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Modern Standard Arabic: what it is and when to use it

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is a written standard that is known across the Arabic-speaking world.

MSA is the standardized and literary variety of Arabic used in writing and in most formal speech. It removes colloquialisms from the language, making it understandable by all Arabic speakers.

All Arabic speaking countries use MSA for written text or formal speech, while Arabic dialects are primarily spoken for everyday conversation.

What is a language standard?

MSA is a prestige language, a language or dialect family that is considered by a society to be the most “correct” or “superior”. MSA is a fascinating example of a prestige language, in which Arabic speaking countries have adopted one standard as their common written language.

It’s the standard taught in schools, so children learn to read and write it fluently.

But MSA is not a native language, and there is no such thing as a native MSA speaker. This is why it’s referred to as a standard and not a language.

MSA is not a native language, and there is no such thing as a native MSA speaker. This is why it’s referred to as a standard and not a language.

There are many Arabic speakers who use a mix of MSA and their local dialect. But, it is unusual for a native Arabic speaker to just speak MSA, and it sounds awkward to the native listener.

Where does MSA come from?

MSA is based on Classical Arabic.

Classical (Quranic) Arabic is mostly used in religious literature and writing. Most Arabic speakers will know Classical Arabic, as well as MSA, especially Muslims who study the Quran.

MSA is a simplified version of Classical Arabic, but it has a structural influence from foreign languages to better suit modern needs. So, it’s easily understood and used across all Arabic-speaking countries.

MSA is a simplified version of Classical Arabic, but it has a structural influence from foreign languages to better suit modern needs.

MSA breaks down the dialect barrier

The Arabic dialects are quite varied and can be grouped as follows:

  • Maghrebi group (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Western Sahara, Mauritania)
  • Sudanese group (Anseba Region, Gash-Barka Region, Sudan)
  • Egyptian group (Egypt)
  • Arabian Peninsula group (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Southern Iraq, native Jordanians)
  • Mesopotamian group (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Cyprus, Kuwait, Bahrain, Khuzestan (Iran), Eastern Province (Saudi Arabia), Qatar)
  • Levantine group (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Israel,Turkey)
  • Andalusian group
Fun fact! It’s long been the topic of debate as to which Arabic dialect is closest to MSA. Some believe Levantine, others consider Saudi Arabia to be the closest.

All dialects come with specific grammar, sentence structure, passive voice, local words and pronunciation; the major differences are mostly spoken, not written ones.

What to use: MSA or a local dialect?

If a client is focusing on Arabic countries, we recommend translating their content into MSA. Then, depending on the target audience, we can always bring in elements from dialects, to give a local influence.

Transliterating MSA

Refresh! Transliteration is a phonetic transcription of an original language into another script, to enable the reader to understand how it should be pronounced. Romanisation refers to transcribing any script into Latin script.

Transcription relies on pronunciation. There are various transcription systems for Arabic, but no official standard for transcribing MSA. So, when it comes to transcribing, it’s key to know the target country. Or, if the target audience is the entire Arabic speaking world, you can agree on a dialect beforehand that best suits.

Why MSA is important

We usually recommend translating into MSA to our clients. It’s the standard for Arabic speaking countries, and can be localized by importing local elements from dialects, if required. If you have any questions about how MSA can meet your translation needs, our team is here to help.

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