Ancient Semitic language whose dialects are spoken throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Though Arabic words and proper names are found in Aramaic inscriptions, abundant documentation of the language begins only with the rise of Islam, whose main texts are written in Arabic. Grammarians from the 8th century on codified it into the form known as Classical Arabic, a literary and scribal argot that differed markedly from the spoken vernacular. In the 19th – 20th centuries, expansion of Classical Arabic's stylistic range and vocabulary led to the creation of Modern Standard Arabic, which serves as a lingua franca among contemporary Arabs. However, Arabic speakers, who number roughly 200 million, use an enormous range of dialects, which at their furthest extremes are mutually unintelligible. Classical Arabic remains an important cultural and religious artifact among the non-Arab Islamic community. It has been a literary language for over 1500 years.
Modern Standard Arabic derives from Classical Arabic, the only surviving member of the Old North Arabian dialect group, attested in Pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions dating back to the 4th century. Classical Arabic has also been a literary language and the liturgical language of Islam since its inception in the 7th century.
It is sometimes difficult to translate Islamic concepts, and concepts specific to Arab culture, without using the original Arabic terminology. The Qur'an is expressed in Arabic and traditionally Muslims deem it impossible to translate in a way that would adequately reflect its exact meaning—indeed, until recently, some schools of thought maintained that it should not be translated at all. A list of Islamic terms in Arabic covers those terms which are too specific to translate in one phrase. While Arabic is strongly associated with Islam (and is the language of salah), it is also spoken by Arab Christians, Oriental Jews, and indeed Iraqi Mandaeans; and, of course, the vast majority of the world's Muslims do not actually speak it; they only know some fixed phrases of Arabic, as used in Islamic prayer.
The Arabic alphabet derives from the Aramaic script (through Syriac and then Nabatean), to which it bears a loose resemblance like that of Coptic or Cyrillic script to Greek script. Traditionally, there were several differences between the Western (North African) and Middle Eastern version of the alphabet—in particular, the fa and qaf had a dot underneath and a single dot above respectively in the Maghreb, and the order of the letters was slightly different (at least when they were used as numerals). However, the old Maghrebi variant has been abandoned except for calligraphic purposes in the Maghreb itself, and remains in use mainly in the Quranic schools (zaouias) of West Africa. Arabic, like all other Semitic languages (except for the Latin-written Maltese, and the languages with the Ge'ez script), is written from right to left. There are several styles of script, notably Naskh which is used in print and by computers, and Ruq'ah which is commonly used in handwriting.
Is Arabic difficult?
YES - and no. Learning Arabic certainly takes time and practice, but there are not many irregularities in the grammar. It's much less complicated than Latin, and probably simpler than German, too.
If you speak a European language, the root system of Arabic is an unfamiliar concept. Arabic words are constructed from three-letter "roots" which convey a basic idea. For example, k-t-b conveys the idea of writing. Addition of other letters before, between and after the root letters produces many associated words: not only "write" but also "book", "office", "library", and "author".
Learning vocabulary may cause problems at first. In most European languages there are many words which resemble those in English. Arabic has very few, but it becomes easier once you have memorised a few roots.
Arabic has many regional dialects, and if you want to master one of these the only really effective way is to spend a few years in the place of your choice. For general purposes – such as reading or listening to radio - it's best to concentrate on Modern Standard Arabic (numerous courses and textbooks are available). This would also be useful if you're interested in Islam, though you would need some additional religious vocabulary.
There are 28 consonants and three vowels – a, i, u – which can be short or long. Some of the sounds are unique to Arabic and difficult for foreigners to pronounce exactly, though you should be able to make yourself understood.
The normal word order of a sentence is verb/subject/object. The function of nouns in a sentence can also be distinguished by case-endings (marks above the last letter of a word) but these are usually found only in the Qur'an or school textbooks.
Feminine nouns add the suffix …aat to form the plural but masculine nouns generally have a "broken" plural which involves changing vowels in the middle of the word: kitaab ("book"); kutub ("books").
Arabic has very few irregular verbs and does not use "is" or "are" at all in the present tense: "the king good" means "the king is good". Subtle alterations in the basic meaning of a verb are made by adding to the root. These changes follow regular rules, giving ten possible "verb forms" (though in practice only three or four exist for most verbs. The root k-s-r produces:
- form I kasara, "he broke"
- form II kassara, "he smashed to bits"
- form VII inkasara, "it was broken up"
Sometimes these must be used with care: qAtala means "he fought" but qatala means "he killed".
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