Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is defined as the register of Arabic used in modern day media, especially Arabic TV channels and publications, both print and online. However, this term has not yet received adequate linguistic research and study efforts in order to establish standards to distinguish it from Classical Arabic (CA, or Classical Fus’ha Arabic). This white paper attempts to shed some light on the linguistic aspects that distinguish the two registers, and establish preliminary standards to achieve this.
It is worth mentioning that MSA should be distinguished from spoken dialects in various Arabic speaking countries. Dialects are spoken forms that makes Arabic diglossic, but they are not registers of Arabic.
Classical Arabic (CA, or Fus’ha Arabic): The term Classical Arabic (CA) refers to Fus’ha Arabic based on Quranic Arabic, which was used during the early Islamic era, from the emergence of Islam through the Umayyad caliphate, up until the end of the Abbasid caliphate. Towards the end of the Abbasid dynasty rule, deviations started to appear (termed “Lahn” by Arab linguists), preluding the widespread of dialect Arabic as a spoken form, and the diglossia phenomenon in Arabic. CA was based on the Arabic of the Arabian Peninsula during the pre-Islam era, which was in turn based on Nabti Arabic and Musnad script. The early Islamic era introduced radical changes to Arabic, creating the register we now know as CA. Some of these changes were motivated by the need to unify Quran readings, and others were motivated by enabling non-Arabs to learn Arabic as a requirement to practice the rituals of Islam. The latter included adding dots and supplementary diacritics (tashkeel) by Abu al-Aswad al-Du'ali, Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, and other scholars.
Modern Standard Arabic (MSA): Modern Standard Arabic is the form of Arabic used in modern day media, including TV channels, print and online newspapers and magazines, as well as official correspondence. The emergence of MSA dates back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the revival of Arabic as a formal language in the Levant and North Africa. The renaissance of Arabic was aided by the widespread of modern printing press during the first half of the 20th century, with MSA starting to take its distinctive form in its second half, influenced by modern Arabic literature.
MSA is a unified form across Arabic speaking countries, from the GCC region to the Levant and North Africa. This remains true despite certain cultural differences that dictate corresponding language differences, mainly in terminology and the acceptance of dialect terms.
Dialect Arabic: Dialect Arabic constitutes a variety of spoken forms that vary distinctively from one region to another, even within the same Arabic speaking country. Linguists disagree on whether or not dialects should be considered a separate register of Arabic. However, we tend to consider them spoken forms without strong merit to form a defined register.
This white paper used statistical research to assess the incidence of certain language structures in Arabic digital content, as an indication of their spread in MSA. Google was used to carry out the search, and determine the incidence of each of these structures. Certain portals known to use CA (such as religious websites) were omitted from the search. Several varieties of each structure were used to determine the actual incidence. This statistical research led us to a number of conclusions, that we presented to a number of linguists and specialists, and only conclusions that met consensus among the advisory board were included in the final white paper.
We would like to emphasize that we present these conclusions as a starting point for further study and research among a wider group of specialists. We are looking forward to the feedback of Arabic linguists and specialists in translation and modern Arabic content, both digital and print.
Quran is considered the main medium for CA. Other media include Hadith (quotes from prophet Mohamad), and the literature of the Umayyad and Abbasid eras, especially Arabic poetry and literature in religious studies and philosophy. Literature translated to Arabic from other languages in that era constitutes another important medium for CA.
MSA is used in modern media as a primary content carrier, especially Arabic speaking TV channels, as well as print and digital publications. Moreover, MSA is seen in modern Arabic literary work, including fiction, non-fiction, technical, scientific, and communications. Translations from various international languages to Arabic form another important medium for MSA.
It is worth mentioning that with the lack of modern studies that distinguish MSA from CA, some media may mix the two forms in one context. This issue becomes more apparent when reviewing Arabization projects issued by Arabic Language Academies, especially in terms of terminological equivalents. These academies, unfortunately, exerted more efforts to revive CA than to develop MSA.
