ebb/7ebbit nishri l'auto/siyyara
    Tunisian: n7ebb/7ebbit nishri kerhaba
    Libyan: nibbi nishri siyyara
    I don't know how they would say in Mauritania, I think they also use "نبغي/بغيت"
    Hijazi: abgha ashtari sayyara

    About "biddi", I think in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, some people say "widdi".

    You can easily guess the roots of each verb even though the words differs according to the dialect.
     
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