According to Wikipedia, Modern Standard Arabic is different from Classical Arabic.
This is a big question and Wikipedia is a good place to start from. What if I told you this was a controversial opinion on the big Wiki itself? It's a shame more people aren't aware of the Talk and History pages, but I can assure you that this controversy has been the root of many intense edit-battles fought over the distinction between MSA and CA.
Here's a small timeline I made using a little tool called Time Graphics. In summary the first person to create the Arabic page brought up the MSA/Classical Arabic distinction assuming it to be universally accepted. So for the time being, Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic would both redirect to the Arabic page.
As you yourself mentioned, this is not a distinction a whole lot of Arabic speakers actually make, being more common among learners and scholars in the Western hemisphere. So, Arabic speakers who were at the time adding dialects to the rather barren Arabic page also introduced the Fusha page to give their interpretation of what constituted the standard language, it as you can imagine described MSA and CA as essentially one and the same.
However since MSA and CA are still things typically different people (ex. Arabic learners getting started with the language vs. scholars who are looking into Arab history) search for, a need to give them pages separate from Arabic or Fusha would emerge.
The final nail on the coffin came when in March of 2009, Fusha which had its title changed to "Literary Arabic" was merged into the MSA page. It wouldn't be right to say this was a fair process as the unanimous support was again, mostly from the Western hemisphere.
There are events after 2009, mostly wikis in other languages arguing over maintaining the English wiki's distinction or their own interpretation of things. And although speakers of Arabic might insist that they have good reason to prefer to see the two as one every now and again these pleas have usually been shut down by the majority of the community voting against. There is an ongoing merge request to merge CA and MSA since July of 2019, so let's see what will come of that...
(Edit: Merger proposal removed on 19 February 2020, under "lack of support")
If it is indeed a separate language, what is its status?
The keyword here is “if”. To my knowledge, there is no sovereign state which lists “Modern Standard Arabic” as an official language. But of course languages can have extranational status.
Ethnologue is a pretty popular source for checking language status and I highly suspect some of the Wikipedia editors for the page may have consulted it although no citations to it were made. Here "Arabic, Standard” is classified as an international language (EGIDS level 0) with 0 native speakers.
"Arabic, Standard” is stated to have about 274 million speakers across countries where it is spoken. Furthermore it is divided into Modern Standard Arabic (Modern Literary) and Classical Arabic (Quranic), while making mention that ancient grammar is preserved throughout both of them, a point we’ll get back to later.
What’s interesting here is the Language Use section:
“Not an L1. In most Arab countries only the well-educated have adequate proficiency in Modern Standard Arabic. Education, official purposes, written materials, and formal speeches. Classical Arabic, with archaic vocabulary, is used for religion and ceremonial purposes.” It is assumed that no one can be a native speaker of MSA, and that it has to be learned outside of the household. And yet it has such a large international presence that ensures its continual usage. This is how they are able to present a living language with 0 native speakers.
(Eberhard, David M., Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2019. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-second edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com.)
The “Arabic, Standard” entry does however have a bit of history to it. If you go back to the 13th edition (1996) you’ll see a few interesting differences. Here it’s described as follows:
“Not a mother tongue, but taught in schools. Used for education, official purposes, written materials, and formal speeches. Classical Arabic is used for religion and ceremonial purposes, having archaic vocabulary. Modern Standard Arabic is a modernized variety of Classical Arabic. In most Arab countries only the well educated have adequate proficiency in Standard Arabic, while over 100,500,000 do not. …”
First of all, it’s stated that Standard Arabic is the one which is taught in schools and not necessarily just MSA. Second we have this statistic (which continued to appear for a few more editions, before later being removed) that a very large portion of the Arabic speaking population was assumed to not have adequate proficiency in Standard Arabic. And third there is no mention of “grammar being preserved” among the two of them, leaving the reader to assume minimal or no intelligibility.
From edition 15 (2005) onwards, the total number of L1 speakers for all varieties of Arabic - estimated as 206 million at the time - is reported when calculating the population for Arabic, Standard although the claim that 100 million people lack the education to learn it adequately is still there.
Over the next editions these sentences have been rephrased over and over again, with the additional remark of ancient grammar surviving both in Modern and Classical also being included at some point. Eventually MSA was reported as the sole form of the language taught in schools and Classical Arabic was reported as essentially a liturgical “dialect” of Arabic, Standard.
This however is not a sentiment very popular in the Arab World who still take Classical and Standard to be synonymous, due in large part to their common grammar, which only recent editions have began to acknowledge.
