Diglossia (from the Greek ‘bilingualism’) refers to a phenomenon of two languages or two registers of one language spoken for different purposes. In some cases, the dialect of a cultural center or dominant group becomes the ‘standard’ version of a language, and thus the lingua franca for speakers of all dialects. This is the case for Italian and Chinese, which are thought of as single languages, but are actually language families united by their Florentine and Mandarin (Beijing) dialects, respectively.
Literature also has a standardizing effect. Dante’s Divine Comedy helped establish Florentine Italian as the standard flavor of Italian, which was previously thought of as a vulgar dialect of Latin — therefore not suitable for serious writing. Similarly, Sa‘di Shirazi’s Gulistan became a standard for eloquent Persian. Religious scriptures have had a standardizing effect on languages as well — though Latin was replaced by Dante’s Italian, the Catholic Church has kept it alive. The Quran had the same effect on the Arabic language.
As Muslims migrated from the Arabian peninsula to Iraq, the Levant, and North Africa, they began to Arabize indegenous populations, who spoke Arabic with influences from their native languages. In North Africa Amazigh, Coptic, and other African tongues influenced Arabic. In the Levant, Aramaic, Assyrian, and other languages left their mark, while in the Gulf and Iraq and the Arabic took on a distinctly Persian influence. In the colonial era, Arabic was influenced by French, Spanish, and English.
Though the many dialects have diverged quite a bit, Arabic isn’t going the way of Latin. With the notable exception of Maletese, no Arabic dialect has diverged to the point of being classified as a separate language. A common maxim in linguistics is that a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy. In simpler terms: the classification of a language is dependent on the collective will of the people speaking it and their power. In some cases, two groups speak the same language, but consider it different due to historical issues (Serbian and Croatian) and in other cases, two groups speak a different language, but consider it the same due to a sense of proximity (Moroccan Arabic and Iraqi Arabic).
Arabic speakers tend not to see Arabic as many dialects or languages, but as Standard Arabic (“The most eloquent Arabic” al-logha al-‘arabiya al-fus’ha) and Colloquial Arabic (‘amiyya), which is thought of as a corrupted version of al-fus’ha. Although this understanding of Arabic is not linguistically sound (‘amiyya came first, fus’ha was standardized later on) it forms the basis of how Arabs view their language, and it explains why Moroccans, Iraqis, and Omanis consider themselves speakers of the same language, even if they can’t understand one another.
The understanding of Arabic a single, eloquent language, and ‘amiyyas as a corruption of that language is why Arabic remains classified as one language. To better understand: Imagine if Latin had never fell out of use, but remained as a single literary language across Europe, and the individual Romance languages today were thought of as dialects (Italian Latin, Spanish Latin, French Latin, Romanian Latin).
I first saw the complexity of Arabic diglossia in action when a Moroccan and Lebanese speaker were conversing in a mix of French, and English with some Arabic phrases, because it would be cumbersome to speak Arabic alone. They could have opted to speak fus’ha, but it would be too formal, and their respective ‘amiyyas were too mutually incomprehensible. Similarly, when my friend Ali — a native speaker of Lebanese Arabic — began working at a Shawarma place, he opted to communicate with his Yemeni coworkers in English, as it was odd to communicate in fus’ha and cumbersome to speak their considerably distant ‘amiyyas.
Enter students of the Arabic language, completely confused by this multi-dialectal system. After learning the basics of Arabic in fus’ha, most students begin learning a dialect in tandem, but the question is, which dialect should we learn? Egyptian and Levantine Arabic are the standard choices, because of their intelligibility and large speaker base, but I think these are poor reasons to study these dialects. One should choose the dialect that they will speak the most, but students usually don’t know that ahead of time.
I didn’t speak any ‘amiyya until I moved to Amman and found out how useless fus’ha is in day-to-day life. The adjustment was challenging, and I was frustrated after putting hundreds of hours into learning MSA, only to realize I couldn’t really speak it anywhere. I began by learning words like ‘bidi’ (I want) ‘weyn’ (Where) and ‘rouh’ (To go) via immersion. Then in the Fall, I began studying ‘amiyya and fus’ha with CET at the University of Jordan.
Many locals I meet find the thought of studying ‘amiyya odd. It conflicts with the Arab understanding of what ‘amiyya is. It’s an unruly, corrupted version of fus’ha — something one picks up in the street, not in the classroom. When students ask questions about ‘amiyya grammar, professors often reply that “There is no grammar.” Though that isn’t technically true, it’s reflective of how Arabs view diglossia.
After eight months of study and speaking ‘amiyya regularly, I feel that I am more comfortable speaking ‘amiyya than in fus’ha. Similarly, I find it odd when new students speak fus’ha in everyday situations. Ultimately, one of the most difficult parts of learning Arabic is navigating the diglossia, and learning when to speak ‘amiyya or fus’ha, and how to tell them and their respective contexts apart.