Among the world’s great languages, perhaps none punches below its weight like Arabic. It is the mother tongue of 350 million people, and has a daily presence in the spiritual lives of a billion more; it is the official language of 26 countries, and one of the six of the United Nations.
Yet, in spite of an uptick in interest in the 2000s, the driver of which was in any case less than wholesome, Arabic is pretty insignificant outside of the Arab and Muslim worlds. In Britain, it is less studied than Italian. Conversely, Spain translates more books into Spanish each year than Arabs have translated into Arabic since the 9th Century.
A big reason for this underperformance is that “Arabic” is not really a single language. Those who study it learn Modern Standard Arabic, but if they are serious about fluency and go to an Arab country, they find that people on the streets speak another language entirely. In daily life, Arabs speak their home dialect; MSA, which is the language of news broadcasts and speeches and official business, has to be learnt in school. This is not that hard for native speakers. Indeed, people on TV will often code-switch within the same sentence. But having to learn two alien languages is mystifying for foreigners.
This phenomenon, called diglossia, does occur in other languages, and has throughout history. A similar situation existed in Europe a millennium ago, with people switching between Latin and budding Romance dialects. Indeed, the “Arabic” of Iraq is at least as different to that of Morocco as Spanish is to Italian.
The dialects have some common features that distinguish them from MSA. They drop grammatical cases and some verb conjugations. Some words have different shades of meaning. In Syria, for example, haka means “to speak,” while in MSA it means “to tell a story” (interestingly, an identical semantic shift turned Latin fabulare into Portuguese falar, French parler, etc.)
Arabic does have one key advantage that makes the centre hold: the strange article of faith that Allah only wants His word read 7th Century Hejazi Arabic. People who have to go listen to the same language at the mosque five times per day will only stray so far from it.
Modern Standard Arabic was developed by scholars in the 19th Century based on the old Quranic standard. It adds some modern terminology and drops some arcane features, but they are basically the same language. To Arabs, they are both fusha, “eloquent speech.” Arabs denigrate their own languages of hearth and home as al-ammiya (or darija in North Africa), “slang,” but even in today’s interconnected world when such a thing would be possible, no one seems interested in supplanting them.
The varieties of Arabic fall broadly into five groups: Egyptian, Levantine, Maghrebi (i.e., North African), Mesopotamian, and Peninsular. Within these groups, dialects are broadly mutually intelligible. A person from Aleppo visiting Beirut will not have much trouble; farther from home, things get complicated.
The most idiosyncratic group is Maghrebi, particularly the dialect of Morocco, which my Jordanian friend describes as “Shakespearean Arabic.” This is not because it is more conservative: indeed it is heavily influenced by Berber, as well as French and even Punic, the old language of Carthage. But its unique consonant clusters and vowel shifts sound really bizarre to other Arabs. More so than in other countries, Darija predominates in official contexts that are usually the domain of MSA.
By contrast, the Peninsular dialects are the closest to MSA. The Levantine group is a bit farther off. The dialects of Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria are also distinguished from one another by influence from English and French. For example, Lebanese people use a lot of French words that are alien to formerly-British Jordan.
In connection to foreign influence, an honourable mention should be made of Maltese. While the Arab settlers of Malta converted to Catholicism in the Middle Ages, they kept their language. Severed from Islam’s conservative influence, it did become its own unique language, with a Semitic core surrounded by layers of predominantly Italian and English vocabulary.
In the Middle East, religion counts for more than geography. Minority groups often have their own dialects. In Baghdad, for example, the Arabic spoken by the ancient Christian community is actually more reflective of the speech of medieval urban Iraq, while the predominant Muslim dialect is heavily influenced by newer arrivals from the Bedouin countryside. In Bahrain, the Shiite majority hears the news and conducts official business in the foreign dialect of the Sunni monarchy.
Which Arabic dialect one should learn obviously depends on individual circumstances. Unlike in China, where mutually unintelligible varieties of speech are also misleadingly labeled dialects, there is not one dominant dialect to be the obvious choice.
But all else being equal, your best options are Gulf Arabic, the language of the petromonarchies (though you can pretty much get around Dubai in English), and Egyptian, which is the biggest and most influential. (I personally have a soft spot for Darija because even though I speak almost no Arabic, several people in Morocco gave me these wonderful honey biscuit things for even trying.)
So, why do Arabs and foreigners pretend that there is one monolithic Arabic? As is so often the case with languages, politics (and politics’ sister, religion) trumps linguistics. Fourteen hundred years ago, a Meccan merchant in the grips of a midlife crisis was hanging out in a cave when an angel came down from Heaven to tell him that God happened to think that his rustic dialect was the best language ever, so now half a billion people who speak different languages claim that they are speaking that one. Anyway, if you are ambitious enough to have a go at it, all I can say is may God help you- kenalahu maaka.