The keyword here is “if": If you agree with the 22nd edition then the language taught in school is MSA, and if you agree with the earlier editions then it’s Standard Arabic.
If you were to consult Glottolog instead, they also list Standard Arabic, giving it the following classification:
Afro-Asiatic > Semitic > West Semitic > Arabian > Arabic > Standard Arabic.
MSA is listed as an alternative name. Not a dialect or subset as in the case of Ethnologue, but just an alias for Standard Arabic. The same goes for Classical Arabic. Granted it’s worth mentioning that some authors listed in their references section might make their distinction similar to Ethnologue.
Last but not least let’s check ISO-639, an international standard which assigns languages short codes. There is no mention of MSA, Classical or even Standard Arabic. There’s only Arabic (ara ISO-639-2, ar ISO-639-1) and Judeo-Arabic (jrb ISO-639-2).
Why is MSA then classified as a separate language from CA ?
To begin with, something which needs to be said is that MSA originated as a pedagogic term before coming into use as a term in language taxonomy. That is to say, MSA was a term for educators rather than language researchers. Specifically the term MSA itself emerged some time in the 1960’s and has a lot more to do with the US than it does for much of the Arab World with a history tied to the National Defense Education Act of 1958.
But that answer explains when not how we got here, to understand why a term such as Modern “Standard” Arabic emerged in the first place we need to start with the historic predecessors to it which were once commonly referred to as “Modern Arabic”.
The question of Modern Arabic
Diglossia, the phenomenon of two languages or dialects being co-employed in a single community, was commonplace until the advent of modern language education. A contemporary example for this could be African American Vernacular English and Standard English for certain regions in the US, where one is almost exclusively spoken and the other is used for written language and preferred in media unless spoken language is meant to be represented as-is. This was (and to some extent today still is) the case for Arabic speaking regions as well, which had a spoken language, differing from region to region, but a common written language.
By default Arabic referred to said written language, as this was (mainly) what local and even foreign scholars would exclusively study. Yet some of those scholars began to notice this discrepancy and as we embark into the 19th century a real interest for a so-called "modern Arabic" begins to emerge, concentrated especially in France. In the beginning I mentioned a “Western hemisphere” but the one I’m referring to doesn’t quite pass through Greenwich. It primarily refers to French, English and German scholarship; in contrast to an Eastern hemisphere roughly bordering Arabic, Turkish and Russian scholarship. So bear in mind, from here on out it’s mostly going to be about the Western hemisphere.
Below I’ll describe three major trends, which even today all have some following, which dictated the study of Modern Arabic and eventually gave us the material on what we might sometimes refer to as Modern Standard Arabic. To my knowledge, none of these trends or the ideal Arabic standards that they’ve proposed have any official status in any sovereign state, but I will try to describe what kind of legitimacy or justification they may have had historically.
Arabic as it is spoken: Vulgar Arabic of the Masses
Auguste Herbin's Développemens des principes de le langue arabe moderne or Developments of the Principles of the Modern Arabic Language might not have been the first work published in hopes of defining this language, but it was early enough that the author himself was pretty confident that it was, to quote a portion from the preface:
Chaque jour nos relations avec le Levant s'accroissent, et prennent une nouvel consistance, et cependant chaque jour les Drogmans (I) devienent plus rares.
Jusqu'à ce jour, les grammaires et les dictionnaires connus ne peuvent facilitier que l'étude de l'arabe ancien, et n'offrent aucun secours por la connaissance de l'arabe moderne, qui diffère beaucoup de l'ancien. C'est donc pour obvier à cet inconvénient que j'ai entrepris de publier ce course d'arabe moderne.
Each day our relations with the Levant improve, taking a new form, yet each day the Drogmans (I) become rarer.
To date, known grammars and dictionaries can only facilitate the study of ancient Arabic, and offer no help for the knowledge of modern Arabic, which differs greatly from the old. It is therefore to obviate this inconvenience that I undertook the publishing of this course on modern Arabic.
Leaving aside the political factors which attracted French interest in the Levant, let's focus on the Drogmans. Drogmans (or Dragomans) were interpreters who facilitated spoken communication. It's with their decline that the significance of spoken language comes into play as study of the written language was apparently insufficient to establish proper communication. In this earliest version of "Modern Arabic" we take spoken language - the language common folk use - to be the modern language, described as a mix of features retained from an Ancient [sic] Arabic and contemporary “Vulgar Arabic”.
