Hal tatakallam al-lughah al-‘arabīyah? On linguistic diversity in the Middle East and North Africa

If there is anything that stands out about the Middle East then it must be it’s diversity. Talking about ‘the Middle East’ as if it is one monolithic bloc conceals a wide variety of religions, ethnicities and languages.

Linguistically in sheer amount of numbers, Arabic stands out. 290 million people worldwide have Arabic as their native language, and many of them live in the MENA area. Modern Standard Arabic or MSA is the official language of most countries in the region, used for official correspondence, newspapers and other written materials. But the foreign student of MSA who has devoted his or her university time to mastering Arabic will be disappointed as soon as arriving on the spot. Yes, you might be able to read the road signs, but as soon as locals open their mouth you will be at odds. With all your years of study you are still able to understand the local population..

Arabic is divided in many different dialects, and these are not at all mutually intelligible. Although Arabs from neighbouring countries can usually communicate in Arabic the further away geographically speaking, the more difficult it gets. And it does get difficult pretty quickly: two friends from Algeria and Egypt, geographically not exactly on different edges of the Arabic-speaking world, prefer to communicate in English as the poor Egyptian guy cannot understand the Algerian-Arabic, which is heavily influenced by French! Indeed, these dialects could as well have been languages on their own.

Although Arabic is the most widely spoken language in the area, it is by no means the only language, not even in those countries that are considered ‘Arabic’.  In Morocco and Algeria for example, a large minority speaks Berber instead of Arabic. Although Algeria has Arabic as its official language, Berber is also recognized as a national language, used for official correspondence in Berber-speaking parts of the country. In Morocco too, Berber is recognized as an official language. And to make things more complicated: like Arabic, Berber is divided into dialects. Morocco alone has three different dialects. Kurdish dialects, like Berber, are spoken by a large ethno-linguistic minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In Iraq it is recognized as an official language, in all other countries Kurds usually face some sort of restrictions on the use of their language.

And as the example of Kurdish already indicates, the two main countries in the Middle East that have other languages than Arabic as their official language are by no means linguistically unified either. Although 85% of the Turkish population speaks Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish and a few dozen other minority languages are also spoken. Did you know Turkey is also home to the Abaza, Abkhaz, Adyge, Gagauz, Romani and Aramaic language communities, amongst many others? And next to the official language Persian there are also Iranians who speak Azeri, Luri, Mazandarani, Gilaki, Turkmen or Balochi. A patchwork of languages indeed!

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