Differences between MSA and CA
Differences between Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic span the three categories of linguistics, which are syntax, terminology and pronunciation (especially in terms of tashkeel). Differences are also apparent in the use of punctuation and writing styles.
Formulating a definitive guide to the exact differences between MSA and CA requires a thorough study involving a large number of specialists in Arabic language and modern content. As a starting point, we have presented a number of conclusions in the Arabic version of this white paper. We urge Arabic speakers to review these conclusions and engage in our ongoing discussion about this matter.
Terminology is the main domain where MSA and CA differ substantially. This stems from the need of MSA to adapt with modern day terminology in the technical, literary, and scientific domains. The vast majority of these terms refer to items or concepts that did not exist in the time of CA. MSA tends to be more accepting to non-Arabic terminology. Despite the efforts of Arabic Language Academies in the second half of the 20th century to Arabize modern terminology using classical Arabization practices, the fast pace of modern development made transliteration the method of choice for Arabizing modern day terminology.
Transliteration in Modern Standard Arabic
Transliteration is one of the most important tools that allow languages to keep up with modern advances in various domains. It becomes even more important for Arabic in our day and time, as it does not only allow Arabic to absorb modern science, but also modern lifestyle, including brand names such as Facebook and Google. However, Arabic transliteration practices still require a lot of efforts to maintain the vitality of Arabic. There is an immense need to unify transliterated terms and avoid having multiple translations for a single term.
Transliteration is not a modern practice in Arabic, as it dates back to Classical Arabic times. Quran used transliteration in several occasions, borrowing terms from Aramic, Latin, and Persian. Moreover, transliteration was studied thoroughly by Arab classical linguists, who defined its terminology and established its standards and methodology. Several books were written on this subject by Arab classical linguists, dating as early as the 12th century.
Challenges facing modern Arabic transliteration
Challenges facing modern Arabic transliteration can be summarized as follows:
- Lack of a unified glossary of transliterated terms, which gives rise to multiple transliterations of the same term. Arabic transliteration of the term Facebook is a good example.
- Lack of a unified guide for the use of substitution characters for sounds that do not exist in the Arabic script, such as the sounds /p/, /v/, and /g/ in English. The term Google for example is transliterated in three different forms based on the substitution character used for the /g/ sound in Arabic, namely: /dʒ/, /ɣ/, and /q/.
- The similarity of some transliterated terms to certain Arabic words, which leads to confusion when reading. A good example is the term Angus (beef). When transliterated, the term can be confused with an Arabic word that means “unclean” (أنجس), which gives rise to a cultural issue.
- The unjustified resistance to modern transliteration practices by classical Arabic linguists, who insist on creating Arabic sounding alternatives to transliterated terms, despite the wide spread usage of transliterated terms. Unfortunately, classical Arabic academies encourage this unnecessary resistance.
- Lack of awareness of the use of the Arabic definite article (الـ) with transliterated terms, which creates inconsistent versions of the transliterated term.
- The absence of documented academic standards for the use of transliteration.
Recommendations on the use of transliteration in Arabic
The following recommendations are presented as a basis for further discussion and standardization efforts among Arab linguists.
- Using transliteration in cases where a viable Arabic alternative is not available: This either means the absence of an Arabic term for the concept (such as brand names), or the presence of a weak Arabic alternative that causes flow or clarity issues when used.
- Continuing to use terms that were crafted into Arabic sounding words during the second half of the twentieth century, such as (تلفاز) /tilfaz/ for Television, and starting to use transliteration exclusively from now on to avoid duplicated terms.
- Adopting semantic-based Arabization (i.e. Using a sentence or a phrase to describe the meaning of terms) in cases where having a single direct Arabic term is inapplicable, such as highly technical terms.
- Using terms in their mother language script only when absolutely necessary, and after thoughtful consideration of the ability of the target audience to comprehend them. This method could be helpful with technical terms in particular, when the text is intended for specialized readers only. It is paramount to avoid bilingual terms in the context, so terms should be used in their mother language script, or Arabic, and never together.