Herbin clearly distinguishes this language from that of the Qur’an (and thereby Classical Arabic) and also acknowledges that it is not the same for each region. What is presented is a “generalized” modern language with side-notes on region/dialect specific nuances.
To give an example there’s a mention of how the first person conjugations for the imperfect (called the future due to identical conjugation for this particular example) differ: ا is replaced with ب in Syria; بحفظ (b’ḣafèż) instead of احفظ (âḣfèż, I save).
After its founding, the Society Asiatique would also pick up on the Modern Arabic hype and would make it a frequent topic in their journal publications. But more on that later.
Dialectism: Several Modern Arabics
Over time a second view on Modern Arabic developed, a trend of dividing up the dialects. Instead of assuming an underlying universal language (features which descended from an Ancient Arabic), an alternative way to study contemporary Arabic could be to only study the language of a specific region. Much as Herbin attributed his motivation to a lack of interpreters, this trend especially grew in popularity as French and English interest in Arab regions grew, which again presented the need for learning material on spoken communication.
This was more so a change of attitude than a fully independent movement. What was previously described as the “arabischen Vulgärdialektes von Aegypten” or “Arabic Vulgar Dialects of Egypt” would slowly become “Egyptian Arabic”. “Arabe marocain” or Morrocan Arabic which would have once been referred to as a dialect of Arabic could now have dialects of its own.
Egyptian Arabic is perhaps the most significant example for this dialect-oriented study, as the intense attention it was able to draw made it into one of the most prestigious dialects in the Arab World. Its early codification helped it find its way into the age of mass media, where its frequent use in movies especially has made it recognizable to Arabs far and wide. Syrian (or Greater Syrian, Levantine ) Arabic was also studied extensively, but to a lesser degree. Although it was a bit slower to reach general audiences, there was still quite a lot of material that was produced.
Some examples of works produced following this trend include:
Arabic Proverbs or The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians:
Earlier I hid a “mainly” when stating that written language was all that was studied. Study of oral language was not entirely non-existent, but it was far less common. Some time in the 18th century a شرف ادين ابن اسد (Sherifeddin ibn Asad) is reported to have collected a number of proverbs used in the context of language spoken in public or in the bazar, in contrast to more literary collections. The author John Lewis Burckhardt claims to have found this collection written on a few pages of the a book of a sheikh he met who was acquainted with ibn Asad. He completed his translation in 1817 and it was published posthumously circa 1830.
An Arabic-English Vocabulary for the use of English students of modern Egyptian Arabic:
Essentially a personal vocabulary list turned into a dictionary by a Donald Andreas Cameron, who was at the time an English Judge serving in the Native Egyptian Court of Appeal published in 1892. It incorporates vocabulary from Egyptian law, decrees, annual budgets, reports and journals. It also features colloquialisms, military lingo and scientific terms. There is also limited information given on what regions or contexts certain words might be used in as well as etymologic information for loanwords.
Egyptian self-taught (Arabic) with English Phonetic Pronunciation:
A language handbook by Carl Albert Thimm, published in 1897. One of many books which aims to teach colloquial language for travelers. There is also a book for Syrian Arabic within the same series.
The Third Way: Neo-Classical Arabic
Despite the pragmatic benefit that lay in the dialectism perspective, over time scholars began to question this too. The work that was being carried out had indeed made trade, investment, influence and the administration of established protectorates much easier. However the disunity among dialects continued to present problems as zones of influence expanded, meaning more and more dialects needed to be covered. But this was only the Western point of view, what those in the field saw for themselves was that for the majority of Arabic speaking regions Classical Arabic was still the educational and literary language.
… Si l'idéal de MM. Spitta-Bey et Landberg* peut se réaliser, à savoir que l'on en vienne à composer les livres d'école, les articles de journaux en arabe moderne, il faudra que l'on prenne pour base le dialecte le moins corrompu et que l'on tâche d'en exclure les vulgarismes au lieu de les prescrire. Pas de meilleur moyen pour y arriver, à ce qu'il me semble, que d'y substituer, par l'école et par les journaux, les formes pures qu'on trouvera encore vivantes dans la Péninsule.
If the ideal of Messieurs Spitta-Bey and Landberg* can ever be realized, that one may come to compose the schoolbooks and journal articles in Modern Arabic, it will be necessary that one takes for a base the least corrupted dialect and that one try to exclude the vulgarisms instead of prescribing them. No better way to get there, it seems to me, than to substitute it, through the school and through the journals, the pure forms that one may still find alive in the peninsula.
