Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) vs. Classical Arabic: Which Format to Choose for English to Arabic Translations and Why

Did you know there are over 25 different varieties of Arabic? Which is the correct form to choose for your Arabic translation needs? Today we examine two of the largest categories of Arabic—Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) vs. Classical Arabic—and explore which to choose for your English to Arabic translations.

What is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)?

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), sometimes referred to as Modern Written Arabic (MWA), is a variety of the Arabic language primarily used in written publications, including newspapers, academia, and literary publishing, as well as in formal spoken contexts, such as the news, the law, broadcasting, and international diplomacy. MSA was developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to provide a “lingua franca” for the Arabic-speaking world, which was (and remains) notorious for its many complex regional dialects and variations.

Today, Modern Standard Arabic is recognized as an official or co-official language in 24 sovereign states across the Middle East and Africa, chiefly those that are members of the Arab League. It is the variant taught in schools—as well as the main form of Arabic learned by non-native speakers—and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Although native speakers of Arabic do not speak this more formal or literary format in everyday life, preferring regional dialects, they will almost certainly understand someone speaking it.

 Modern Standard Arabic vs. Classical Arabic

What about Classical Arabic when it comes to translations? Sometimes called Quranic Arabic, this is the written version of Arabic used in the Quran. A standardized form of Arabic dating from the 7th century CE, it was used especially in literary texts (such as poetry, or early collections of the One Thousand and One Nights) and religious contexts. Today, Classical Arabic is not spoken, though most Muslim Arabic speakers will be familiar with it due to study of the Quran.

Modern Standard Arabic’s development was based on Classical Arabic. Indeed, these two forms of Arabic are mutually intelligible, and many native speakers will not draw a strong distinction between the two (although linguists do). That said, there are some key differences between Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic:

  • Vocabulary: Some lexical terms used in Classical Arabic are now obsolete. Instead, Modern Standard Arabic contains far more words borrowed from other languages—just as Arabic gave loanwords to many world languages—as well as vocabulary for modern technology like telephones or computers.
  • Grammar and syntax: Modern Standard Arabic tends to simplify or avoid the more complicated sentence structures of Classical Arabic. Conversely, MSA adheres to a more rigid word order than Classical Arabic.
  • Pronunciation and style: Classical Arabic was strictly codified by elite 9th century grammarians, so texts like the Quran use marks called diacritics to guide pronunciation and inflection according to firm rules. MSA pronunciation is looser and more flexible.

Choosing a format for English to Arabic translations

Whether you choose Modern Standard Arabic or Classical Arabic for your translations will depend on the context.

In general, Modern Standard Arabic is the best choice for international business, politics, media, and literature—it’s widely understood across the world by both non-native speakers of Arabic as well as native speakers, and its vocabulary accounts for the technology of modern life. It’s also more suited to situations where it’s crucial to preserve the formal or literary register of content, such as international contracts, published books, or news broadcasts. Yet there are a few cases where Classical Arabic may be a better fit. For example, if you’re translating Classical Arabic texts or working in a liturgical context, this may be the right decision.

However, if your English to Arabic translation needs involve conversation and interpretation with native Arabic speakers in a narrowly focused geographic region, you may need to go a step further. While your audience will probably understand someone speaking MSA, it may sound stilted or overly formal—perhaps even humorous. Instead, we recommend working with a professional translator that is an expert in that region’s specific Arabic dialect.