Learn Arabic

Table of Contents

The Arabic Language

The Arabic language belongs to the Semitic language family which also includes Hebrew and other Aramaic languages. It is the largest Semitic language spoken in the world, with more than 280 million people who use it as their first language. Arabic is the official language of 22 countries around the world, and it is the recognized language of the Quran, which is the holy book of Islam. As with other major languages such as English and German, there are several different spoken varieties around the world.

History of the Language

The earliest texts historians have found that relate to modern Arabic are of ancient North Arabian descent. These texts are known as the Hasaean inscriptions and were discovered in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Haesaen texts have been dated to around 8000 BC, meaning the ancient ancestor of modern Arabic is one of the first languages used by humans. Several other texts such as the Lihyanite and Thamudic texts of the 6th century BC show how the language began to evolve over the course of human history into what we have today.

The earliest recognizable form of modern Arabic was created by the Lakhmid people of southern Iraq around 400 AD. These people were responsible for ancient pre-Islam poetry which uses the current Arabic alphabet.

Dialects of the Language

Because the Arabic-speaking world is spread out across multiple contents, there are literally hundreds of different dialects spoken in different areas. The main split between these different dialects occurs between the split of North Africa and the Middle East. Most dialects that are spoken in North Africa fall under the Maghrebi Arabic dialect category, with nearly 75 million speakers. This family of dialects is spoken all the way from Morrocco to Niger.

Though Egypt is located in North Africa, the Egyptian Arabic dialect developed independently from those of its North African cousins and is one of the most commonly understood dialects in the Arabic world. There are 80 million speakers of this dialect, making it the most popular Arabic dialect spoken in Northern Africa.

Gluf Arabic is the dialect spoken by those of the Saudi Arabian peninsula and surrounding areas. This includes countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran. Nearly 60 million people speak this dialect of Arabic.

There are several smaller dialects worthy of mention, including Sudanese Arabic and Shuwa Arabic, though speakers of these dialects is considerably smaller than their larger cousins, mainly because these areas are only remotely connected with the Arabic world.

The Written Language

Just as there are many different dialects of the spoken Arabic language, the written language features many variations as well. The modern Arabic alphabet as we know it developed from Aramaic script and shares a loose cousin relationship with Cyrillic and Greek script. Many differences existed between African and Middle Eastern alphabet, but over the years, the two styles of writing have merged into one.

The Arabic language shares the features of being written from right to left with its other Semitic language cousins. The default script that is used by computers today is known as the Naskh script and is recognized throughout the Arabic world. Ruq'ah is a different form of script which is generally used for handwriting purposes only.

Numerals in the Language

Western Arabic numerals that are also used in English and other languages are common throughout the Northern African Arabic speaking community. However, Egypt and all countries to the east use traditional Eastern Arabic numbers (٠.١.٢.٣.٤.٥.٦.٧.٨.٩). This difference is likely due to the European influence on North Africa over a period of several hundred years.

While Arabic is read from right to left, numerals are written with the smallest denomination placed on the right, just as in languages such as English. For this reason, telephone numbers and other numerical values are read from left to right, but when speaking the values allowed, traditional Arabic values are used. Vocal Arabic reading shares a common factor with German, where units and tens in a number are reversed, compared to modern English. Whereas an English speaker would pronounce the numeral 39 as "thirty-nine", German and Arabic pronunciation would be "nine and thirty". The same pattern is followed for larger numbers such as dates, so the date 1999 would be pronounced "one thousand and nine hundred and nine and ninety."

Because spoken and written language appear differently, students learning the language often have a hard time grasping this change until well into several years of their studies.

Transliteration of Arabic in the Modern World

As Western technologies such as personal computers and cell phones have begun seeing expanded use in the Arabic world, efforts to display the written Arabic language correctly have increased over the several years. However, during the first introduction of these devices to the Arabic world, those Arabic speakers using text in the form of instant messengers and text messages would transliterate the language using the Latin alphabet, which was the only alphabet available on early devices.

This type of modern communication has been dubbed Arabic chat script and is not an official method of transliteration, but nonetheless it is popular amongst the Arabic Internet users who do not have access to a device that can properly type the language. An example of this transliteration occurs in Arabic letters that have no proper counterpart in the Latin script. The Arabic letter ع, or ayn, is often represented with the Latin numeral 3 in this form of transliteration.