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Arabic Localization Challenges: Dialects

In recent blog posts we have looked at different forms of Arabic, including those used by the by the ex-leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. This post will focus on the way that different dialects of Arabic differ from Modern Standard Arabic (MSE) and each other, and the challenges this diversity presents to the translator.The main dialectical division in the Arabic world is between the Maghreb dialects (Moroccan, Algerian etc.) and those of the Middle East. Within this distinction, there is a further branching off into those dialects used by the Bedouin and those used in more sedentary communities (Maltese, although descended from Arabic, is considered a separate language.)

But this distribution is quite unbalanced, in the sense that a Middle Eastern Arabic speaker will not understand a Maghrebi dialect, whilst, thanks to cultural diffusion and the fact that Middle Eastern Arabic is closer to classical Arabic, a Maghrebi will generally get the gist of what his counterpart is saying.

The importance of Egyptian as a sort of lingua franca above and beyond MSE should not be underestimated. Egypt is the pop-cultural powerhouse of the Arabic-speaking world and Egyptian is thus widely understood; it is sometimes considered a sort of ‘second’ dialect for Arabic speakers. A Saudi-Arabian and a Tunisian might find themselves talking a form of MSE which is heavily influenced by Egyptian.

As in much of the rest of the world, however, English is increasingly pervasive: many English words are entering Arabic (a reverse of the trend which gave us words like algebra, giraffe and popinjay), and although there is an Arabic interface for Facebook, 75% of Arabic-speaking users prefer the English interface.

The major living groups of Arabic dialect are:

Egyptian Arabic مصري (Egypt) Spoken by about 76 million people in Egypt.

Maghrebi Arabic مغربي (Algerian Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, Maltese and western Libyan Arabic) The Moroccan and Algerian dialects are each spoken by about 20 million people

Levantine Arabic شامي (Western Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, western Jordanian )

Iraqi Arabic عراقي (and Khuzestani Arabic) – with significant differences between the more Arabian-like gilit-dialects of the south and the more conservative qeltu-dialects of the northern cities

East Arabian Arabic بحريني (Eastern Saudi Arabia, Western Iraq, Eastern Syrian , Jordanian and parts of Oman)

Gulf Arabic خليجي (Bahrain, Saudi Eastern Province, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, and Oman)

Other varieties include:

Ḥassānīya حساني (in Mauritania and western Sahara)

Sudanese Arabic سوداني (with a dialect continuum into Chad)

Hijazi Arabic حجازي (western Saudi Arabia)
Najdi Arabic نجدي (Najd region of central Saudi Arabia)

Yemeni Arabic يمني (Yemen to southern Saudi Arabia)

Here is an excellent graphic representation of this distribution.

In a blogpost to come we will look at the precise problems connected to localising Arabic script.

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