Arabic Language, or
al-3rabiyya العربية as it called in Arabic. Arabic is the 5th most widely spoken language in the world with 293 million native speakers and 422 million speakers in total. It’s on the official language in 26 countries, that doesn’t mean it’s the majority language in all of those countries, but it’s one of the official languages. It’s also one of the six official languages of the UNs and that’s the language of the
Qur'an أَلْقُرآن, the holy book of Islam. It’s also the liturgical language of 1.7 billion Muslims around the world. Most of those people don’t speak Arabic, but many have some knowledge of Arabic for reading and for reciting prayers and religious study.
Speaking about Arabic can be confusing, because there are many different varieties of the language. One of the main varieties is the Classical Arabic of the
Qur'an, this is considered by many to be the most perfect form of Arabic. And some say it is the only true Arabic, because it was the language which God reviewed the
Qur'an to Mohammed. Then there is Modern Standard Arabic which is the formed language used as the official language today. It’s the modern form of literary Arabic which was based on Classical Arabic of the
Qur'an, but with some adaptations and greatly expanded vocabularies to make it more suitable for modern times. It’s not exactly the same as classical Arabic, but both of them are referred to by Arabic as
Al-fuSHa الفصى, meaning
eloquent speech. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of books, media, education and formed situations, but not as the language of everyday speech. For everyday speech, Arabic speakers use their local dialects or
‘amiya امِيَ which can differ quite significantly from country to country and even from one place to another within a single country.
Arabic is a Semitic language. Arabic and other Semitic languages like Hebrew, Aramaic and Phoenician all developed from the same Proto-Semitic language. Arabic forms one branch of Central Semitic, while the other branch of Central Semitic includes Hebrew, Aramaic and Phoenician.
Numerous Semitic languages related to Arabic were spoken in Arabia between 13th to 10th centuries BCE, but they don’t have features that would classify them as Arabic. The earliest evidence of people referred to as
Arab is in an Assyrian inscription from the 8th century BCE, but it just mentioned the
Arab. It doesn’t give any example of their language. Form the 6th century BCE to the 4th century CE, we have inscriptions showing evidence of an early form of Arabic. Some of these inscriptions are written in that early form of Arabic and others are written in Aramaic but show some influence from Arabic. These inscriptions consists mostly of proper names, so they don’t give us a flood of information about what the language was like. The earliest inscription is that unmistakably Arabic from 1st century BCE and was found at the Ein Avdat. It’s an Aramaic inscription, but it contains 3 lines of Arabic. Another inscription was discovered at an-Namaara, 120 kilometres southeast of Damascus, dating back to 329 CE. The language of this inscription is nearly identical to Classical Arabic as we know it. Even though these inscriptions are unmistakably written in Arabic, they are not written in the Arabic script, but rather the Nabataean script, which derived from the Aramaic script. But there are also inscriptions from the 4th and 5th century CE that are written in a script that is more like the Arabic script. It is generally thought that the Arabic script developed from the Nabataean script, and these inscriptions might be a script that somewhere between those two.
Before the beginning of Islam, there were numerous dialects of Arabic spoken around the Peninsula, but there was also a common literary language used among the different tribes for poetry, a koine which was a compromise between the various dialects of Arabic. The pieces of poetry written in this literary koine are the first texts written in Classical Arabic. The
Qur'an was written in the 7th century when Muslims believed that the
Qur'an was reviewed to Mohammed by the Angel Gabriel. And then it was written down over a 23-year period. At the time the
Qur'an was written, there were 7 dialects of Classical Arabic. The
Qur'an was written in all of them, but the Quraishi Version became the standard upon which the text of today’s
Qur'an is based. The differences are in pronunciation, not in vocabulary or grammar. The Arabic of the
Qur'an is similar to that of the previous Islamic Classical Arabic poetry, but not exactly. Beginning during the life of Mohammed and continuing into the 8th century, the Islamic Conquests spread the Arabic language into new faraway lands. After the Islamic conquests, there was an important need to standardize the language, because vast numbers of people were beginning to speak it. The script was made more practical. New vocabulary was created. The grammar and style of prose was standardized.
While Classical Arabic was being standardized as a written language, local dialects of Arabic also emerged in the cities of Arab Empire. These dialects did not come directly from Classical Arabic, but rather from Pre-Islamic Arabic dialects or from a single Arabic koine which was the common language of conquering Arab Armies. These new dialects were also influenced by the original language of the conquered areas. The dialects of the Levant and Mesopotamia were influenced by Aramaic. The dialects of Maghrebi were influenced by Berber. The dialects of Egypt were influenced by Coptic and so on. The early centuries of these newly emerging dialects are referred to as Neo-Arabic. Even though Classical Arabic was standardized, not everybody could write it perfectly. Writing that contains features of both classical literature and the emerging Neo-Arabic dialects is referred to as Middle-Arabic. Middle doesn’t refer to a tine period, but rather these texts were somewhere in the Middle between Classical and Neo.
