Should Dialects Replace Standard Arabic as Official National Languages?

Imagine that your government made your dialect the official language of your country (instead of MSA). It would have a new, standardized spelling system and grammar rules and be used in newspapers and books. What is your opinion?

This is part four in the series “Arabs Say…” featuring Arabic speakers from around the Arab world who gives their views on their language and how it is used today. Of course, we should keep in mind that these are personal views and do not represent the views of everyone in their countries. Still, we can learn a lot about the overall linguistic situation and some commonalities and regional differences.

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Responses

  1. I am not a native Arabic speaker, but when I was taught Arabic there was the constant discussion of whether or not they should stop teaching us MSA and just teach us dialects pertaining to the specific countries we would be working with. The main argument against this was that MSA is still the official languages of these countries and therefore it is still important. But, in my opinion, MSA is more important than the dialects as it provides the fundamental basis for learning Arabic and its subsequent dialects. I am currently trained in 5 different Arabic dialects, and I can honestly say that I would have found my learning much harder had I not been taught MSA. If dialects were made the official language of the respective countries the communication would become a lot more difficult, as where do you draw the line? Within countries there are numerous different regional dialects, so how do you choose the specific one to make official. At least with MSA being the official language, it simplifies communication between countries who may not speak the dialects, but it is also more holistic and unifies the country – especially seen as it is the language of the holy book. So, to make dialects the official language of their country would be, in my opinion, a mistake.

    1. Agreed. Children learn their dialects first and learn MSA later in school. Which is why I support learning Arabic that way versus attempting to learn MSA as a non native speaker first. But I do agree that MSA should be the standard in terms of official language. It unifies and simplifies all the Arabic speaking countries in a way regional dialects simply can’t. 

  2. There are cultural and more purely linguistic elements to this that it might be important to keep in mind.
    1. There is no such thing as a language that is objectively more beautiful than another. Some people may love Literary Arabic poetry, and that’s great, but that doesn’t mean it’s objectively beautiful. Someone might not really enjoy Literary Arabic poetry and that’s OK, too. It doesn’t mean Literary Arabic isn’t beautiful.
    2. What we think of as smart or official or professional language is just a matter of our ideas. People already speak in dialectal Arabic in more formal/educated situations. Just because they might use a word or five from MSA doesn’t mean they’re speaking MSA (70% of English vocabulary, especially in the sciences and abstract concepts, is from Norman French, but we don’t say we’re speaking French) and using their dialect doesn’t mean they forget or don’t have access to scientific words (look how much Latin and Greek in used in scientific vocabulary in Indo-European languages).
    3. Every standardized human language starts out unstandardized and becomes standardized over time, but that “standard” is a moving target, because all living languages change and evolve and, to a degree, aren’t controllable. Only dead languages stay the same.
    4. The fact of the matter is MSA is nobody’s native language. The fact that nobody natively uses MSA in extended spontaneous speech is not a small thing.
    5. Hundreds of years ago people said that Latin was the only Romance language worth writing and we couldn’t write the “dialects” because they were uneducated languages that didn’t sound smart or beautiful, but eventually the reality that nobody spoke Latin natively won, and we have French and Spanish and Portuguese, etc. Nobody has forgotten that those languages came from Latin, and you can even say Latin is “alive” in those languages today, but in a different form (and the Catholic church still uses Latin).
    6. There’s a good chance the modern dialects didn’t come from Literary Arabic but from a sister form of Arabic with many similarities but also many differences.
    7. There are already a lot of cultural differences within what’s considered the Arab world, and the reality is people live their lives in their dialects, making them standard or official won’t really change the reality. The Arab world will be no more or less connected than it is now (people said Latin had to be maintained partly because of the church, but the reality was people didn’t speak Latin in their daily lives. Now people speak Latin based languages that are different languages but the church lives on).
    8. A lot of the dialects have a lot of similarities already, such that you can understand a lot of what’s being said in a neighboring without studying MSA at all. I speak Levantine Arabic, a lot of my friends are Saudi, I talk to Egyptians on Twitter…most of the time we understand each other just fine.
    9. I think a lot of this ignores the fact that there’s a kind of unofficial standardization happening already among people who write in Arabic dialects on social media, etc.

    These are just some of my observations as someone who speaks (one version of) Arabic and whose academic field is linguistics and language teaching. Of course language belongs to the people who use it natively, but we have to be careful not to confuse what we feel about our language with what’s objectively true (and what we see happening around us). No language is unique, no language is special, they all change and evolve and, if they don’t, it means they are dead.

  3. Well said. Totally agree especially with some points mentioned above: “Forgetting Literary Arabic means forgetting our Islamic religion because the sources of Islam are Quran and Sunnah, and these sources are written in Literary Arabic, so if we need to understand Islam, we have to know Literary Arabic.”

  4. I am not from the Arabic speaking world, but I am currently learning the Tunisian dialect. I think in Tunisia’s case, there are good reasons to make Tunsi the official language, as Derja is already very different from standard Arabic. Many other Arabic speakers find it harder to understand the Tunisian dialect. I also believe language carries culture and identity too, and I’ve noticed with the Tunisian dialect there are big linguistic influences from Berber, Carthaginian, Italian, Amazigh, Maltese and Turkish languages. I remember teaching a group of Syrians once, and when I mentioned that I’m learning Derja, they emphatically responded by saying ‘no no no – you should learn standard Arabic’. For me, learning/speaking Tunsi helps me assimilate and integrate into the society far more than if I spoke MSA. I understand that this may not be the case in other Arabic speaking countries where the dialect has more in common with standard Arabic. I also see the communicative advantage of using one standard form across all nations. I imagine replacing MSA with the local dialect could be challenging to implement and may take a while to establish, but I believe it can be done; and in some cases socially and culturally it makes sense.

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