Modern Standard Arabic

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), or Modern Written Arabic (shortened to MWA),[4] is a term used mostly by Western linguists[5] to refer to the variety of standardized, literary Arabic that developed in the Arab world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modern Standard Arabic is generally not spoken as a mother tongue; it is a pluricentric auxiliary language taught throughout the Arab world in formal education. It differs significantly from many varieties of Arabic that are commonly spoken as mother tongues in the area; these are only partially mutually intelligible with both Modern Standard Arabic and with each other depending on their proximity in the Arabic dialect continuum.

Modern Standard Arabic
العربية الفصحى, عربي فصيح
al-ʻArabīyah al-Fuṣḥá, ʻArabī Faṣīḥ[note 1]
al-ʻArabīyah written in Arabic (Naskh script)
Pronunciation/al ʕaraˈbijja lˈfusˤħaː/, see variations[note 2]
RegionPrimarily in the Arab League, in the Middle East and North Africa; and in the Horn of Africa;
liturgical language of Islam
Native speakers
(second language only)[note 3]
Early forms
Arabic alphabet
Official status
Official language in
27 states[2]
Regulated by
Language codes
ISO 639-3arb
Distribution of Modern Standard Arabic as an official language in the Arab World.
The only official language (green); one of the official languages (blue).

MSA differs from what Western linguists call Classical Arabic (CA; اللغة العربية الفصحى التراثية al-Lughah al-ʻArabīyah al-Fuṣḥá al-Turāthīyah)—the variety of standard Arabic in the Quran and early Islamic (7th to 9th centuries) literature—most markedly in that it adopts words from European languages to describe industrial and post-industrial life.

Native speakers of Arabic generally do not distinguish between "Modern Standard Arabic" and "Classical Arabic" as separate languages; they refer to both as al-ʻArabīyah al-Fuṣḥá (العربية الفصحى)[6] meaning "the pure Arabic". They consider the two forms to be two registers of one language. When the distinction is made, they are referred to as فصحى العصر Fuṣḥá al-ʻAṣr (MSA) and فصحى التراث Fuṣḥá al-Turāth (CA) respectively.[6]

Classical Arabic

Classical Arabic, also known as Quranic Arabic (although the term is not entirely accurate), is the language used in the Quran as well as in numerous literary texts from Umayyad and Abbasid times (7th to 9th centuries). Many Muslims study Classical Arabic in order to read the Quran in its original language. It is important to note that written Classical Arabic underwent fundamental changes during the early Islamic era, adding dots to distinguish similarly written letters, and adding the tashkīl (diacritical markings that guide pronunciation) by Abu al-Aswad al-Du'ali, Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, and other scholars. It was the lingua franca across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa during classic times and in Andalusia before classic time.

Modern Standard Arabic

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the literary standard across the Middle East, North Africa and Horn of Africa, and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Most printed material by the Arab Leagueincluding most books, newspapers, magazines, official documents, and reading primers for small childrenis written in MSA. It was developed in the early part of the 19th century. "Colloquial" Arabic refers to the many regional dialects derived from Classical Arabic spoken daily across the region and learned as a first language, and as second language if people speak other languages native to their particular country. They are not normally written, although a certain amount of literature (particularly plays and poetry, including songs) exists in many of them.

Literary Arabic (MSA) is the official language of all Arab League countries and is the only form of Arabic taught in schools at all stages. Additionally, some members of religious minorities recite prayers in it, as it is considered the literary language. Translated versions of the bible which are used in the Arabic speaking countries are mostly written in MSA aside from Classical Arabic. Muslims recite prayers in it; revised editions of numerous literary texts from Umayyad and Abbasid times are also written in MSA.

The sociolinguistic situation of Arabic in modern times provides a prime example of the linguistic phenomenon of diglossia  the use of two distinct varieties of the same language, usually in different social contexts.[7] This diglossic situation facilitates code-switching in which a speaker switches back and forth between the two dialects of the language, sometimes even within the same sentence. People speak MSA as a third language if they speak other languages native to a country as their first language and colloquial Arabic dialects as their second language. Modern Standard Arabic is also spoken by people of Arab descent outside the Arab world when people of Arab descent speaking different dialects communicate to each other. As there is a prestige or standard dialect of vernacular Arabic, speakers of standard colloquial dialects code-switch between these particular dialects and MSA.

