The Arabic Language
Language family: Afro-Asiatic > West Semitic > Central Semitic > South Central Semitic
Official language: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian National Authority, Qatar, Western Sahara, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen.
Number of speakers: NATIVE: Over 200 million. TOTAL: Over 450 million
Arabic, which was originally a minor language of the Arabian Peninsula, began to spread in the 7th century with the rise of Islam. Apart from being the native language of over 200 million speakers located primarily in Northern Africa and throughout the Middle East, Arabic is therefore also the liturgical language of the vast population of Muslims around the world.
Standard Language & Dialects
The classical Arabic of the Qu'ran serves as an elevated literary standard, a model for modern formal written Arabic, and the basis of Modern Standard Arabic. The standard is quite different from the widely varied dialects that Arabic speakers regularly use. These number in the thousands. However, the standard is commonly taught in schools and used in print and broadcast media. Where dialects are mutually unintelligible, educated speakers can communicate using the standard Arabic form. Arabic is a minority language in many countries, including Nigeria, Iran, and the former Soviet Union. Arabic became the 6th official language of the United Nations in 1974.
Grammar & Vocabulary
Due to the enduring influence classical Islamic writings, the grammar of Arabic has changed relatively little in the last 1300 years. Arabic has three grammatical cases: nominative, accusative, and oblique/genitive, and nouns have gender (masculine or feminine), definiteness (definite, indefinite, construct), and number (singular, dual, plural). However, in modern spoken language, noun declensions and other inflectional forms are frequently discarded.
Sentence formation is either verbal, in which the subject follows the verb, or nominal, in which the sentence begins with the subject. In verbal sentences, verbs are always conjugated in the singular; nominal sentences require the verb to agree with the subject in number and gender.
Unlike in Indo-European languages, Arabic does not have verb tenses. Instead verbs show aspect. Perfective aspect denotes completed action. Imperfective aspect indicates that an action is incomplete, ongoing, or habitual. Arabic verbs also have no infinitive forms. In a dictionary, verbs are listed in their 3rd person masculine perfective form.
Words in Arabic are formed from a root set of typically three consonants separated by two vowels. The consonant combinations are used to establish the basic root concept; vowel changes and affixes alter the word's meaning. For example, k-t-b denotes the idea of writing. Vowels and affixes are added to produce associated words such as write, book, author, and library.
The Arabic alphabet was first developed by around 500 AD. It consists of 28 letters, all of which are consonants, and is written from right to left. Whether a letter is in initial, medial, or final position in a word determines the shape of the letter. Vowels are optionally indicated by diacritical marks above or below consonants. There are 6 vowel sounds in Arabic -- long a, i, u and short a, i, u. Among the consonants are several guttural sounds that make Arabic sound quite different from European languages.
After the Roman alphabet, the Arabic alphabet is the second-most widely used writing system in the world. Besides Arabic, it is used for writing Persian, Urdo, Pashto, Malay, and a number of other languages primarily used in Asian countries.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1, in Arabic
While nobody speaks Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) as a native language, it is the form taught in schools and used in formal contexts, such as newspapers, books, radio and TV news. MSA is widely understood throughout the Middle East. If this the the form you learn, however, you may have difficulty understanding native speakers, who typically speak their regional dialect. If your interest is in a particular region, you might want to focus on learning the dialect of that region. Egyptian Arabic and Levantine (Eastern) Arabic, which is spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, are most widely understood outside their region.
Arabic Words in English
Arabic has contributed several words to the English language, many of which begin with the Arabic definite article al: alcohol, albatross, algebra, and alcove, for example. Other words include sofa, mosque, satin, sequin, harem, giraffe, mattress, jar, arsenal, lilac, magazine, syrup, sherbert, and coffee. Arabic has also had particular influence on the vocabulary of languages whose cultures practice or have been influenced by Islam, e.g. Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Spanish, Swahili, Urdu, and others.
Not convinced that Arabic is for you? See our 10 reasons to learn Arabic!
SOURCES CONSULTED: Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 15th ed. (2005). - "Arabic," Encyclopedia Britannica 2006. - "Arabic Language," Wikipedia. - Languages of the World (2002), by K. Katzner. - The World's Major Languages (1990), by Bernard Comrie.