Arabic is a member of the family of Semitic languages.  In its geographic origins, it sits in a central position--the Arabian Peninsula--between the "northern” Semitic languages: to the North-East, Akkadian, a cuneiform language that uses wedges on clay tablets to record documentation, in Mesopotamia (currently Iraq); Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac to the North-West in the region that is now roughly Syria-Palestine; and the "southern” Semitic languages: South Arabian along the south coast of the Arabian Peninsula, including today's Yemen, and Amharic, one of the languages of Ethiopia (formally known also as Abyssinia).

The word "Arab” [`arab] means "nomad”, and Arabic was originally the language of itinerant tribes in the desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula.  The very inaccessibility of much of that terrain (including what is now known as "the Empty Quarter”) may well account for the fact that, of all the Semitic languages, Arabic seems to be the one that has preserved many of the features of the predecessor to all the languages mentioned above, the so-called "Proto-Semitic” from which the family of Semitic languages was to emerge over time in its different forms.

Arabic is the language or one of the official languages of: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, the Sudan, Saudi Arabic, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine-Israel, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.  It is also widely used in sub-Saharan countries such as Chad, Mali and Mauretania.  As the language that Muslims are obliged to use in prayer, the language is also understood by believers across the world, and is especially significant in Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and the Philippines.

One of the primary features of the Semitic languages lies in their approach to morphology and thus the compilation of dictionaries.  Lexicographers codifying the collected vocabularies of both Hebrew and Arabic decided that the most efficient way of organizing the meanings of words into categories involved the identification of verbal roots consisting of three basic consonants, with morphological derivatives being listed under that single root.  (This decision actually overlooks the distinct possibility, not sufficiently explored, that the origins of these languages and the organization of their lexicons are better reflected in bi-literal or even mono-literal roots--still a topic of further linguistic research.)  To illustrate this, we can use the tri-literal root K - T - B and its basic meaning of "write.” Thus "KaTaBa” means "he wrote,” "KāTiB” (with an elongated "a” sound) means "an author,” "maKTaB” (the so-called "noun of place,” with a prefixed "ma-”) means "desk, office,” and "KuTTāB” means either "authors (plural)” or "a Qur'an school.”  To sum up, the Arabic dictionary is not arranged alphabetically by individual word, but by verbal root; Arabic learners need to learn the morphological patterns of the language before they can make use of the dictionary.  Every one of these verbal roots in Arabic may (potentially, but not actually) have eight or nine "derived forms” ("awzan”), the pattern of which conveys a specific extension of the meaning derived from the basic root.  In fact, most verbal roots will produce three or four derived forms.  Thus, Q - D - M, "to arrive”; Q - DD - M, "to present”; aQ - D - M, "to embark on”; ta - Q - D - M, "to progress”; and so on. 

Another interesting feature of the Semitic languages is that, alongside the sentence that begins with a noun or pronoun (as is the case with Indo-European languages), there is also the "verbal sentence,” one in which the first word is a verb and the action to be conveyed is given more prominence and significance than either the person who does the action or the person to whom it is done. Thus, "darasa l-waladu l-lughata”: in order, he studied - the boy (subject) - the language (object), "the boy studied the language.”

Much of the information that we have about the early history of Arabic comes about because of an event that happened in the late 7th century CE: a man from the Arabian city of Mecca named Muhammad received revelations that he was inspired to repeat, firstly to his close family and then to the people of the city.  These revelations were the Qur'an, and, when Muhammad was forced to leave his own city and move north to an oasis called Yathrib (later Medina), those early revelations and subsequent ones became the text of the Qur'an and the source of inspiration and legislation for a new community of believers, Muslims (those who submit themselves to God).  The name of the religion was and is Islam. The Qur'an ever since has been the yardstick for everything to do with Arabic, and, following its transfer to written form in the 7th century, served as the impetus for an enormous amount of research on the origins of the language, the preparation of dictionaries and grammars and the collection of information of every conceivable kind.