Classical Arabic is considered normative; a few contemporary authors attempt (with varying degrees of success) to follow the syntactic and grammatical norms laid down by classical grammarians (such as Sibawayh) and to use the vocabulary defined in classical dictionaries (such as the Lisan al-Arab, Arabic: لِسَان الْعَرَب).

However, the exigencies of modernity have led to the adoption of numerous terms which would have been mysterious to a classical author, whether taken from other languages (e. g. فيلم film) or coined from existing lexical resources (e. g. هاتف hātif  "caller" > "telephone"). Structural influence from foreign languages or from the vernaculars has also affected Modern Standard Arabic: for example, MSA texts sometimes use the format "A, B, C and D" when listing things, whereas Classical Arabic prefers "A and B and C and D", and subject-initial sentences may be more common in MSA than in Classical Arabic.[8] For these reasons, Modern Standard Arabic is generally treated separately in non-Arab sources.[9] Speakers of Modern Standard Arabic do not always observe the intricate rules of Classical Arabic grammar. Modern Standard Arabic principally differs from Classical Arabic in three areas: lexicon, stylistics, and certain innovations on the periphery that are not strictly regulated by the classical authorities. On the whole, Modern Standard Arabic is not homogeneous; there are authors who write in a style very close to the classical models and others who try to create new stylistic patterns.[10] Add to this regional differences in vocabulary depending upon the influence of the local Arabic varieties and the influences of foreign languages, such as French in Africa and Lebanon or English in Egypt, Jordan, and other countries.[11]

As MSA is a revised and simplified form of Classical Arabic, MSA in terms of lexicon omitted the obsolete words used in Classical Arabic. As diglossia is involved, various Arabic dialects freely borrow words from MSA. This situation is similar to Romance languages, wherein scores of words were borrowed directly from formal Latin (most literate Romance speakers were also literate in Latin); educated speakers of standard colloquial dialects speak in this kind of communication.

Reading out loud in MSA for various reasons is becoming increasingly simpler, using less strict rules compared to CA, notably the inflection is omitted, making it closer to spoken varieties of Arabic. It depends on the speaker's knowledge and attitude to the grammar of Classical Arabic, as well as the region and the intended audience.

Pronunciation of native words, loanwords, foreign names in MSA is loose, names can be pronounced or even spelled differently in different regions and by different speakers. Pronunciation also depends on the person's education, linguistic knowledge and abilities. There may be sounds used, which are missing in the Classical Arabic but may exist in colloquial varieties - consonants - /v/, /p/, /t͡ʃ/ (often realized as [t]+[ʃ]), these consonants may or may not be written with special letters; and vowels - [o], [e] (both short and long), there are no special letters in Arabic to distinguish between [e~i] and [o~u] pairs but the sounds o and e (short and long) exist in the colloquial varieties of Arabic and some foreign words in MSA. The differentiation of pronunciation of informal dialects is the influence from other languages previously spoken and some still presently spoken in the regions, such as Coptic in Egypt, French, Ottoman Turkish, Italian, Spanish, Berber, Punic or Phoenician in North Africa, Himyaritic, Modern South Arabian and Old South Arabian in Yemen and Aramaic in the Levant.



Modern Standard Arabic consonant phonemes
Labial Dental Denti-alveolar Palato-
Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
plain emphatic
Nasal m م n ن
Stop voiceless (p پ) t ت ط k ك q ق ʔ ء
voiced b ب d د ض d͡ʒ* ج
Fricative voiceless f ف θ ث s س ص ʃ ش x ~ χ خ ħ ح h ه
voiced (v ڤ ڥ) ð ذ z ز ðˤ ظ ɣ ~ ʁ غ ʕ ع
Trill r ر
Approximant l ل (ɫ) j ي w و
  • The standard consonant varies regionally, most prominently [d͡ʒ] in the Arabian Peninsula, parts of the Levant, Iraq, and northern Algeria, [ʒ] in most of Northwest Africa and the Levant, [g] in Egypt and southern Yemen, and [ɟ] in Sudan.
  • the marginal phoneme /ɫ/ only occurs in the word الله /aɫ.ɫaːh/ ('The God') and words derived from it.[12]
  • /p, v/ are learned common consonants in loanwords.