*Willhelm Spitta-Bey and Carlo Landberg
(De Goeje, M. J. (1919). Carlo Landberg: Proverbes et dictions de la province de Syrie, section de Saydâ, Journal asiatique, Volume XIII, p. 539)
Thus one solution that was considered was to build a modern language (standardized though education and publications), based more on Classical Arabic than the regional differences. In other words, to unite the dialects through similarities rather than to divide them up.
Although it may be associated with Arabic nationalism or similar movements I don’t think there’s any name for this trend in Arabic or French, let alone in English. So I hereby dub it Neo-Classical Arabic; the analogy here being that much as Neo-Classical architecture was a movement which saw ancient Greco-Roman style buildings being built for use in the modern age, this form of Modern Arabic was to be a hearkening to Classical Arabic that people would use for their daily communication.
If the first trend was a movement and the second an attitude, this one was very much an opinion. It was only an idea one would observe between the lines, in books or journals. There weren’t really any publications authored strictly to advocate for it from what I have found. At least not yet…
The Other Side
So far I really haven’t talked that much about what Arabic speakers themselves had to say on the matter. As mentioned above, CA was the language of education and published material. It was also the language of poetry and prayer so that meant that even if one couldn’t speak the language fluently they would still have some exposure. The intellectuals of the 19th century weren’t content with this, but they identified the problem differently. From their point of view it was a matter of the inefficiency of education at the time. But where it could be taught successfully, CA was by all means a far more extensive language sporting a very rich vocabulary and innumerable tools in its grammar.
Suffice to say, this latest trend was the one which appealed to Arabs the most. Students from the Levant or Egypt who studied in France got to see how the French treated their own language at the time: By strictly preserving its traditional orthography and avoiding dialectism. Perhaps it was only natural that those who were impacted by French scholarship pursue the Neo-Classical approach. The result was generations of scholars who wanted to maintain the rich tradition of the Arabic language by superimposing it onto the modern vernacular, rather than making the contemporary language into the official.
The French scholarship though labeled these as “purists”, who unlike the Arabs of French Algeria were a lot more resistant to importing new words, opting to come up with neologisms when available. As Washington-Surrey’s (1897) L’arabe moderne étudié dans les journaux et les pièces officielles or Modern Arabic as studied in Newspapers and Official Documents puts it:
Mais quelque nombreux et quelque notables que fussent les changements qui s'opérèrent alors dans la langue, ils ne sont pas comparables aux modifications introduites par la presse périodique arabe, c'est-à-dire depuis une cinquantaine d'années environ.
But no matter how numerous and noteworthy the changes which have occurred in the language [over the centuries], they are not comparable to the modifications introduced by the Arab periodical press, that is to say for the last fifty years or so.
With the ideal of presence in journals realized, next came education. Following the Great War, circumstances to permit this emerged within the newly established Arab Mandates. The heart of the movement was Damascus, where an “Arab Academy” closely linked to the Council of Public Education was founded. But that shouldn’t mislead anyone into thinking the further standardization and implementation of Classical Arabic was merely a process conducted by Syrians and French officials. On the contrary it was a very much collaborative movement, if one were to cycle through the yearly bulletins of the Academy they would often stumble upon articles by Egyptian, Palestinian or Lebanese scholars as well. Not to mention non-French orientalists. Following the example of Syria, Egypt and later other Arab countries would begin to establish similar institutes of their own.
So now we can finally start to talk about a modern, standardized Arabic…
The Arab-American Exchange and the Question of Modern Standard Arabic
Shifting from the history of education in Arab Countries, let us embark into the history of education of the US. The year is 1958. An act called the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) has been enacted. The NDEA was an initiative to improve the quality of American Education. It introduced programs for financial assistance to students, for making it easier to change and improve curricula in elementary and secondary schools, and most importantly for the better teaching of modern foreign languages. As one can surmise, that included Arabic.
In line with this, there were new fancy language centers being opened, a lot of foreign languages were now being offered as classes in high school… But of course this didn’t happen over night.
From earlier you might remember that according to the Dialectism trend for Modern Arabic, Egyptian and Syrian Arabic were the primary two being studied. Just a few years ago if you were to consult an American guidebook you would see the same distinction, possibly followed by the author stating that there is no standard Arabic language.
Now things start to get fuzzy around here, so I apologize that some speculation will be involved. The oldest mention of Modern Standard Arabic you’ll be able to find is a “A COURSE IN MODERN STANDARD ARABIC” by a Daud Atiyeh Abdo published 1962.
