Mediterranean Languages Series : Arabic

Dear readers of the MedTimes, we are back with a brand new series, introducing the languages spoken in our beloved Rotaract Mediterranean. Naturally, we speak English during the meetings and also between the team, but our organization is home to many beautiful languages, and we wanted to take this opportunity and invite you to a linguistic journey. Today, we begin with some variations of the Arabic language, and we will go around the Mediterranean Sea in the upcoming weeks, covering all the languages spoken by the members of Rotaract Mediterranean.

With Arabic being the main spoken language in the Arab countries belonging to the Mediterranean area, the dialect dates back thousands of years, all the way to the first century! And despite it all being written the same (mostly in formal or colloquial Arabic known as fus’ha), there are over 30 types of Arabic, as well as different vernaculars, slang words, and accents that change from region to region. Arabic is a Semitic language, sharing the same language family as Hebrew and Aramaic, however, what makes it special is that Arabic is a root language, just as Latin is for the Italic Language family. However, unlike Latin, Arabic is still widely spoken in Today’s world. 

One of the qualities that make Arabic unique, and difficult to learn, is that its writing system doesn’t follow that of an alphabet, but an abjad. An abjad is a system in which each letter stands for a consonant and not a vowel, which requires the user of the language to provide the vowels using vowel marks. On average, a single written word in Arabic has three meanings, seven pronunciations and 12 interpretations. Some consider the language of the Arab world to be the most beautiful of all written languages. In fact, Arabic calligraphy is seen as a completely separate art. 

Many Mediterranean countries use Arabic as an official language, such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Lebanon. Although they all speak Arabic on the surface, the dialects spoken in each and every one of these countries differ greatly from classical Arabic as it has been influenced by their cultures and histories, thus they are all unique. 

But first let’s take a look at the history of the Arabic language. 

Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world with 293 million native speakers and 422 million total speakers. It is an official language in 26 countries and one of the 6 official languages ​​of the United Nations. It is also the language of the Qur’an, thus deemed sacred by 1.7 billion Muslims. The classical form of Arabic, in which the Qur’an is written, which is  considered as the purest form of Arabic, is only one of the variants.

Another variant, Modern Standard Arabic , which is based on classical Arabic with some modern adaptations and additions to fit modern day use, is also a form known as ‘’eloquent speech’’ used for books, media, education and formal situations. 

Naturally, one must not forget about the dialects themselves when talking about the Arabic language, and the dialects as we have mentioned, may vary greatly from country to country. Thus, we have deemed it more fitting to examine the dialects in relation to the Med countries themselves.

Let’s start with Algeria; 

Algeria has two official languages: Arabic, which is stipulated in the 1963 Constitution, and Standard Algerian-Berber: Tamazight, which was recognized as the national language on May 8, 2002 and as the official language in 2016.

A mixture of Arabic and French phrases are highly common in Algeria, as a result of the French colonization in the past. The use of Tamazight on the other hand, dates back to Algeria as a part of the Berber Empire

Compared to her neighboring nations , the official language in Tunisia is Arabic, due to the spread of Arabic and Islamic cultures for over 13 centuries. While the initial dialect over here was also Berber (Tamazight), it is only spoken by a minority in southern Tunisia as of today.

In everyday use, most Tunisians utilize “Tounsi”or “Derja” , which is comparable to Algerian Arabic and western Libyan Arabic. The vocabulary used by Tunisians include mostly Arabic vocabulary with critical Berber , Latin and conceivably Neo-Punic-Substratum, yet they also have numerous loanwords from French,Turkish and Spanish. Tunisian Arabic,is known to be at least 1.200 years old, and it is thought to be the ancestor of the Maltese language, and is not understood as easily by the other Middle Eastern Arabic speakers.

Morocco also has Arabic as its official dialect as well as its own dialect of Arabic known as ” Derja”. While also named ‘’Derja’’, Moroccan Derja is more comparable to Algerian spoken tongue and bears less resemblance to the Tunisian tongue.

This dialect is spoken by 92% of the Moroccan population, and another Berber populace known as “Amazigh ” utilize Berber in their homes with their families.Advanced standard Arabic on the other hand,  is utilized for formal circumstances. It is also notable that Moroccans are usually highly familiar with Spanish or French,

Modern Standard Arabic is also deemed as the official language of Egypt, however, Egypt also has its own dialect known as Colloquial Egyptian.

Colloquial Egyptian is the most widely spoken dialect in Egypt and it is Afro-Asian in origin, having originated in the Nile Delta of lower Egypt. Egyptian Arabic (Colloquial Egyptian) evolved from Quranic Arabic and it was introduced in the 7th century as part of the Muslim conquest to spread the Islamic faith.

The grammatical structure of the language is influenced by the Egyptian captic language (native language of the vast majority of Nile Valley Egyptians prior to Muslim conquest). The dialect was also influenced by other languages such as French, Italian, Greek, Ottoman Turkish, and English. Because of the popularity of music and cinema, it is also understood in the majority of Arabic-speaking countries, which is partly why the Egyptian dialect is also the most widely studied dialect. In the capital, though, it is important to mention that 100 million people speak Cairene, which is the most common dialect there . 

Again, in Lebanon we come across a similar situation where the official language is Arabic, yet the country has its own dialect named Lebanese Arabic, which is a variant of North Levantine Arabic. Lebanese Arabic is a descendant of Arabic, and it was introduced in the 7th century.

During this period, in fact, many Northwestern Semitic languages ​​were slowly introduced and became the major spoken lingua franca. With this linguistic change, Lebanese Arabic is based on Aramaic with Adstrat-Semitic influences from Ottoman Turkish, English and French. It is closely related to Syriac Arabic and is very similar to Palestinian Arabic and Jordanian Arabic. All in all, Lebanese Arabic is strongly influenced by Middle Eastern and European languages, as well as multilingualism and widespread diaspora, making it distinct from other Arabic languages. Thus, it is very common for Lebanese people to use a mixture of Lebanese Arabic ,French and English in their everyday life.

The Mediterranean is home to many beautiful languages, so many and so complex that it cannot be covered in only one article, hence we have decided to turn this into a series. We hope that the glimpse into the melodic languages of the Mediterranean inspire you to conduct some searching on your own to discover the beautiful cultures and lifestyles of the Med countries.

By Eslem Dridi, Maya Alawar, Sirine Elloumi

Edited by Melis Leyal Gürel

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