Modern Standard Arabic, like Classical Arabic before it, has three pairs of long and short vowels: /a/, /i/, and /u/:

Modern Standard Arabic vowel phonemes
Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i u
Mid ()* ()*
Open a

Across North Africa and West Asia, short /i/ may be realized as [ɪ ~ e ~ ɨ] before or adjacent to emphatic consonants and [q], [r], [ħ], [ʕ] depending on the accent. short /u/ can also have different realizations, i.e. [ʊ ~ o ~ ʉ]. Sometimes with one value for each vowel in both short and long lengths or two different values for each short and long lengths. In Egypt, close vowels have different values; short initial or medial: [e], [o] ← instead of /i, u/. /i~ɪ/ and /u~ʊ/ completely become /e/ and /o/ respectively in some other particular dialects. Allophones of /a/ and /aː/ include [ɑ] and [ɑː] before or adjacent to emphatic consonants and [q], [r]; and [æ] and [æː] elsewhere. Allophones of /iː/ include [ɪː]~[ɨː] before or adjacent to emphatic consonants and [q], [r], [ħ], [ʕ]. Allophones of /uː/ include [ʊː]~[ɤː]~[] before or adjacent to emphatic consonants and [q], [r], [ħ], [ʕ]. Unstressed final long /aː, iː, uː/ are most often shortened or reduced: /aː/  [æ ~ ɑ], /iː/  /i/, /uː/  [o~u].


  • *although not part of Standard Arabic phonology the vowels /eː/ and /oː/ are perceived as separate phonemes in most of modern Arabic dialects and they are occasionally used when speaking Modern Standard Arabic as part of foreign words or when speaking it with a colloquial tone.

Differences between Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic

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.

It should be mentioned that many Arabic speakers do not find a noteworthy difference between these varieties, and may sometimes refer to both by the same name: al-ʻArabīyah al-Fuṣḥá, "the Eloquent Arabic".

Differences in syntax

MSA tends to use simplified structures and drop more complicated ones commonly used in Classical Arabic. Some examples include reliance on verb sentences instead of noun phrases and semi-sentences, as well as avoiding phrasal adjectives and accommodating feminine forms of ranks and job titles.[13]

Differences in terminology

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.[13][14]

Differences in pronunciation

MSA differs from CA in the use of sounds not available in the Arabic script and diacritics (Tashkīl). Unlike Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic accepts the use of consonants that are not supported in the Arabic script, such as /p/, and /v/. Modern Standard Arabic normally does not use Tashkīl, but only in disambiguation and not the full word is diacriticized, while Classical Arabic found in Quran and Hadith scriptures normally prefer indicating full diacritics.[13]

Differences in punctuation

Modern Standard Arabic has adopted several punctuation marks from other languages, and dropped some classical Arabic ones. Modern technology, especially in printing press and the use of the Internet, has contributed largely to this trend.[13]

Differences in style

Modern Standard Arabic adopts modern writing forms, such as essays, opinion articles, and technical reports, instead of classical ones. 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.

Regional variants

MSA is loosely uniform across the Middle East as it is based on the convention of Arabic speakers rather than being a regulated language which rules are followed (that is despite the number of academies regulating Arabic). It can be thought of as being in a continuum between CA (the regulated language described in grammar books) and the spoken vernaculars while leaning much more to CA in its written form than its spoken form.

Regional variations exist due to influence from the spoken vernaculars. TV hosts who read prepared MSA scripts, for example in Al Jazeera, are ordered to give up national or ethnic pronunciations by changing their pronunciation of certain phonemes (e.g. the realization of the Classical jīm ج as [ɡ] by Egyptians), though other traits may show the speaker's region, such as the stress and the exact value of vowels and the pronunciation of other consonants. People who speak MSA also mix vernacular and Classical in pronunciation, words, and grammatical forms. Classical/vernacular mixing in formal writing can also be found (e.g., in some Egyptian newspaper editorials); others are written in Modern Standard/vernacular mixing, including entertainment news.


People who are literate in Modern Standard Arabic are primarily found in most countries of the Arab League. It may be assumed that the number of speakers of the language to be the number of literate people in this region, because it is compulsory in schools of most of the Arab League to learn Modern Standard Arabic. People who are literate in the language are usually more so passively, as they mostly use the language in reading and writing, not in speaking.