Of note, is the Arabic Name, which makes no mention of standard or modern: منهج في تعليم اللغة العربية (manhajun fi ta‘alim allughat al’arabia ; A curriculum on the instruction of the Arabic Language).
So what happened? Well long before “fusha”, “allughat al’arabia” was used as the Arabic term to refer to CA. That’s right, you read that correctly, Classical Arabic. Such had been the case for centuries in fact. This was even known to Western scholars:
The classical language they called, by reason of its incomparable excellence, “el-loghah” or “ the language :” and the line between this and the post-classical was easily drawn, on account of the almost sudden commencement, and rapid progress, of the corruption.
(Lane, E. W. (1863), An Arabic-English Lexicon: Derived from the Best and the Most Copious Eastern Sources, PREFACE viii)
So we’re off to a great start. To be more specific, the language being taught definitely has classical grammar. The vocabulary was collected from a number of surveys which included words common in newspapers and literature of the time. This not only meant it would include new terms and inventions but also a lot of young countries or modern politicians being mentioned here and there.
There are many interesting details one will encounter in the preface, such as the book having already been tested for a pilot on a group of American university students prior to publication. Abdo was a member of the American University of Beirut (AUB) at the time so it’s pretty safe to assume the pilot took place there. Furthermore there is some evidence to indicate that the US military may have had some contribution in the authorship of this book. In the acknowledgements, there’s a thank you to Elizabeth & James A. May for “continuous encouragement and important suggestions”, a wife and Foreign Service officer who were serving in Beirut at the time. (1962, April, Department of State Newsletter p. 52)
Although this was the introduction of MSA overseas, its first use within the States wasn’t something I was quite able to pinpoint. The deepest I was able to dig out of the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) Archive was a report from a study conference:
ERIC ED013357: STUDY CONFERENCE ON TEACHING ARABIC AT THE SECONDARY SCHOOL LEVEL. FINAL REPORT.
This conference was held in December of 1963, topics included discussion on what constituted quality Arabic education materials. A contract with a Dr. Joseph Khoury and Public Schools of Bountiful, Utah is mentioned. It is stated that he has been also running a pilot program, teaching in a number of schools in the are. The materials he’d produced for this purpose were scheduled for publication in the spring of 1964. During the conference the adequacy of these materials were discussed.
But a significant portion of the discussion involved Professors Ernest McCarus —another name included in Abdo’s acknowledgements— and Majed Sa'id bringing up the issue of Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic, and their relation to various vernaculars. Eventually it is agreed upon that “Modern Standard Arabic be presented” in schools.
The fact such a discussion even occurred in a conference after the preparation of the materials, leads me to believe that there was no prior concern up until Dr. Khoury had already started teaching. And although I was unable to find any of this material, it is very peculiar that this concern be raised at such a late point.
It was also decided that Dr. McCarus would be in charge of the revision of Khoury’s collection, if possible also collaborating with persons close to himself in [the University of Michigan] Ann Arbor.
Whatever the case, we can be certain that when these revised materials reached the high school audience, that generation and the next few grew up knowing the language they were studying as MSA.
Today the Western hemisphere's point of view is triumphant, with Russian, Turkish and even Arab academia yielding and acknowledging MSA as distinct from CA from time to time. As for the earlier trends for Modern Arabic, they’re still around too. There are movements which demand a more phonetically accurate spelling for their accent, or which want to have their dialect considered a separate language. Sometimes I see people confusing them, claiming MSA lacks nunation for instance although this is a misconception due to older literature using “Modern Arabic” not for MSA but the aforementioned trends…
But I think my way of looking at it is: “There’s a Classical Arabic, a language. But it has a modern literature”. Another gem I found from the ERIC archive was:
ERIC ED130505: The Teaching of Arabic in the Arab World. It was an address given by a Mahmoud Roushdhi Khater —yet another name acknowledged in Abdo’s MSA book— at a conference in Washington, D.C. in 1962.
It is by far the best summary of education in the Arab World throughout the mid-20th century I’ve come across, and definitely worth a read to see some of the Arab perspective on the issue. We know for a fact that he was aware of the attempts at CA/MSA distinction, and strangely he never once acknowledges the term MSA. The closest we get is the phrasing “modern literary Arabic” when describing what level of writing a student is expected to learn to be able to read in the 3rd or 4th grade. But what I find interesting is not only that this is different from MSA, but it’s lowercase in contrast to “Classical Arabic”, indicating that he’s describing a “kind” of Arabic rather than a full fledged form of the language.
And that is why and how MSA is classified as a separate language from CA, except for when it’s considered a subset of it.