What is Modern Standard Arabic?

Three months ago I wrote a post about whether Chinese is a language (a language vs. a family of languages). Now it’s time to ask a comparable question about Arabic: is it a language? It’s a comparable question because naive Westerners tend to refer to various Chinese languages as dialects, and we similarly refer to various versions of Arabic as dialects. That terminology turns out to be even less defensible in the case of Arabic than it is in the case of Chinese, but it’s so complex that I’m not going to try to straighten the whole thing out here. At least there are plenty of people in China who speak Modern Standard Mandarin as their native language, but there’s nobody who speaks Modern Standard Arabic as their native language — even though that’s what you’ll learn if you take Arabic in college! It’s as if you couldn’t take courses in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and so forth, but instead had to study nothing but Medieval Latin and then try to speak it in Spain, France, etc.

At least that’s what I gather from a wonderful article in Language Log published three days ago. (I have almost no knowledge of Arabic myself.) Read the article; there’s no point in my trying to paraphrase or summarize it. But if you think — as I used to think — that Moroccan Arabic and Egyptian Arabic are merely dialects of the same language, you will learn better. In today’s world it behooves us to know something about both Chinese and Arabic. I’ve studied a smidgen of Mandarin; am I too old to learn a smidgen of Arabic? No, never too old!


Categories: Linguistics