Ask Ali: On Arabic dialects

Ali Al Saloom offers advice on Arabic dialects, and male and female socialising at work.

Dear Ali: How many Arabic languages and dialects do Arabs speak, and any tips on which dialect to learn? AN, Amsterdam

Dear AN: I couldn't help but smile at your question. It was the onset of Islam that helped spread the Arabic language over great distances in less than 1,000 years.

Keep in mind that the Arab world stretches from Asia to North Africa and consists of 22 countries. So naturally, we speak one language with many dialects. Each Arab region has its own variety of spoken Arabic, with its own accent and mix of classical and local words. Written Arabic is usually classical, apart from poetry and letters between friends.

Of the main divisions, Levantine Arabic, from the eastern Mediterranean, and Egyptian Arabic are understood by most Arabs, due to the popularity of films and television produced in these two regions.

Maghrebi Arabic comes from the Moroccan and north-west African region and is considered by some to be distinct from classical Arabic due to its Berber influences and the exposure of its speakers to European languages.

Around here, we have Gulf Arabic or Khaleeji - again, not a written but a spoken language. Within that, each GCC country has its own dialect as well, but we can easily communicate even if we tease each other about the way we speak!

If you want to learn Arabic, I would say that unless you plan to stay in the Gulf for a long time, you are probably better off going for the Egyptian or the Levantine, as a large portion of the population from those regions reside overseas and those dialects will be understood by Arabs around the world.

Kaif Halak?, Chef Halak?, Shakhbarak?, Shlonak?, Shahwaluk?, Kifak?, Kidayr?, Ashtawad?, Kayfa Haluka? All of these terms, in a variety of dialects, mean one thing in Arabic: "How are you doing?" The last one is the classical Arabic.

Dear Ali: My colleagues and I went out for a team lunch. We were a group of six people, males and females, from different countries, including a local lady. I noticed that there were Emirati men sitting across from our table who were staring at her in a rude way. Why do you think that was? RW, Abu Dhabi

Dear RW: Either they were just plain rude, or they were staring at the local lady because they were wondering why she was sitting with men. You see, as innocent and normal as that may seem to you, to Emiratis it is uncommon to witness such a situation because it's traditionally considered taboo for men and women who are unrelated to socialise in public.

Due to the employment of Emirati men and women in the private sector, companies often try to foster team bonding through activities such as the lunch you describe. Personally, I understand their viewpoint and I also don't see a problem when I take my colleagues to lunch together as a team.

As a cultural consultant, I like to see both sexes present so that they can represent themselves as professional individuals who add value in a predominantly foreign group. I see more of this happening in the future, and I guess people will just have to get away from the idea that the woman is doing something wrong.

As long as she conducted herself in a respectable manner in front of her colleagues, then she definitely wasn't doing anything wrong by joining you for lunch.

Language lesson

Arabic: Lahja

English: Dialect/accent

If you're a talking about a new colleague and want to tell your friend that he speaks in the Egyptian dialect, you can say "Zamili lahjeta Masriya", which means "My colleague's accent is Egyptian".