From the very outset it is clear that Arabic did not exist in one single form, one that would be used for all language skills and on every occasion.  The language of the Qur'an, being regarded by believers as the word of God transmitted to Muhammad as a prophet, is assigned to a special category and is designated as "inimitable” (the Arabic noun is "i`jaz).  It would appear that the same level of language was also used by other figures in society--shamans, poets, soothsayers, etc.--during the pre-Islamic (pre-Qur'an) period.  It is by no means clear that this kind of Arabic was ever anyone's language of communication. 

Thus, while many people would say that the spoken forms of the language, as they have developed over time up to the present day, represent a "corruption” or a "falling away” from the reserved original form of Arabic (which became designated as "al-lughat al-fusha' [the more refined, more correct language], usually shortened to "fusha”), it seems more likely from a historical linguistic perspective that spoken communication occurred in a different level of language.  What becomes clear is that, as Islam spread so incredibly rapidly to North, East and West during the ensuing centuries (the 7th-11th centuries CE), a large number of separate dialects began to emerge.  Those dialects form the basis of what is now a wide variety of spoken languages within the Arabic-speaking world.

Arabic-speakers grow up speaking the dialect of their region.  As with any language, there are hundreds of sub-dialects, but the major divisions of the colloquial dialects in Arabic are: Maghribi (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia), Egyptian, "Levantine” (Arabic "Shami”), comprising Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine-Israel), Iraqi, and Gulf (the Arabian Peninsula, Kuwait, the Arab Emirates, etc.).  Each of these dialects differs from the others because of a number of factors: the local languages of the region to which the Arab Muslims came as part of the Islamic conquests beginning in the 7th century, traces of which can be found in vocabulary and syntax; and equally important in modern times, the importation of terms from the languages of the colonial powers who "occupied” much of the Arabic-speaking world beginning in the 19th century.  The extent to which these dialects are used in different situations within society varies widely from one region to another. In Egypt, for example, the colloquial dialect can be used for almost all occasions, including sermons by popular preachers and university lectures, but in other regions social norms require that certain activities be conducted in another form of language. 

That second form of language (the modern version of "fusha” mentioned above) is learned (acquired) by native-speakers of Arabic in school as part of their education; it is a second language. That fact is of considerable importance, since it makes clear that the availability or non-availability of such education is a major factor in the level of literacy and illiteracy in many Arabic-speaking countries and regions; the issue is particularly important (and in some regions, acute) regarding the role of women in society. What has always been and remains remarkable is that this second level of language--with the Qur'an as its inimitable yardstick--is standard throughout the Arab world, the language of literature, the press and also international communication between Arabs of different nations and regions.  It is thus the primary language of the Arab League and one of the official languages of the United Nations.

With these facts in mind, we can say that Arabic today (and thus the process of learning it) presents a complicated picture.  The spoken language of all Arabs--the one they use to communicate with each other within a single region--is their colloquial dialect.  Those dialects vary from region to region.  They are still considered to have little or no cultural prestige.  It is the written and printed form of the language ("fusha”) that possesses that prestige.  Beyond its role as the source of great pride in the cultural and literary heritage of the Arabic-speaking peoples, it also serves as the spoken international Arabic language, the one that native-speakers of Arabic use whenever they have to communicate with Arabs from regions other than (meaning mostly, distant from) their own.

What needs to be added to this picture (although it is often not at all obvious to native speakers of the language) is that between these two linguistic "poles,” the colloquial (termed either "`ammiyyah” [meaning "plebeian”] or "darijah”) on the one hand, and standard, the modern version of the idealized "fusha” on the other, there exist an infinite number of intermediate levels of language that are in constant use (particularly, one might suggest, in today's media) in which features of both levels are intermingled.  Among the more disarming discoveries within this context is that the original Arabic version of the world-famous collection of tales, A Thousand and One Nights, is in one of these intermediate levels of language.  It is a fitting indication of the importance that Arabs have attached to their language that, since the original text of this renowned story-collection is not in the prestige form of the language, "fusha,” it was never considered as a contribution to Arabic literature by the Arabs themselves.

Last modified: Tuesday, 6 January 2015, 5:49 PM