Arabic Language, the language of written communication and of
most formal, oral communication for speakers of Arabic dialects
from Morocco to Iraq. Among Muslims, Arabic is considered sacred
since it is the language through which the Quran is believed to
have been revealed. With the rise of Islam as a dominant religion
after A.D. 622, Arabic became the most widespread of the living
Semitic languages. Classified as South Central Semitic, Arabic
is related to Hebrew, spoken in Israel, and Amharic, spoken in
Ethiopia, as well as to the ancient Semitic languages. The earliest
written inscriptions in Arabic are found in the Arabian Peninsula
and date from the early 4th century AD. Today, Arabic is a unifying
bond among Arabs, and it is the liturgical language of Muslims
in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, parts of Sub-Saharan
Africa, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and
term Arabic refers to the standard form of the language used in
all writing and heard on television and radio as well as in mosques.
The diverse colloquial dialects of Arabic are interrelated but vary
considerably among speakers from different parts of the Middle East.
These dialects differ from standard Arabic and from one another
in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar and are usually labeled
according to major geographic areas, such as North African, Egyptian,
and Gulf. Within these broad classifications, the daily speech of
urban, rural, and nomadic speakers is distinctively different. Illiterate
speakers from widely separated parts of the Arab world may not understand
one another, although each is speaking a version of Arabic.
sound system of Arabic has 28 consonants, including all the Semitic
guttural sounds produced far back in the mouth and throat. Each
of the three vowels in standard Arabic occurs in a long and short
form, creating the long and short syllables so important to the
meter of Arabic poetry. Although the dialects retain the long vowels,
they have lost many of the short-vowel contrasts.
All Arabic word formation is based on an abstraction, namely, the
root, usually consisting of three consonants. These root sounds
join with various vowel patterns to form simple nouns and verbs
to which affixes can be attached for more complicated derivations.
For example, the borrowed term bank is considered to have the consonantal
root b-n-k; film is formed from f-l-m (See also SEMITIC LANGUAGES).
has a very regular system of conjugating verbs and altering their
stems to indicate variations on the basic meaning. This system is
so regular that dictionaries of Arabic can refer to verbs by a number
system (I-X). From the root k-s-r, the form I verb is kasar, "he
broke"; form II is kassar, "he smashed to bits";
and form VII is inkasar, "it was broken up." Nouns and
adjectives are less regular in formation, and have many different
plural patterns. The so-called broken plurals are formed by altering
the internal syllable shape of the singular noun. For example, for
the borrowed words bank and film, the plurals are, respectively,
bunuk for banks and aflam for films.
sentence word order in standard Arabic is verb-subject-object. In
poetry and in some prose styles, this word order can be altered;
when that happens, subject and object can be distinguished by their
case endings, that is, by suffixes that indicate the grammatical
function of nouns. These suffixes are only spelled out fully in
school textbooks and in the Quran to ensure an absolutely correct
reading. In all other Arabic texts, these case endings (usually
short vowels) are omitted, as are all internal short-vowel markings.
The Arabic script does not include letters for these vowels; instead,
they are small marks set above and below the consonantal script.
The Arabic script, which is derived from that of Aramaic, is written
from right to left. It is based on 18 distinct shapes that vary
according to their connection to preceding or following letters.
Using a combination of dots above and below 8 of these shapes, the
full complement of 28 consonants and the 3 long vowels can be fully
spelled out. The Arabic alphabet has been adopted by non-Semitic
languages such as Modern Persian, or Farsi, Urdu, Malay, and some
West African languages such as Hausa, for example. The use of verses
from the Quran in Arabic script for decoration has led to the development
over 1400 years of many different calligraphic styles. Calligraphy
is a high art form in the Arab world.
long history of Arabic includes periods of high development in literature.
The Arabic of medieval writing is termed Classical Arabic. Modern
standard Arabic is a descendant of Classical Arabic; frequently,
however, the stylistic influence of French and English is evident.
In the 20th century, in particular, much scientific, medical, and
technical vocabulary has been borrowed from French and English.
Arabic belongs to the Semitic branch of AFROASIATIC LANGUAGES and
is the national language of about 250 million inhabitants of North
Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.
Outside these areas, it is spoken by Arabs living in Israel, and
in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, North and South America, and
Soviet Central Asia. Since it is the language of the QURAN some
limited knowledge of it exists throughout the Muslim world.
Arabs have as their mother tongue some local variety of Arabic.
These vernaculars differ markedly so that, for example, Moroccan
Arabic is virtually unintelligible in Iraq. The local vernacular
is used in everyday commerce, but rarely written. Contrasting to
the local vernaculars is standard, or formal, Arabic, which is used
for writing and formal speech. Because it must be learned at school,
large sectors of the Arab public do not command it sufficiently
to use it themselves, although radio and other media are gradually
spreading its comprehension. Standard Arabic has remained remarkably
stable. In grammar and basic vocabulary the Arabic literature produced
from the 8th century to the present is strikingly homogeneous; the
works of the medieval writers differ from modern standard Arabic
hardly more than Shakespeare's language differs from modern English.
literary Arabic is capable of expressing the finest shades of meaning.
The vernaculars in their present form cannot perform the same task.
If they were adapted, such a development would fatally split the
unity of the Arab world. Today tensions exist between the standard
language and the vernaculars, particularly in imaginative literature.
In drama the demand for realism favors the vernacular, and many
poets are tending toward their mother tongue. In the novel and short
story, the trend is toward having the characters speak in the vernacular
while the author uses formal language. Some of the most celebrated
living novelists and poets, however, write exclusively in the standard