Essential Arabic Grammar – Formal and Informal Speech in Modern Standard Arabic

Unlike English, Modern Standard Arabic distinguishes between formal and informal speech.  For instance, the form one uses to speak to his or her professor is different from the one used to speak to friends.

In Modern Standard Arabic, the word “you” can be translated in various ways.  This depends on a variety of factors, including the situation (formal vs. informal), the gender of the person one is speaking to (male or female) and how many people one is speaking to (one, two or more than two).  Dual numbers refer to two, and more than two is a plural.

This information, and the form of “you” in varying situations is summarized in the following table:

Informal -“you” Formal – “you”
Phrase in Arabic Pronunciation Situation Phrase in Arabic Pronunciation Situation

أَنت

Anta (Masculine, singular)

أنتُم

Antum (Masculine, plural, also mixed groups)

أَنتِ

Anti (Feminine, singular)

أنتُنَّ

Antunna (Feminine, plural)

أنتُما

Antumaa (Dual, both genders)

أنتُما

Antumaa (Dual, both genders)

Based on the above, the simple sentence, “Where are you from?” can be translated variously as:

Phrase in Arabic Pronunciation Situation

مِن أينَ أَنتِ؟

Min ayna anti? (To a female friend)

مِن أينَ أَنتَ؟

Min ayna anta? (To a male friend)

مِن أينَ أَنتُم؟

Min ayna antum? (To a group of males one does not know very well)

مِن أينَ أنتُنَّ؟

Minayna antunna? (To a group of females one does not know very well)

مِن أينَ أنتُما؟

Min ayna antumaa? (To a group of two people)

In addition to pronouns, Modern Standard Arabic distinguishes between informal and formal speech for verbs as well:

Formal MSA Informal MSA English
Phrase in Arabic Pronunciation Phrase in Arabic Pronunciation Phrase in English Situation

ماذا تأكُلونَ؟

Maatha takulouna?

ماذا تأكُلُ؟

Maatha ta’kulu? What are you eating? (To a male)

.قَرأَتُ كِتابَكُنَّ

Qara’tu kitaabukunna.

.قَرأَتُ كِتابَكِ

Qara’tu kitaabaki. I read your book. (To a female)

.أنتُن ﱢ تَدرُسنَ في الجامِعَةِ

Antunna tadrusna fi al-jaami‘ati.

.أنتُنَّ تَدرُسنَ في الجامِعَةِ

Antunna tadrusna fi al-jaami‘ati. You study at the university. (To a group of females)

.أنتُم تَسكُنونَ في مَدينَةٍ صَغيرَةٍ

Antum taskunouna fi madeenatin sagheeratin.

.أنتُم تَسكُنونَ في مَدينَةٍ صَغيرَةٍ

Antum taskunuuna fi madeenatin sagheeratin. You live in a small city. (To a group of males)

.تَشرَبانِ القهوَةَ كُلَ يَومٍ

Tashrabaani al-qahwata kula yawmin.

.تَشرَبانِ القهوَةَ كُلَ يَومٍ

Tashrabaani al-qahwata kula yawmin. You drink coffee every day. (To two people)

 

In Modern Standard Arabic, one can omit the pronouns as it is often clear from context who is being addressed and which type of speech is meant.  However, the pronoun can be, and often is, added for emphasis or to make it very clear who is being addressed.  This is true for both formal and informal speech styles.

Also, Modern Standard Arabic does not make a distinction between addressing a group of people (males or females) or two people (i.e. using the dual form).  The same pronouns and verb conjugations are used for both speech styles.

Modern Standard Arabic and Diglossia

Even though Modern Standard Arabic is capable of distinguishing between formal and informal speech, the linguistic reality for Arabic is more complicated than for most of the world’s languages.  Arabic exhibits what linguists call diglossia, which means that two varieties of the same language exist side-by-side in a speech community with each one having a specialized function.

These two varieties of Arabic are known as Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial Arabic.  Modern Standard Arabic is the one used in books, newspapers, literature, official documents and formal situations, such as a news broadcast and parliamentary speech. A colloquial variety is used in informal (usually unwritten) contexts, such as talking to one’s family and friends or in unofficial communication. The colloquial language shares some features with MSA. An important note is that Arabic has many colloquial languages (sometimes referred to as dialects), spoken in the different Arabic countries. Each colloquial language has its own grammatical and linguistic features.  The differences between colloquial languages are sometimes so pronounced that one can often tell where a speaker is from just by listening to him or her speak.

The colloquial examples listed in the following table are from the Algerian and Egyptian varieties of colloquial Arabic:

Modern Standard Arabic Algerian Arabic Egyptian Arabic English
Phrase in Arabic Pronunciation Phrase in Algerian Arabic Phrase in Egyptian Arabic Phrase in English Situation

ماذا تَشرَبينَ؟

Maatha tashrabeena? Wash tashrab? Teshrabi eh? What would you like to drink? (To a female)

كيفَ حالُكَ؟

Kayfa haaluka? Washrak? ‘Amel eh? How are you? (To a male)

هل أنتَ في العَمَلِ؟

Hal anta fi al-‘amali? Rak fi al-khadma? Enta fel shoghl? Are you at work? (To a male)

هل تأكُلُ الفَطورَ كُلَ صَباحٍ؟

Hal ta’kulu al-fatuura kulla sabaahin? Taftar kul sabah? Beteftar koll yoam? Do you eat breakfast every morning? (To a male)