Recommendations on transliteration practices in Arabic
To help standardize the use of transliteration in Arabic, House of Content recommends the following:
- Working on establishing an Arabic language community that aims at unifying transliterated terms, and publishing unified glossaries to be adopted by Arab linguists. We recommend a social community that allows all Arab linguists to contribute to this project.
- Creating a unified glossary for substitution characters for sounds not available in the Arabic script. Within this context, we recommend adopting UAE practices in substitution characters, given the large amount of Arabic content coming from this region.
- Adopting the use of inverted commas (’أبجد‘) with transliterated terms, to help distinguish them from similar Arabic words. This practice is also helpful when transliterating institutions’ names.
- Launching an awareness campaign on the use of the Arabic definite article with transliterated terms.
We are looking forward for a more thorough discussion on this vital aspect of Arabization in the near future.
Differences between MSA and CA in pronunciation can be divided into two categories: Sounds not available in the Arabic script, and Tashkeel.
Sounds not available in the Arabic script
Unlike Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic accepts the use of sounds that are not supported in the Arabic script, such as the /g/, /p/, and /v/ sounds. Unfortunately, the use of substitution characters for these sounds is still not standardized. Please refer to our Transliteration paper and Acronym Translation for more detail on this subject.
The use of Tashkeel (diacritical phonetic symbols that dictate pronunciation) constitutes a major difference between MSA and CA. In Classical Arabic, Tashkeel form an integral part of the word, while Modern Standard Arabic only uses Tashkeel markers when necessary for proper pronunciation. MSA also tends to encourage dropping Tashkeel at the end of each sentence, and even within a sentence.
Most classical Arabic linguists view dropping Tashkeel as a sign of weakness in reading skills. However, the wide spread of this phenomenon necessitate a deeper study.
Modern Standard Arabic has adopted several punctuation marks from other languages, while at the same time dropping some classical Arabic ones. Modern technology, especially in printing press, has contributed largely to this trend. Major differences between Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic in punctuation can be summarized as follows:
- Quotation mark: Modern Standard Arabic uses the Latin quotation mark ("أبجد") instead of the classical Arabic one («أبجد»).
- Modern Standard Arabic uses inverted commas (’أبجد‘) for quotation inside a quotation, and also to distinguish transliterated words (please refer to our Transliteration Paper for more info).
- Modern Standard Arabic uses brackets () instead of dashes (-أبجد-).
- Modern Standard Arabic restricts the use of the semi-colon.
- Modern Standard Arabic uses modern punctuation marks for technical purposes, such as the email mark (@) and hashtag mark (#).
Modern Standard Arabic adopts modern writing forms, and parts ways with Arabic classical forms. Some modern writing forms constitute updates to corresponding classical forms, such as paragraph writing. Other forms have adopted completely new standards, such as essays, opinion articles, or white papers. Moreover, some new writing forms are directly imported from foreign languages, such as guides, blog posts, and other forms of writing. Moreover, some classical writing forms disappeared completely, such as Maqam.
This comes in line with the natural evolution of writing, and in response to modern needs. In writing style, the main difference between CA and MSA lies in the tendency of MSA to be concise and direct, and avoid classical rhetorical tools, such as paradox, rhyming, synecdoche, antonyms, or homonym. All these rhetorical tools are standard in Classical texts. We could say that the famous quote by legendary Arabic poet Abu Tammam (805-845 AD) perfectly represents these style differences. In answer to the question: “Why don’t you write what people understand?", Abu Tammam said: “Why don’t YOU understand what people write?” If Abu Tammam was a modern day scholar, he would have written what is easily understandable by the audience.
We hope that we were successful in putting the first building brick for further research on Modern Standard Arabic and the differences between it and the Classical Arabic. We are looking forward to the feedback of Arab linguists on this vital subject.