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The Arabic Language: Facts and Insights

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Learn a plethora of helpful and interesting facts about the Arabic language.

Learn a plethora of helpful and interesting facts about the Arabic language.

The Fundamentals of Arabic

Arabic frequently ranks as one of the top six languages in the world. It is also the language of the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, an important and influential document known throughout the Muslim world. Arabic belongs to the Semitic language family, along with Hebrew and Amharic, which are Ethiopia's official languages. Arabic has a speaking population of over 446 million people today, with 9 countries being home to over 10 million speakers. These countries include Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Tunisia.

The Origins of the Arabic language

Arabic is descended from a language known as Proto-Semitic. As a result of this relationship, Arabic is firmly placed in the Afro-Asian group of world languages. Modern Arabic is considered to be a sub-branch of the central group of Western Semitic languages, extending the relationship between Arabic and the other Semitic languages.

Arabic Is Spoken in a Variety of Dialects

  • The language of the Qur'an, classical Arabic, was derived from a dialect spoken in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
  • A modified version of this is used in books, newspapers, on television and radio, in mosques, and in conversations between educated Arabs from different countries (for example at international conferences).
  • Even though they speak the same language, local dialects vary greatly, and a Moroccan may struggle to understand an Iraqi.

Arabic is not the only language spoken in Arab countries. The languages of the two most important minorities. North African Berbers speak several dialects of Amazigh, while Kurdish is spoken in parts of Iraq and Syria.

Depending on the methodology used, the precise position of Arabic in the world language league table varies.

According to Ethnologue, a linguist's website, it ranks fourth in terms of the number of people who speak it as their first language. Other rankings have placed Arabic anywhere from third to seventh.

One of the difficulties is gathering accurate data, which is nearly impossible because of disagreements on basic definitions. Linguists disagree on how to define language "speakers," particularly "Arabic" speakers. Many Arabs, for example, are unable to communicate in Modern Standard Arabic. The complexities are discussed further in an article by George Weber.

Arabic is Written Using the Arabic Alphabet

Arabic is written from right to left. There are 18 different letter shapes, and each one differs slightly depending on whether it is connected to a letter before or after it. There are no letters labeled as "capital."

To create the full alphabet of 28 letters, various combinations of dots above and below some of these shapes are used. (An animated version of the alphabet shows how to move the pen correctly.)

The three long vowels are usually included in written words, but the three short vowels are usually left out – though they can be indicated by marks above and below other letters.

Even though the modern Arabic alphabet appears to be quite distinct, the Latin, Greek, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Nabatian alphabets are all likely descended from the same ancestor. Arabic script adaptations are used in other languages such as Persian, Urdu, and Malay.

Although many Arab countries use Hindi numerals, the numerals used in most parts of the world – 1, 2, 3, and so on – were originally Arabic.

This table depicts the characters of the Arabic alphabet.

This table depicts the characters of the Arabic alphabet.

Modern Arabic Is a Diglossic Language

Modern Arabic is a rare language due to a condition known as 'diglossia.' As a result, modern Arabic is effectively divided into two dialects: Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is used for reading, writing, and high-register speech. It is descended from the Classical language of the Qur'an and is considered by almost all Arabs to be "pure" Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic, on the other hand, is a language that must be learned. Nobody speaks it as their first language. Every Arab child is taught a second or colloquial language.

Arab colloquial dialects are generally only spoken languages. Arabs use the colloquial language in all their daily interactions, but, when they encounter a language situation calling for greater formality, Modern Standard Arabic is the medium of choice.

Standard Arabic is more or less the same throughout the Arab world, while there are wide differences between the various colloquial dialects. Some of the differences are so large that many dialects are mutually unintelligible.

'Love' Has at Least 11 Different Words, Whereas 'Camel' Has Hundreds

There are at least 11 words in Arabic for love, each describing a different stage of the love process. The word 'Hawa,' for example, refers to the initial attraction or inclination of the soul or mind towards another. The term is derived from the root word 'h-w-a,' which means 'a changing wind.'

'Alaaqa,' derived from the root word 'a-l-q' (meaning 'to cling to'), describes the next stage when the heart begins to attach itself to the beloved, before evolving into blind desire 'Ishq,' and all-consuming love 'shaghaf.' The final stage of falling in love, known as 'yum,' is distinguished by a complete loss of reason.

Surprisingly, the most common Arabic word for love, 'hubby,' derives from the same root as the word 'seed,' which refers to something with the potential to grow into something beautiful.

The root word for the word 'qalb,' which means to flip or turn something over, is 'q-lb.' Although the term refers to the physical heart, when we think of our hearts as something that is constantly turning over emotions, decisions, and opinions, the root word becomes spiritually appropriate. Make sure you pronounce the first letter correctly because the word 'kalb' means 'dog,' which is extremely offensive.

This expansive vocabulary applies not only to poetry and literature but also to everyday life. Hundreds of Arabic words are said to exist for the word 'camel.' For example, 'Al-Jafool' refers to a scared camel, whereas 'Al-Harib' refers to a female camel who walks far ahead of the others and appears to be fleeing.

To express the nature of destiny and personal responsibility, the great (and practical) Arabic proverb 'Trust in God, but tie up your camel' is used. Everyday Arabic phrases, such as 'Insha'Allah,' are heavily infused with the concept of fate ('If God wills'). The expression has become so overused that I was once asked for someone's name and was given the response ‘Ahmed, Insha’Allah.’

Sources and Further Reading

  • Arabic Language |
    Arabic is usually ranked among the top six of the world's major languages. As the language of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, it is also widely used throughout the Muslim world. It belongs to the Semitic group of languages
  • A Few Surprising Facts About the Arabic Language | British Council
    Do you know how many Arabic words there are for 'love'? The British Council's Faraan Sayed shares some lesser-known facts about the language.
  • How Many Countries Speak Arabic Around the World? | Tarjama
    Arabic language is popular in the Middle East and North Africa, but you’d be surprised at just how many Arabic speaking countries there are in the world.
  • Top Languages by George Weber
    This article was researched by George Weber in the early 1990s and written in 1995. It was first published in the now-defunct Language Today. It has been quoted from at conferences and has also been reprinted.

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