Over centuries, the Neo-Arabic dialects continued to evolve into the Modern Arabic dialects of today. But literary Arabic remained relatively constant, because the Arabic of the
Qur'an was always seen as the kind of Arabic to imitate. And this probably had a conservatively effect on the dialects, limiting them from changing too much. After Napoleon entered Egypt in 1798, the Arab broad entered a period of great contact with the West. The influx of new Western concepts required that the Arabic language be updated. In the early 20th century, regional Academies of the Arabic language began a process of language reform. Focus mainly on expanding and updating the language’s vocabulary. These updates commentated in what is now known as Modern Standard Arabic.
Arabic is well known for its state of diglossia. Arabic speakers use 2 distinctly different form of the language in parallel, for different purposes. Modern Standard Arabic is not learned by anyone as a native language, but used in reading and writing, in media, on children’s TV shows and in formal speeches. While the dialects are used almost universally for daily conversation. As I mentioned before, there is quite a lot of variation amongst Arabic dialects. How well two speakers understand each other depend on the geographical distance of the dialects. Many Arabic speakers have told me that speakers of Middle Eastern dialects really have no trouble understanding each other, and that the main trouble comes in the understanding the Maghrebi dialects, especially Moroccan. But these days with the spread of cable TV and the Internet, people are being exposed to a wider range of dialects. Which helps people understand different dialects more. And of course, there is also
Al-fuSHa الفصى Modern Standard Arabic, when speakers of significantly different dialects communicate with each other, they can switch to the Modern Standard Arabic, or they can adjust their speech to make it more formal and literary and similar to the Modern Standard Arabic, but not exactly. Another common way for native speakers to breach the dialect gap is to use something called the white dialect, which is more formal version of dialect, that uses features that are common most of the different dialects, but it leaves the features that are limited to specific dialects. This is essentially a Modern Arabic Koine. So, what is Arabic like? Let us take a look at some features of Arabic, focusing on Modern Standard Arabic.
The Arabic script is written form right to left, and consists of letters that imitate handwriting. Most letters join to the letter that comes after them. However, a few letters remain disjoined. The letter that join have 2 forms, one short form at the beginning or in the middle of the words, and another long form at the end of the words or when the letter is by itself. The Arabic script is an abjad, meaning that each letter represents a consonant, and short vowels are not really written, and that long vowels and diphthongs can be ambiguous. How can we read Arabic without vowels? Well, cn yu rid ths? Here, the short vowels are not written, and others seem somewhat incomplete, but we have a hint about what the vowels are. This is kind of reading Arabic. But Arabic has more predictable vowel patterns than English. So it easier to guess. Also, Arabic can be written with
Harakāt حركات, which are extra diacritic marks that indicate the short vowel sounds. These are generally only used in texts that are really important to pronounce perfectly, like the
Qur'an, or poetry, or children’s materials.
Arabic has a number of consonant sounds which are surprising, or challenging for speakers of many other languages. For example,
khā' خ as in the word
khalīj خايج meaning golf. Then there is,
Qāf ق, as in the word
qalam قام, meaning pen. This is like a
k, but pronounced farther back in your throat. Then there is the letter
Hā' ح, like in the word
Hārr حار, meaning hot.
ghain غ, some say this is similar to the French
r sound. For example, the word
ghurfa غرفة, meaning room. Arabic also has a number of emphatic consonants. For example, there is
sīn س, which is like a regular
s sound in English, but there is also
sād ص, which is an emphatic
S, as in the word
Saghīr صغير, meaning small. To make this sound you have to keep your tongue close to the roof of your mouth. If you want to try it, position your mouth as though you are going to say
k, hold that position, then make an
s sound instead. There are 3 others emphatic consonants, too. An emphatic
Arabic word are mostly constructed from 3 letter roots, or sometimes 4. And these letters are than inserted into templates consisting of a fixed vowel pattern and some structural consonants. If you know the root letters, you can identify the core meaning of the word. And if you know the template, you know what type of word it is. Let us take the root
kh – r – j خ - ر - ج, which means to go out or to exit, and let us put it into this template,
ma12a3, root letters = 1, 2 and 3, and we get the word,
makhraj مَخْرَج, which is the noun meaning exit, like a door you exit through. This template indicates a place where the action of the root is done. If we use the root
d – kh – l د - خ - ل, which means to come in. We get
madkhal مَدْخَر, which means entrance. If we use the root
k – t – b ك - ت - ب, we get
maktab مَكْتَب, meaning office. These kinds of recurring templates help you to know how to pronounce words even when the short vowels are not written. If you see the letter
مـ followed by 3 root letters all together with no long vowels, you can guess that the word in this template and pronounce 2 short
Verbs in Arabic are part of the same system of roots and templates. The templates tell us the tense, person, gender, and number of the verb, and the root provides us the core meaning. Again, let us take the root,
kh – r – j خ - ر - ج, pop into this template here,
1a2a3a, and we get
kjaraja خَرَجَ. We know what this means, it’s the past tense third person masculine singular conjugation,
kharaja min al-madrasa خرج من المدر سة, this means he exited the school. Now put the root into this template,
kharajtu خَرَجتُ, this means I exited. The suffix here indicates past tense first person singular,
kharajtu min al-maktab خر جت من المكتب, this means I exited the office. If we put it into this template,
yakhruj(u) يَخْرُجُ, it means he exits. This is the present tense template.
yakhruj min al-maktab يخرخ من المكتب, this means He exits from the office. Also, template
yakhrujuun(a) يَخْرُجُونَ, means they exit.
