Looking for the most universal dialect of Arabic
July 26, 2006 1:13 PM   Subscribe

What is the most universally accepted dialect of Arabic?

I've received a request from a potential customer to translate the audio in my company's software into Arabic. I know very little about the language and don't have a huge budget for the translation so I wanted to concentrate on the one dialect which would make my customers happy, no matter what country they were from. The dialect/accent should be clear, understandable, and sound "educated" to most Arabic speakers.

So I'm looking for the Arabic equivalent of the English accents found on the BBC or the flat neutral tones of the American midwest. Any suggestions on what I should be asking for before I start talking to translation companies?

I should point out my company creates ESL CBTs aimed at ages 8-14.
posted by pandaharma to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You are most likely looking at is known as Modern Standard Arabic.
posted by geoff. at 1:26 PM on July 26, 2006

Conventional wisdom says Egyptian Arabic is the most widely recognized dialect because of the ubiquity of Egyptian TV and movies. Modern Standard Arabic is what's used in newspapers and TV news. As far as I know, nobody actually speaks it, but most will probably be able to understand it.
posted by atchafalaya at 1:33 PM on July 26, 2006

My brother learned MSA to write, but Egytian Arabic to speak. For this, likely MSA, as it's a business ap, instead of Egyptian (which according to his prof more people understand).
posted by klangklangston at 1:36 PM on July 26, 2006

Best answer: My Iraqi wife says to use MSA, preferably spoken by someone from the Gulf States. Speakers from Egypt or Lebanon tend to swallow certain sounds or otherwise speak with a notable accent, although they will be understood. Having said that, professional actors will speak beautiful Standard Arabic wherever they come from.
posted by teleskiving at 2:28 PM on July 26, 2006

Conventional wisdom says Egyptian Arabic is the most widely recognized dialect

Eh. Possibly, but it's still a dialect, and a very distinctive one (with g for j, which is why it's Gamal Abdel-Nasser), and not everybody likes it. Definitely go with MSA, which is based on Classical (Koranic) Arabic with necessary modernization. (Personally, I deplore the fact that Arabic speakers look down on all modern dialects and consider only the classical language "real" Arabic, but that's a different discussion.)
posted by languagehat at 3:07 PM on July 26, 2006

I've got to throw in another vote for Cairene/Egyptian being the most "common/standard" dialect--my Lebanese teacher went out of her way to teach us some of its idiosyncrasies, and (western) textbooks even use it sometimes.
But, if you want to be intelligible to all arabic speakers, and to sound educated, go with MSA. Speaking correct MSA is definitely considered a mark of the educated and cultured.
And for chrissakes, don't hold BBC English up as a paragon of anything. They seem to butcher everything except British English, though somehow that still sounds good to our American ears. Once, in the early days of the SCO/Linux trial, I heard the beeb pronounce SCO as a word, like skoe.
posted by pullayup at 5:33 PM on July 26, 2006

Probably, though, you should ask your customer exactly what they want. If they're Arabic speakers, I'm sure they're aware of the dialect-MSA schism, and may even have a preference.
Remember, the customer's always right!
posted by pullayup at 5:35 PM on July 26, 2006

Pullayup: many people, geeks included, pronounce SCO as a word.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 6:07 PM on July 26, 2006

Arabic speaker here. As already mentioned, the Egyptian dialect has the most people speaking it, but to be intelligible to any Arabic speaker, you should go with MSA (newsreader Arabic). It's a safe lowest-common-denominator of intelligibility.
posted by evariste at 7:42 PM on July 26, 2006

Seeing how MSA is based on on Koranic Arabic does that mean it is Saudi Ararbic?

Because I have heard that it, Saudi Arabian Arabic, is the Gold Standard as far as dialect goes.
posted by Dagobert at 10:45 PM on July 26, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice. I'll specify MSA as I look around for translation bids.

The reason I asked for something more or less standard is because the first place I'll be selling is to Dearborn, MI and I would assume the Arab immigrants there are from a wide variety of countries. With luck, my product will also be sold in a variety of Middle Eastern countries. So its nice to know there's something that will make everyone more or less happy.

Yes, I know the BBC isn't perfect, but most native speakers from English language countries are happy or at least ok with that type of inflection so I thought it was a good sort of benchmark to reference.
posted by pandaharma at 12:06 AM on July 27, 2006

Seeing how MSA is based on on Koranic Arabic does that mean it is Saudi Arabic?

No. Saudi Arabic (i.e., Nejdi, from the center of the peninsula, as opposed to the formerly much more important Hizaji of the west coast, among others) is just another dialect, with its own distinctive forms and pronunciations.
posted by languagehat at 6:05 AM on July 27, 2006

I'd be careful about assuming that Dearborn is home to immigrants from a lot of countries. I'm local, and while that is true to a point, Lebanese Arabic is the most common according to my (Lebanese) pharmacist.
posted by QIbHom at 1:40 PM on July 27, 2006

Ha! Being from Ann Arbor and having a friend that lives in Dearborn, my buddy says Palestinean is the most common dialect. He is, of course, Palestinean (he also says it's the best and the most beautiful).
Go MSA. Every single Arabic speaker I've talked to has a full dose of linguistic chauvenism for his dialect (and food, and women...)
posted by klangklangston at 2:09 PM on July 28, 2006

Palestinian Arabic and Lebanese Arabic (and for that matter Jordanian Arabic) are the same dialect, usually called Syrian or Levantine Arabic—until WWI Lebanon and Palestine (and Jordan) were just parts of the region of the Ottoman Empire called Syria (now often referred to as "Greater Syria").
posted by languagehat at 3:20 PM on July 28, 2006

languagehat-Hmm. Maybe from a 100 mile view, Palestinian, Lebanese, and Jordanian dialects look the same. In fact, the Syrians and Lebanese speak a dialect that is widely considered sort of effete. Jordanian and Palestinian dialects are quite distinct from one another as well. In short, I totally disagree with the above comment :-) (I'm a Palestinian, and I lived in Jordan, and watched lots of Lebanese and Syrian TV shows on top of that).
posted by evariste at 10:35 PM on July 28, 2006

You can disagree all you like, and I respect your feelings (we all have strong feelings about our own languages), but what I say is the truth from a linguistic point of view. There are very clearly demarcated Arabic dialects: Maghrebi, Egyptian, Levantine, Iraqi, and so on. Obviously, within each one there are different subdialects and "accents," and I'm aware a local can distinguish a Shami accent from a Beiruti, etc. That has nothing to do with what I'm talking about. In the US, there are similarly defined dialects: Northeastern, Mountain, Southern, etc. Just because you can tell a New Yorker from a Bostonian does not invalidate the linguistic analysis.

I mean, no matter how much distinctness you notice between Palestinian, Lebanese, and Jordanian dialects, surely you can tell that Egyptian and Iraqi dialects are much more distinct?
posted by languagehat at 9:58 AM on July 29, 2006

languagehat-ah, gotcha. OK, that makes sense, yes.

In the US, there are similarly defined dialects: Northeastern, Mountain, Southern, etc. Just because you can tell a New Yorker from a Bostonian does not invalidate the linguistic analysis.

That was a good example to help me get your point.
posted by evariste at 1:18 PM on July 29, 2006

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