The countries with the largest populations that mandate MSA be taught in all schools are, with rounded-up numbers (data from 2008—2014):


Common phrases

Translation Phrase IPA Romanization (ALA-LC)
hello/welcomeمرحباً, أهلاً وسهلاً/marħaban, ʔahlan wa sahlan/marḥaban, ahlan wa-sahlan
peace [be] with you (lit. upon you)السلام عليكم/assaˈlaːmu ʕaˈlajkum/as-salāmu ʻalaykum
how are you?كيف حالك؟/ˈkajfa ˈħaːluk, -luki/kayfa ḥāluk, ḥāluki
see youإلى اللقاء/ʔila l.liqaːʔ/ilá al-liqāʼ
goodbyeمع السلامة/maʕa s.saˈlaːma/maʻa as-salāmah
pleaseمن فضلك/min ˈfadˤlik/min faḍlik
that (one)ذلك/ˈðaːlik/dhālik
How much/How many?كم؟/kam/kam?
Englishالإنجليزية/الإنكليزية/الإنقليزية(varies) /alʔing(i)li(ː)ˈzij.ja/(may vary) al-inglīzīyah
What is your name?ما اسمك؟/masmuk, -ki/ masmuka / -ki?
I don't knowلا أعرف/laː ˈʔaʕrif/lā aʻrif

See also


  1. Spelling for the final letter yāʼ differs in Egypt, Sudan and sometimes other regions as Yemen. It is always undotted ى, hence عربى فصيح.
  2. Pronunciation varies regionally. The following are examples:
    • The Levant: [al ʕaraˈbɪjja lˈfʊsˤħa], colloquially: [(e)l-]
    • Hejaz: [al ʕaraˈbijjalˈfusˤħa]
    • East central Arabia: [æl ʢɑrɑˈbɪjjɐ lˈfʊsˤʜɐ], colloquially: [el-]
    • Egypt: [æl ʕɑɾɑˈbejjɑ lˈfosˤħɑ], colloquially: [el-]
    • Libya: [æl ʕɑrˤɑˈbijjæ lˈfusˤħæ], colloquially: [əl-]
    • Tunisia: [æl ʕɑrˤɑˈbeːjæ lˈfʊsˤħæ], colloquially: [el-]
    • Algeria, Morocco: [æl ʕɑrˤɑbijjæ lfusˤħæ], colloquially: [l-]
  3. Modern Standard Arabic is not commonly taught as a native language in the Arabic-speaking world, as speakers of various dialects of Arabic would first learn to speak their respective local dialect. Modern Standard Arabic is the most common standardized form of Arabic taught in primary education throughout the Arab world.
  1. Modern Standard Arabic at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Wright, 2001, p. 492.
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Standard Arabic". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. Gully, Adrian; Carter, Mike; Badawi, Elsaid (July 29, 2015). Modern Written Arabic: A Comprehensive Grammar (2 ed.). Routledge. p. 2. ISBN 978-0415667494.
  5. Kamusella, Tomasz (2017). "The Arabic Language: A Latin of Modernity?" (PDF). Journal of Nationalism, Memory & Language Politics. 11 (2).
  6. Alaa Elgibali and El-Said M. Badawi. Understanding Arabic: Essays in Contemporary Arabic Linguistics in Honor of El-Said M. Badawi, 1996. Page 105.
  7. Farghaly, A., Shaalan, K. Arabic Natural Language Processing: Challenges and Solutions, ACM Transactions on Asian Language Information Processing (TALIP), the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), 8(4)1-22, December 2009.
  8. Alan S. Kaye (1991). "The Hamzat al-Waṣl in Contemporary Modern Standard Arabic". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 111 (3): 572–574. doi:10.2307/604273. JSTOR 604273.
  9. London Arabic Tuition
  10. Arabic Language Dialects
  11. Wolfdietrich Fischer. 1997. "Classical Arabic," The Semitic Languages. London: Routledge. Pg 189.
  12. Watson (2002:16)
  13. Arabic, AL. "White Paper". Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  14. محمد, د. علي. "ورقة عمل حول التعريب اللفظي في اللغة العربية". Archived from the original on 2016-08-23. Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  15. "Official Egyptian Population clock".
  16. The World Factbook. Retrieved on 2014-04-28.
  17. "World Population Prospects, Table A.1" (PDF). 2008 revision. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2009: 17. Retrieved 22 September 2010. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. 2008 Sudanese census


  • Holes, Clive (2004) Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions, and Varieties Georgetown University Press. ISBN 1-58901-022-1
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