“Today, we recognize that French and Portuguese are different languages,” writes R.L.G., “but Arabs are not often sure (and are sometimes at odds) about how to describe ‘Arabic’ today”:

The plain fact is that a rural Moroccan and a rural Iraqi cannot have a conversation and reliably understand each other. An urban Algerian and an urban Jordanian would struggle to speak to each other, but would usually find ways to cope, with a heavy dose of formal standard Arabic used to smooth out misunderstandings. They will sometimes use well-known dialects, especially Egyptian (spread through television and radio), to fill in gaps. …

In Europe, we call “French” and “Spanish” “languages”, but in Arabic, we call these varieties “dialects”, despite the lack of mutual intelligibility. Some linguists make the point bald: these are different languages, they say. But Arabs themselves consider Arabic a single thing, with local variety. All educated Arabs learn the Koranic-based language that linguists call “modern standard Arabic”. It is used in political speeches, news broadcasts and nearly all writing—but nobody speaks it spontaneously in the marketplace or over the dinner table. Most people struggle to write it correctly.