Arabic is the fifth most-spoken language in the world. Modern Standard Arabic is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. 1.8 billion Muslims hear Classical Arabic as a liturgical language every day. But there are many different dialects of Arabic…
Which is the right variant to reach your audience?
It’s important to understand that Arabic dialects vary by region, by whether the language is being spoken or written and by where it is that you’re seeing it or hearing it.
In the past ten years or so, there’s also been a huge increase in the number of Arabic-speaking people who use the Internet. In fact, it’s been estimated that over 40% of Arabic speakers are online these days. Which is strange…
Because only somewhere in the region of 1% of the Internet’s entire content is in Arabic.
That’s a massive opportunity for many companies.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how to reach your audience by choosing the right variety of Arabic.
How many types of Arabic are there?
Arabic is spoken by more than 422 million people around the world. There are 30 modern types, including Modern Standard Arabic.
These varieties of Arabic can be spoken in places many hundreds or thousands of miles apart from each other. This means that a person speaking Arabic in North Africa might not necessarily be easy for a speaker of Gulf Arabic (one of the variants spoken on the Arabian Peninsula) to understand.
That’s not to say that Arabic is strictly defined by thirty geographical areas. Even in individual cities, villages and across national borders there is a great deal of variation.
But this is nothing compared to the differences between written and spoken Arabic…
Written vs. spoken Arabic – the differences
Spoken Arabic has many variants and dialects. Almost all written Arabic, on the other hand, is in the standardised register. This is usually referred to as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), Standard Arabic or Literary Arabic.
It’s most likely that a person will grow up speaking the variety that’s used in their part of the world and then learn Modern Standard Arabic at school. The two will be very different.
For an English native speaker, it’s easy enough to think of it like this:
Picture the difference between modern English and the kind of Old English you’d find in something like a Shakespearean play. Imagine if all written communication, formal writing and teaching happened in Old English. But everybody spoke their local colloquial modern English in daily conversation.
You might not necessarily be able to write in proper Old English or truly understand it either. But you can understand the language enough to comprehend the general meaning.
Modern Standard Arabic – the formal register
MSA is the language used for official documents and news as well as in literature and politics in the Arabic-speaking world. It’s also sometimes spoken in formal situations. It’s based on Classical Arabic, the language of Umayyad and Abbasid literature in the 7th to 9th centuries.
Unfortunately, various Western media sources around the world have the habit of translating the rhetoric from official publications in Arabic (obviously these are documents written in formal Modern Standard Arabic) as if they were the same words people used in daily conversation.
This is important. Because, regardless of someone’s region or dialect, the tone, rhetoric, diction and even general message of text in formal MSA is very unlikely to correlate with the language they would normally use.
You wouldn’t directly translate what you wanted to say in English into Latin and expect someone who translated it back again to receive exactly the same message. It’s the same sort of idea here.
The main groups of Arabic dialects” use_theme_fonts=”yes”]Technically, Arabic is what’s called a “macrolanguage” with 30 varieties. MSA is one of these, but something of a special one. The languages spoken in everyday life in the Arabic-speaking world are vernacular regional dialects of the official language.
Rarely do native speakers speak in Modern Standard Arabic. Equally, the 29 regional dialects remain essentially absent from formal written communication.
There is often a great deal of dialect overlap between neighbouring regions. If the regions they’re used in are close by, there’s also a greater likelihood that different Arabic dialects will be mutually intelligible.
Different Arabic varieties in the Arab world *
The main groups of variants include:
Maghrebi (sometimes called Western Arabic)
- Moroccan Arabic (الدارجة – darija)
- Tunisian Arabic ( الدارجة /تونسي – tūnsī/ derja)
- Algerian Arabic (دارجة – darja)
- Libyan Arabic ( ليبي – lībi)
- Hassaniya Arabic
- Saharan Arabic
The group of dialects spoken in the Maghreb region – usually said to include Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, the Western Sahara and Mauritania – are referred to as Derja, Derija or Darija by the people who speak them.
This dialect has been and continues to be influenced by other languages. These include the extinct African Latin, Old Arabic, French, Mozarabic, Italian, Spanish, Turkish and the languages of the Niger-Congo.
- Sudanese Arabic (سوداني – sūdānī)
- Chadian Arabic
- Juba Arabic (this pidgin language of South Sudan is influenced by a number of other local languages)
These are the Arabic language variants spoken in the Sudan and Eritrea. They are closely related to Egyptian Arabic and contain Nubian influences as well as retaining some archaic pronunciation forms.
Egyptian (sometimes called Masri or Masry)
- Egyptian Arabic (مصرى – maṣri)
- Sa’idi Arabic (صعيدى – ṣaʿīdi)
Coptic Egyptian was the predominant language of Egypt prior to the Muslim conquest of the region in the 7th century. Today’s Egyptian Arabic – sometimes simply called Egyptian – is heavily influenced by it.
This variant has its own dialects, notably Cairene Arabic, and is spoken by 64.5 million people. These can be found mainly in Egypt. However, you’ll also find them in the Middle East, Europe, Australia, South East Asia and Central and North America.
Egyptian Arabic is also widespread enough – in large part thanks to Egyptian cinema and the influence of Egypt within the region – that many North African Arabic speakers have become more familiar with it and, by extension, other forms of the language.
In the past, it was noted that speakers of North African Arabic would be more likely to struggle to comprehend speakers of other varieties and vice versa.
