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Encyclopedia > Arabic languages

Arabic ('عربية `Arabiyya')
Pronunciation: {{{pronunciation}}}
Spoken in: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen by a majority, many other countries as a minority language
Region: Arab world
Total speakers: 225 million (Ethnologue, native speakers of all dialects)
Ranking: 4 (by first language)
Genetic classification: Afro-Asiatic


Official status
Official language of: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen

International organizations: United Nations, Arab League, Regulated by:

Egypt: Academy of the Arabic Language
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ar
ISO 639-2 ara

Arabic is a Semitic language, closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic. It is spoken throughout the Arab world and is widely known throughout the Islamic world. Arabic has been a literary language for over 1500 years, and is the liturgical language of Islam.

The expression "Arabic" may refer either to literary Arabic or to the many spoken varieties of Arabic; Arabs consider literary Arabic as the standard language and tend to view everything else as mere dialects. Literary Arabic, al_luġatu 'l_ʿarabīyatu 'l_fuṣḥā (Literally: the pure Arabic language—اللغة العربية الفصحى) is both the language of present_day media across North Africa and the Middle East (from Morocco to Iraq) and the language of the Qur'an. (The expression media here includes most television and radio, and all written matter, including all books, newspapers, magazines, documents of every kind, and reading primers for small children.) "Colloquial" or "dialectal" Arabic refers to the many national or regional dialects/languages derived from Classical Arabic, spoken daily across North Africa and the Middle East, which constitute the everyday spoken language. These sometimes differ enough to be mutually incomprehensible. These dialects are not frequently written, although a certain amount of literature (particularly plays and poetry) exists in many of them, notably Egypt and Lebanon. They are often used to varying degrees in informal spoken media, such as soap operas and chat shows.

The term Modern Standard Arabic is sometimes used in the West to refer to the language of the media as opposed to the language of "Classical" Arabic literature; Arabs make no such distinction, and regard the two as identical.

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.

Quite a few English words are derived from arabic, among them every-day vocabulary like sugar, cotton or magazine. More recognizable are words like algorithm, algebra, alchemy, alcohol, azimuth, nadir, and zenith (See List of English words of Arabic origin). The Maltese language is the only surviving European language to derive primarily from Arabic, though it contains a large number of Italian and English borrowings.



See Varieties of Arabic for a fuller overview.

"Colloquial Arabic" is a collective term for the spoken languages or dialects of people throughout the Arab world, which, as mentioned, differ radically from the literary language. The main dialectal division is between the Maghreb dialects and those of the Middle East, followed by that between sedentary dialects and the much more conservative Bedouin dialects. Maltese, though descended from Arabic, is considered a separate language. Speakers of some of these dialects are unable to converse with speakers of another dialect of Arabic; in particular, while Middle Easterners can generally understand one another, they often have trouble understanding Maghrebis (although the converse is not true, due to the popularity of Middle Eastern—especially Egyptian—films and other media).

One factor in the differentiation of the dialects is influence from the languages previously spoken in the areas, which have typically provided a significant number of new words, and have sometimes also influenced pronunciation or word order; however, a much more significant factor for most dialects is, as among Romance languages, retention (or change of meaning) of different classical forms. Thus Iraqi aku, Levantine fiih, and North African kayen all mean "there is", and all come from Arabic (yakuun, fiihi, kaa'in respectively), but now sound very different.

The major groups are:

A fuller list can be found at the main article (Varieties of Arabic.)


See Arabic grammar


Standard Arabic has only three vowels, in long and short variants, namely /i, a, u/. Naturally, considerable allophony occurs.

Arabic consonant phonemes
  Bilabial Inter-
Dental Emphatic
Velar Uvular Pharyn-
Stops Voiceless     t t'   k q    ?
Voiced b   d d' dZą        
Fricatives Voiceless f T s s' S x   X h
Voiced   D z D'   G    ?  
Nasals m   n            
Rhotic (trill)     r            
Semi-vowels w     j          

  1. /dZ/ is /g/ for some speakers, i.e. a plosive. This is especially characteristic of the Egyptian dialect. In many parts of North Africa and in Lebanon, it is /Z/ (ie not affricated).
  2. /l/ becomes [l'] only in /?alla:h/, the name of God, i.e. Allah.

/'/ is used to indicate velarization and pharyngalization (=emphatic consonants; usually transcribed as dotted consonants). The other symbols are SAMPA.

In the dialects there are more phonemes, one occurs in the Maghreb as well in the written language mostly for names: /v/.

Vowels and consonants can be (phonologically) short or long.


Main article: Arabic alphabet

The Arabic alphabet derives from the Aramaic script (which variety - Nabataean or Syriac - is a matter of scholarly dispute), 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 (Maghrebi) and 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 other Semitic languages, is written from right to left.


See Arabic calligraphy for a fuller overview.

After the definitive fixing of the Arabic script around 786, by Khalil ibn Ahmad al Farahidi, many styles were developed, both for the writing down of the Qur'an and other books, and for inscriptions on monuments as decoration.

Kufic font
Naskh font

Arabic calligraphy has not fallen out of use as in the Western world, and is still considered by Arabs as a major art form; calligraphers are held in great esteem. Being cursive by nature, unlike the Latin alphabet, Arabic script is used to write down a verse of the Qur'an, a Hadith, or simply a proverb, in a spectacular composition that is often indecipherable. The composition is often abstract, but sometimes the writing is shaped into an actual form such as that of an animal. One of the current masters of the genre is Hassan Massoudy.

See also

External links

Wikipedia articles written in this language are located at the:
  • "Antonyms in Arabic are a strange phenomenon" by Tamim al-Barghouti (http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=4&article_id=6173)

Web references and examples:

  • 6 links (http://www.arabiccalligraphy.com/resources.php)
  • E2 article (http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1289272)
  • Sprachprofi (http://www.sprachprofi.de.vu/english/ar.htm)
  • Introduction to Arabic grammatical states (http://www.shariahprogram.ca)
  • Arabic - English Dictionary (http://www.websters-online-dictionary.org/definition/Arabic-english/): from Webster's Online Dictionary (http://www.websters-online-dictionary.org) - the Rosetta Edition.
  • SIL's Ethnologue (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_iso639.asp?code=ara)
  • Arabic Phrases (http://www.asinah.org/travel-guides/saudiarabiaarabic.html)
  • Dialects of Arabic (http://www.nitle.org/arabworld/texts.php?module_id=1&reading_id=113)

Arabic Sample Languages:

  • Arabic (http://www.language-museum.com/a/arabic.php)
  • Arabic Chadian Spoken (http://www.language-museum.com/a/arabic-chadian-spoken.php)
  • Arabic Judeo Iraqi (http://www.language-museum.com/a/arabic-judeo-iraqi.php)
  • Arabic North Levantine Spoken (http://www.language-museum.com/a/arabic-north-levantine-spoken.php)

  Results from FactBites:
The Arabic language (639 words)
As the language of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, it is also widely used throughout the Muslim world.
Arabic words are constructed from three-letter "roots" which convey a basic idea.
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.
Arabic (744 words)
Arabic is used as the principle language in most countries covered by the Encyclopaedia of the Orient: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel (as one of the official languages), Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Arabic also has a dimension of being a sacred language, as it is the only language from which the Koran is believed to be fully understood — all translations will reduce the quality of the revelations of God.
Arabic writing is an alphabetic script, based upon distinct characters, adjoined to other characters, which in most cases change their looks depending on where they stand in the word.
  More results at FactBites »



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