Sa-yakhrujuuna min al-maktab سيخرجون من المكتب, this means they will exit the office. This sentence is in the future tense, to change the present tense to the future tense, you simply add the suffix,
Sa which called near future marker to the beginning of present tense template.
Sa is used for near future, and separate particle
Sawfa is used for the more distant future. Arabic has no other verb tenses, only past and present, and of course, future, which use the present tense conjugation. This Semitic system of roots and templates is really quite intuitive once you get used to it, and it’s quite ingenious if you ask me.
Modern Standard Arabic is VSO language by default. Arabic dialects are mainly SVO.
Yadrus ar-rajul al-3arabiya يدر الرجل العربية, this means the man is studying Arabic.
al are the definite article
ل, but before certain letters the
ل or the
L sound assimilates to the following letter, so
arajul. This is basic word order, but SVO is also possible. In a sentence with a pronoun, VSO is not possible. For example,
Ana sawfa ‘adrus al-3arabiya انا سوف ادرس العربية, this means I will study the Arabic. In the future, you can say
sawfa ‘adrus ana al-3arabiya. You can neither say with the pronoun first or with no pronoun, just
sawfa ‘adrus al-3arabiya سوف أدر العربية. Because the verb conjugation tells us that this is the first person singular, so we don’t need the pronoun.
One aspect of Standard Arabic is cases. There are 3 cases in Arabic, nominative, genitive, and accusative, and nouns take special ending to show their function it the sentence. Let us take the word
Kitāb كتاب which means book. In nominative it is
kitābu كتابُ; In genitive it is
kitābi كتابِ; In accusative it is
kitāba كتابَ. And
al-kitābu al-mumtazu الكتات الممتاز this means the excellent book. The noun
Kitāb كتاب is in the nominative, the adjective is also inflected to agree with the noun.
ana agra' kitāban أن أقر أكتابان, this means I am reading a book. Here
Kitāb كتاب is in the accusative and it is indefinite. The
n sound at the end here indicates that it is indefinite.
mu'allifu al-kitabi مؤلف الكتاب, this means the author of the book. Here
kitabi كتاب is in the genitive case. These case ending are not used at the end of a sentence, but only when the word is followed by something. The form at the end of a sentence without a case ending is called the
perusal form. These case endings are often not used in Modern Standard Arabic. They are generally only used in prepared texts or prepared speeches.
Here are two more sentences.
3datan lā a3mal yawm as-sabt عادة لا أعمل يوم السبت, this means I usually don’t work on Saturday. Word for word is,
usually no I work day the Saturday.
lā لا is the negation particle used for the present tense.
a3aml أعمل is the verb for work, and its root is
3 – m – l ع - م – ل, and it is the 1st person singular present tense conjugation.
yawm as-sabt يوم السبت,
iddafa الاِ ضافة, together they mean, the day of Saturday.
iddafa الاِ ضافة is a construction of the 2 nouns side by side, to show possession. A fun fact is that the word
sabbath comes from the Hebrew word
shabbat, which is related to the Arabic word
Sa'aqūd sayyāratī ilā i-maktab سأقود سياتي ألى المكتب, this means I will drive my car to the office. Word by word is,
will I drive my car to the office.
Sa سَ is added to the present tense word to form the future.
'aqūd أقود contains the verb
q – w – d ق - و - د. And this is the 1st person singular present tense conjugation.
sayyāratī سيارتي is the word
sayyārah سيارة with a possessive suffix meaning
my at the end. And when the suffix is added, the letter
h ة, becomes the
ilā إلى is a preposition showing direction, the
l ال here is the definite article
al, but the
a sound, or the
alif ا assimilates to the preceding long
As you can see, Arabic is a fascinating language with lots of interesting features from its script to its phonology, to its roots and templates system. It’s the language that often seems intimidating to learners, but that is not probably because Modern Standard Arabic materials are in reading, writing and grammar rather than on communication. Materials for learning Arabic dialects tend to be more fun and communicative. The Question that asked over and over and over is what form of Arabic should I learn, a dialect or Modern Standard Arabic. In my opinion, it is important to learn some Modern Standard Arabic either before you start to learn a dialect or at the same time. But if you know some Modern Standard Arabic, it will help you to make sense of different dialects you encountered, and will help you to understand different register of speech even when people are speaking their own dialects. But if your main goal is communication, then I don’t think it’s necessary to learn to speak Modern Standard Arabic at a high level.
Reference: LangFocus Channel