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Arabic dialects: a close look at North African Arabic

Where is Maghrebi Arabic spoken?

North African, Western or Maghrebi Arabic is a form of Arabic dialects spoken by the inhabitants of the North of Africa. The Maghreb region includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania and Western Sahara. The name “Maghreb” derives from the Arabic word “مغرب”, denoting “the place where the sun sets”. This is because the Maghreb region lies on the west of the Arab world. The Middle East is often referred to as “Mashriq”, which means “the place where the sun rises”. We believe “Maghrebi” is a more accurate term to describe North African Arabic because the North of Africa also includes Egypt, which is a Middle Eastern country.

What are the different Arabic dialects?

The Arab world can mainly be divided into the Maghreb and the Middle Eastern spheres. However, these two regions are home to a wide range of dialects. Some examples of these dialects are:

  1. Peninsular Arabic: it is spoken in Yemen, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq, United Arab Emirates and Oman. This region is where the Arabic language originated and this group of Arabic dialects has close ties to classic Arabic.
  2. Levantine: it is spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. This group of Arabic dialects is viewed as a more softly spoken version of Arabic, which makes it generally comprehensible to other Arabic dialect speakers.
  3. Maghrebi: it is spoken in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. This group of Arabic dialects is characterized by the mixture of languages and the unique units of sound, making it harder to understand for other Arabic dialect speakers.
  4. Egyptian: it is spoken in Egypt. This Arabic dialect is widely understood by other Arabic dialect speakers because of the strong presence Egypt has on the media.

What distinguishes Maghrebi Arabic?

Although Maghrebi dialects are mostly derived from Arabic, they show a significant influence by French, Turkish, Italian, Punic, English and Berber languages. This is why these dialects use non-Arabic phonemes, such as /g/, /p/ and /v/. They are also phonologically altered, making them quite hard to understand for other Arabic speakers.

Maghrebi dialects also stand out for the use of /q/, which is rare in other Arabic dialects, as well as the circumfix negation using /ma/ and /sh/. Another interesting aspect is that the transliteration of most names is based on French writing system in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. On the other hand, the transliteration of Arabic names in the Middle East tends to be based on the English writing system. For example, the name “Ayman” would be transliterated as “Aimane” by a Moroccan person because that is the correct pronunciation when read in French.

To what extent are they mutually intelligible?

Even though the Maghreb and Mashriq dialects share the same language and most words can be mutually intelligible, there is a clear communication difficulty between the two Arabic dialects. This difficulty can be blamed on the difference in accents, namely the pronunciation of letters and even the special emphasis given to certain syllables, as well as the extended use of loanwords mainly in the North of Africa.

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