LINGUIST List 7.1285

Sat Sep 14 1996

Sum: Variation in Mod.Std.Arabic pronunciation

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Mark Mandel, Summary: Variation in Mod.Std.Arabic pronunciation

Message 1: Summary: Variation in Mod.Std.Arabic pronunciation

Date: Fri, 13 Sep 1996 16:09:16 CDT
From: Mark Mandel <>
Subject: Summary: Variation in Mod.Std.Arabic pronunciation
On August 8 I asked:

What kinds of differences are there in Modern Standard Arabic as
spoken across the Arab world? I am aware of the scope of differences
between regional vernaculars; I am interested here in the acrolect.

I am more concerned with secular contexts than with religious ones. I
am interested in both written and (especially) spoken variation, in
such environments as newscasts and lectures. If MSA is used also in
more impromptu contexts, such as perhaps panel discussions, I would be
quite interested in them as well.

I would appreciate both direct information and pointers to printed or
Web sources. If there is interest, I will summarize responses for the

I posted a similar question to ARABIC-L and made local inquiries with
specialists as well as doing library research.

I received few answers. The following one from ARABIC-L, quoted in
full with the respondent's permission, seems to cover everything I
learned, and incidentally to explain the paucity of published data.


Date: 03 Sep 1996
From: ( Andrew Freeman)
Subject: MSA variation

> How much does Modern Standard Arabic vary across the Arabic-
> speaking world, especially in speech? I'm interested both in
> specifics and in overall impression.
> In seeking specifics, I have read through
> Mitchell's _Pronouncing Arabic_, vol. I (Egypt, with many
> remarks passim on other regions),
> Al-Ani's _Arabic Phonology: An acoustical and physical
> investigation_ (Iraq),
> the introductory material of Harrell's _Dictionary of Moroccan
> Arabic_,
> Snow's _Levantine Arabic: Introduction to Pronunciation_, and a
> number of other books and articles that I found less helpful for
> my purpose. I have found little explicit comparison beyond
> Mitchell's scattered remarks.

 Your question which probably seems innocent enough to you is
not easy to answer. Allow me to point out that Snow's book is not
about MSA but about the Levantine dialect. Although it is true
that Arabs learn MSA at an early age and are not per se bilingual,
any description of the Levantine dialect done in a precise way by
a linguist will not relate in any direct way to Modern Standard

 For the most part Modern Standard Arabic is not used in
spontaneous speech situations. In situations where a person has a
prepared text in front of him/her, and keeps his/her remarks
within the framewaork of the prepared text there is very little
regional difference between what a reasonably educated speaker
would produce as Modern Standard Arabic. As the remarks stray
from the prepared text, so will the remarks also stray from Modern
Standard Arabic. Some interviewers on TV and the radio are very
skilled at staying in MSA for an entire interview. This form of
the language is remarkably similar in all parts of the Arabic
speaking world (including Dearborn, Michigan). The interviewee
will start negating in dialect pretty early on, and by the end of
a longer remark will probably be speaking almost entirely in
dialect. King Hussein of Jordan can stay in MSA for an entire
interview. Arafat doesn't even try, but he will read his speeches
in pretty high FuSHA.

 In informal situations between peers, MSA is not used at all.
What people use is their regional dialect specific to their class,
religion and profession. There is also the phenomenon of local
prestige dialects, such as Cairene in Egypt and Qudsi in
Palestine. However, I have personally observed at a dinner party
Cairenes, Palestinians from Ramallah, Baghdadis and Jordanians
from Amman speaking to each other in their own dialects without as
far as I could tell adjusting their speech for anybody else in the
room. As far as I could tell I was the only person who was having
a hard time following the long involved anecdotes and dinner party
stories. However in the USA these "dialects" are taught as if
they were seperate languages from MSA and from each other. No
courseware, grammar or textbook which exists in the US directly
addresses this phenomenon in an adequate manner. I have heard
cases of Americans going to the Middle East not knowing that
people didn't speak MSA and becoming so disillusioned that they
gave up entirely on studying Arabic.

 Mark A. Mandel :
 Dragon Systems, Inc. : speech recognition : +1 617 965-5200
 320 Nevada St., Newton, MA 02160, USA :
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