Arabian Peninsula (also called Peninsular Arabic or Southern Arabic)
- Bahrani Arabic
- Bareqi Arabic
- Gulf Arabic (خليجي – ḵalījī)
- Najdi Arabic (نجدي – najdi)
- Omani Arabic (عماني – ʿumāni)
- Hejazi Arabic (حجازي – ḥijāzi)
- Hadhrami Arabic (حضرمي – ḥaḍrami)
- Shihhi Arabic
- Dhofari Arabic
- Yemeni Arabic (يمني – yamani)
- Tihamiyya Arabic
As you might expect, the Arabian Peninsular is the home of the Arabic language. The dialects spoken here are the closest you’ll find to the Classical Arabic of ancient literature and there are a great many of what speakers from other regions might call more archaic-sounding features.
The countries in which you’ll find speakers of Peninsular Arabic include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Southern Iraq and the tribal people of Jordan.
Mesopotamian (sometimes called Iraqi Arabic)
- Mesopotamian Arabic
- North Mesopotamian Arabic (Moslawi/Qeltu)
Mesopotamian Arabic is spoken in parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran and South-eastern Turkey. Like many dialects of Arabic, Iraqi Arabic has a veritable smorgasbord of influences:
- The influence of the original lingua franca in the region up to the turn of the first millennium, Aramaic, can still be heard.
- As can Akkadian, Hindustani, Persian and Kurdish.
- Mongolian influences can also be heard thanks to the 13th-century invasion by Genghis Khan and his successors.
- Many sultans and emirs who ruled this part of the world were of Turkish descent at one time or another, resulting in Turkish influences in the prestige dialect in certain areas (the Mongol invaders also brought Turkish influences with them).
- Levantine Arabic (شامي – šāmi, there are North and South Levantine dialects)
- Syrian Arabic
- Cypriot Maronite Arabic
- Lebanese Arabic (لبناني – libnēni)
- Jordanian Arabic (أردني – urduni)
- Palestinian Arabic (فلسطيني – falasṭīni)
- Bedawi Arabic (بدوي – badawi/bdiwi)
Levantine Arabic is spoken along the coast of the Levantine Sea in countries such as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey.
It is one of Arabic’s major varieties and contains various dialects, spoken by a combined total of around 30 million people. It’s popularly used in various forms of media, resulting in the spread of its understanding to other parts of the Arabic-speaking world too.
This group of languages survives amongst Andalusian communities in North Africa but originally included dialects spoken on the Iberian Peninsula too. The Arabic chat alphabet – a.k.a. Arabish or Arabizi” use_theme_fonts=”yes”]
Not exactly a language as such, Arabizi is one of the popular names of a system for replacing Arabic words with Latin letters and Western Arabic numerals. It was the language which some Arabic speakers used online before mobile devices and computers supported Arabic letters.
As such, many people retain the habit of its use. It’s still particularly popular among many young Arabic-speakers in informal settings and when even modern technology fails to offer proper Arabic language support.
Targeting speakers of the Arabic chat alphabet can be a clever idea. Several large companies have carried out multinational advertising campaigns in the language in the past.
Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox have add-ons and Microsoft has a tool which convert between Arabic and Arabish.
The challenges of Arabic localisation” use_theme_fonts=”yes”]It’s easy to see how challenging all of this can make Arabic translation and interpreting. At least, how it might if you don’t have a native speaker from your target region involved in the process.
Arabic dialects can be readily translated because they use the same alphabet. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that a speaker of a different dialect could translate that text accurately.
If you’re trying to reach a specific Arabic audience, this can be a problem. Poor localisation results in high bounce rates from your online content and poor engagement with other materials.
Some of the main problems to overcome with Arabic translation are:
- The language’s complex sentence structure
- The, on average, long length of the sentences
- The fact that words can have multiple meanings
- That Machine Translation software can struggle with Arabic’s word order, grammatical relationships and complexity
The main goals, as with all effective localisation, should be to:
- Establish a clear parity of meaning and message between your source and target languages
- Be deeply familiar with and correctly use local cultural expressions
Arabic web design tips” use_theme_fonts=”yes”]When developing an Arabic version of your website, for example, it’s important to remember that:
- Technical aspects such as the domain names and URL structures you use will need careful thought
- Your page layout will be and should be different to your versions for other languages
- Remember that this is a right-to-left language when designing your web pages and apps
- You will need to develop an Arabic keyword list for your specific targeted region
- Hamza, the letter which represents a glottal stop, is not usually used in searches, a fact which should be borne in mind
As always, when translating high profile communications such as your website into Arabic or any other language, using automated translation software should be avoided at all costs.
This is because a translation is much more than just changing words from one language into another. It also involves understanding and interpreting the actual meaning and transmitting the important messages contained within your text. Arabic cultural differences you should bear in mind” use_theme_fonts=”yes”]Any recommendations which try to take into account so many different cultures spread over such a large region can verge on being generalisations.
That said, you’d still be wise to consider some of the following when localising your content for an Arabic audience:
- Sex, in fact, may not sell: particularly in the Gulf region, always veer towards conservatism.
- Avoid religious symbols: it’s generally good practice everywhere, but in Muslim majority countries especially, don’t use religious images or buildings in your advertising.
- Beware of language regulations: some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, have very specific laws regarding which languages or dialects can be used in both marketing and business. It’s always best to check with your local partner when it comes to this kind of law or expectation.
How to reach your audience with the right dialect of Arabic” use_theme_fonts=”yes”]
The Middle East and other parts of the Arabic-speaking world are increasingly becoming a focus of the world’s attention. They are also markets which represent significant opportunities for foreign businesses – especially given the lack of Arabic content on the Internet.
Some people say that the number of different distinct variants of Arabic lead to the possibility of miscommunication. But if you correctly target the region you have chosen, you’ll be in the position to enjoy the multicultural nature of the Arab world.
Do you need to know more about how to choose the right dialect of Arabic to reach your audience?
*Image by Rafy – Arab World-Large, CC BY 3.0