The Difference Between MSA and Arabic Dialects

Arabic dialects map

When studying Arabic, one of the first essential factors is to clearly understand the difference between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Arabic dialects. Both are two different versions of Arabic, used for different purposes. MSA is a formal language used for media, administration, religion and academic purposes, whereas different dialects are spoken in various parts of the Arab world – from Morocco to Iraq.

Let us review the key differences between MSA and Arabic dialects as well as discuss what other factors to keep in mind when learning one of them.

What is MSA and what are Arabic dialects?

The Arabic-speaking world operates in diglossia, meaning that there is both a low and a high variety of the language which are divided between formal and informal contexts.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the official language of many Arab countries, used for official purposes such as education, media, and literature; it is considered to be the higher variety of Arabic. This standard form of Arabic is derived from Quranic Arabic or Classical Arabic and differs slightly from it in terms of stylistic and lexical considerations.

MSA is taught to all children throughout the Arab world and stands as the main language used in literature, academia, mass media, law, legislation, and religion. Though MSA is still relatively important due to its widespread usage, local dialects are integral for casual conversations among native speakers.

Depending on where they live, these dialects may sound quite different from one another and can be hard to understand even for other native Arabic speakers due to differences in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. Arabic dialects are usually classified into five dominant groups:

⦁ The Mesopotamian Group: Iraq, north-eastern Syria.

⦁ The Arabian Peninsula Group: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain.

⦁ The Levantine Group: Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon.

⦁ The Egypto-Sudanic Group: Egypt, Sudan.

⦁ The Maghrebi Group: Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania

Dialects usually differ from each other in proportion to their geographical distance (i.e., an Iraqi would hardly understand a conversation between two Moroccans and vice versa); such variation may, in fact, precede the written language by centuries. Nonetheless, Egyptian Arabic and Syrian Arabic are both considered intelligible dialects for every Arabic speaker, especially given their well-established cinematographic industries that air in households across every Arabic country.

Common variations between MSA and Arabic dialects

When examining the differences between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Arabic dialects, it is important to consider the shared characteristics as well as the variations. Though there are particular structural and pronunciation differences, both MSA and dialects come from a common origin language, allowing for there to be some common grammar and vocabulary.

MSA is often seen as the “standard” of Arabic language, being taught in classrooms across many regions and encompassing more complex grammatical structures. However, both MSA and Arabic dialects use a shared script, which allows for easier oral communication than would be achieved with written texts.

The different dialects each hold their own intricate grammar, sounds, pronunciations, lexicon, and expressions or idioms that make them unique. Those interesting variations are often represented in literature, with authors often using their local dialects to express direct speech.

The major examples of differences between MSA and Arabic dialects include vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.

  • Vocabulary:

MSA uses a more formal vocabulary with fewer regional variations; however, Arabic dialects often use colloquial words and expressions that are unique to specific regions or even neighborhoods. For example, the regular polite form to express gratitude, ‘thank you,’ is شُكْرًا (shukran) in MSA but transforms into يَعِيشَك (ya’īshak) in Tunisia.

Very often, the variations in vocabulary between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Arabic dialects stem from the fact that Arabic dialects tend to use words considered outdated or obsolete in MSA.

One striking example is the verb “to see,” which is شاف يَشُوفُ (shāfa yashūfu) in most dialects. This verb is considered to be outdated or obsolete in MSA; therefore, the verb نَظَرَ يَنْظُرُ (nadhara yandhuru) would be preferred.

  • Grammar:

MSA has a more complex grammar with more rules and stricter adherence to Classical Arabic. On the other hand, Arabic dialects have simpler grammar and are more flexible in their usage of tenses, cases, and word order.

Verbs conjugate first differently between the two since they can have up to twelve different forms depending on plurality and gender. Dialects, on the other hand, tend to have between seven and eight different forms, as most of them don’t have a dual form or make the distinction between genders in the plural form, unlike MSA.

Furthermore, dialects can also have different pronoun use; for example, second-person pronouns may also change based on plurality and gender.

  • Pronunciation:

MSA pronunciation is based on Quranic Arabic, which is established by strict rules. However, Arabic dialects do not always adhere to those rules. For example, the letter “qaf” (ق) is pronounced as a hard “k” sound in MSA while it is pronounced as a hard “g” sound in Gulf dialects such as Saudi Arabia.

Another example is the letter ”tha’” (ث), which is a “th” sound as in “thing” in MSA but is pronounced like a regular “t” in Morocco.

With that being said, while this often-cited distinction between Classical and Colloquial Arabic may be useful, it merely represents two poles of a continuum which more accurately characterizes a complex linguistic situation as another variety called Educated Spoken Arabic also exists.

When educated speakers from different dialectal backgrounds communicate orally, they tend to use what is sometimes known as Educated Spoken Arabic — a mixture of colloquial speech and Modern Standard Arabic.


In conclusion, understanding some of the common varieties found between MSA and different Arabic dialects can help properly tailor communication during problem-solving activities or even everyday conversations. For people considering learning both Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and an Arab dialect, it is important to understand the dynamics between the two languages.

While MSA is a more formal version of the language that is understood by every Arabic speaker who has followed the basic school curriculum, different Arab dialects are used for everyday communication depending on location. Understanding both Modern Standard Arabic and an Arab dialect will help open up opportunities to communicate with a wide variety of people in the Middle East and North Africa.

Which version should be learned first is a tough question to answer, as it depends on the different goals one is trying to achieve. However, learning MSA first would establish good foundations for the Arabic learner, enabling him to understand the common logic for the language and eventually facilitating his dialect learning journey afterwards, whatever the dialect may be.


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