Useful Notes: Arabic Language
The ability to comprehend the Arabic language and converse in it is considered by some to be one of many defining traits of the Arab people. Yes, this means—even if you've never lived in any Arab country, have no Arab heritage, and don't have a taste for the sound of an oud—but you hold fluency in the Arabic language, you may be considered an Arab. Double points if you are a Troper. Welcome! With 220 million speakers, Arabic is one of the most spoken languages in the world. It is the official or a co-official language in 22 countries. It further holds prestige among the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, who revere it as the language of the holy text of Islam, the Koran. Linguistically speaking, it belongs to the Semitic subgroup of the Afro-Asiatic languages; Hebrew, Aramaic, and Maltese are also Semitic languages (though those three and Arabic each use a different alphabet), while other non-Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages include Amharicnote Berber,note and Ancient Egyptian.note Historically, Arabic was even more widespread than it is now, reaching into parts of Europe; Maltese, the language of Malta in the Mediterranean, is descended from the variety of Arabic (Siculo-Arabic) that was spoken there and in Sicily at the time. Generally speaking, English speakers will have a hard time learning Arabic. Arabic contains a lot of unfamiliar phonemesnote and grammaticizes features English and other Indo-European speakers (Arabic is part of the Semitic language family) aren't usually used to paying attention to.
Here-abic, There-abic...There are a few important to things to know about Arabic before we begin. First, the Arabic that people claim is spoken by "220 million people" is called "Modern Standard Arabic," which from here on out will be called "MSA." This is Classical Arabic taken straight from the Quran updated for modern times. It is the only written form of Arabic, and is the form of Arabic spoken on the news, in academic circles, and in politics. However, this is not the Arabic that Arabs speak most of the time. They understand it, but they don't speak it. There are actually no native speakers of MSA. Instead, all Arabs speak a wide variety of "dialects," some of which are only partially mutually intelligible with each other, and some not at all. Though they are grouped together for political and cultural reasons, the so-called "dialects" of Arabic would be better thought of as separate languages altogether. Many language learning courses advertise MSA as the "lingua franca" of the Arab world spoken by "220 million people." This is not true. If two Arabs meet who speak different dialects, almost always they will try to simply muddle through with their own dialects. MSA sounds as "modern" to contemporary Arabs as Shakespearean English sounds to you (or perhaps more pertinently, the King James Bible). Even if you speak to a regular Arab in MSA, he will not respond in it - meaning you probably won't understand him. So why is Modern Standard Arabic taught? Firstly, it is the only written form of Arabic. Dialects have no official written forms. In this sense, Arabs may be said to read in one language and speak in another. There is actually a word for this - "diglossia." Secondly, because of its association with the Quran, it remains the language of high society and the media. Someone who understands only dialect will not be able to listen to the news, or indeed read any printed media like newspapers or books. If you want to learn Arabic, you must take these things into account before deciding whether to learn MSA or one of the dialects (of course if you really want to become fluent, eventually you'll have to learn both). Learning Modern Standard Arabic is a good start, as all Arabs can understand it, and it lays a good foundation for picking up multiple dialects. However, you will not be able to hold a conversation with an Arab on the street. Also important: while Arab news is in MSA, Arab movies are not. Therefore if you plan to learn a lot from watching Arabic TV shows or films, MSA is not the way to go. On the other hand, diving straight into a dialect lets you converse with regular Arabs immediately - at least, the ones who speak that or mutually intelligible dialects. However going straight for a dialect makes learning other dialects harder. Furthermore, you'll be functionally illiterate because all the writing will be in MSA. There are pros and cons to both choices, and it all depends on what you want. One other thing to mention: learning Arabic is hard not just because of the difficulties highlighted above, but because of the comparative dearth of resources available for Arab language learners, especially compared to other "hard" languages like Chinese or Japanese. There are more resources available for learning Gaelic (spoken by around a million people in Ireland) than there are for Arabic. Most resources available are for teaching MSA, followed by Egyptian dialect, and then for anything else it quickly drops to near zero. This is partly due to the fact that even Arabs don't teach dialect in their own countries, due to their status as "street languages" compared to MSA. Any grammar or language schooling done in the Arab world is all MSA. Learning and becoming fluent in Arabic is not impossible, but it's definitely not for the faint of heart. One really needs to socialize frequently with native speakers to have a good shot at success. With all that said, Arabic is usually grouped into these varieties:
- Classical or Quranic Arabic is (three guesses) the language of the Koran. It is also used in most documents and writings of the Islamic Golden Age; much like Latin in medieval Europe, it was the standard "codified" language of writing for most of the Middle East and North Africa until the Ottomans began to spread Turkish in its place. This stage of the language is very important for historians, as several groundbreaking scientific and mathematical documents are written in Classical Arabic, and there are some Ancient Greek works known only from their Arabic translations.
- Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is derived from but closely modeled on Classical Arabic, with accommodations made for the modern world, but also with a small number of changes common to most vernacular varieties incorporated (e.g.: when listing items, MSA will use "A, B, and C" like the vernacular, rather than "A and B and C" like Classical Arabic). MSA is used mostly in politics, diplomacy, and formal writing, such as newspapers or academic publications. Popular entertainment like comics or TV shows, on the other hand, is typically done in the local spoken Arabic. However, children's media is often dubbed in MSA as well for educational purposes.
- Egyptian Arabic, as its name suggests, is spoken in Egypt. Egypt is a hugely populous country, with more than 1 in 3 Arabic speakers being Egyptian (80 million out of 220 million Arabic speakers). Due to the exportation of Egyptian media to the rest of the Arabic speaking world, this is one of the most widely understood spoken varieties; until Secret of the Wings, almost all Arabic dubs of Disney movies (safe for few direct-to-video movies) were dubbed into Egyptian Arabic (Secret of the Wings was dubbed into MSA, and all the following films (inclunding Brave, WreckItRalph and even Frozen) were and will be as well). For this reason, besides MSA, Egyptian Arabic is the most widely studied variety by foreign learners.note
- In Upper Egypt (which is actually the South), Sa'idi Arabic is spoken. This more conservative variety approaches Sudanese Arabic in many respects. However, Sa'idi Arabic carries little prestige in Egypt, and many young people shift away from it towards the Cairene Egyptian Arabic when they begin their professional lives.
- Sudanese Arabic is obviously the dialect of Sudan, both North and South. Apart from its marked Nubian influence, Sudanese Arabic is also notable for its conservative phonology; many sounds from Classical Arabic lost in all other varieties are retained only in Sudanese. That said, Sudanese Arabic has a marked similarity to Egyptian Arabic, particularly Sa`idi, in aspects other than phonology; this should come as no surprise, given that Sudan has been under some kind of Egyptian influence or other for a very long time, and when Sudan won its independence a not-insignificant chunk of the population wanted to join Egypt. Suffice it to say, virtually all Sudanese can understand Egyptian very easily, and Egyptians only need a little bit of adjustment to be able to understand Sudanese (although they will rarely be able to replicate it). Sudan is also notably home to one of the few Arabic creoles, called Nubi. This was the result of non-Arabic-speaking Africans being recruited into the Egyptian forces in Sudan, who were commanded and drilled in Arabic.
- Levantine Arabic is spoken in the Levant: Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. As the Levant was and is home to many other Semitic languages besides Arabic, many loanwords from those languages have entered it. Unusual in the fact that, while the variety varies considerably among rural populations, most cities throughout the entire region from Damascus to Beirut to Amman speak virtually the same. This urban Levantine dialect, especially the form spoken in Beirut, is famously sing-songy and is often considered a bit camp by other Arabs; it is also largely mutually intelligible with Nile Valley (Egyptian and Sudanese) varieties if the speakers try to avoid slang and speak clearly.
- Maghrebi Arabic is the variety spoken in western North Africa, i.e. the Maghreb, which is generally considered to include Morocco (and Western Sahara), Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The French domination of the region for several decades has led to French influence on this dialect being particularly strong. The French (and Italian, in Libya's case) influence is one of the several features of this variety that makes it famously incomprehensible to other Arabic speakers through the use of a very large number of French loanwords. As most of the region was inhabited by Berber speakers, Berber influence on the dialect is also quite marked, which shows up in loanwords but also the phonotactics (Berber allows more consonant clusters in more places than Standard Arabic, leading to Maghrebi Arabic "dropping" a lot of vowels and being "faster" than Eastern dialects. When Maghrebi speakers intentionally slow down their speech and add vowels they normally don't or only barely pronounce, the language barrier between them and Easterners lessens considerably). In the modern-day Maghreb, there is a strong movement for Berber revival nowadays, albeit mostly as a cultural preservation matter rather than an attempt to make it the primary language of administration and daily life.
- Siculo-Arabic was a variety of Maghrebi Arabic spoken in present-day Sicily and Malta. Nowadays, the vast majority of Sicilians are going to have Sicilian or Italian (both Romance languages) as their first language, while the variety of Siculo-Arabic in Malta eventually became the Maltese language after heavy influence from Italian and Sicilian (and, more recently, English, which along with Maltese is official in the country today) as well as the adoption of the Latin alphabet.
- Saudi Arabic is the variety spoken in Saudi Arabia, which takes up most of the Arabian Peninsula. While Saudi Arabia is the original home of the language, Saudi Arabic is not the most conservative variety by a long shot. The vast expanses of desert and thence-coming isolation of various inhabited parts of the country has caused considerable dialectal differences within Saudi Arabic itself, such that "Saudi Arabic" is of questionable linguistic value; the most widely spoken dialects of Saudi Arabic are Hejazi (in the Red Sea coastal region of Hejaz west of and including the Hejaz Mountains) and Najdi (in the central Najd plateau). Settlement on the Saudi Gulf coast is relatively recent (being oil-driven) and that region has no clear dialect (the few people who lived there before the oil industry spoke Gulf Arabic and still do, but they have been overwhelmed by relative newcomers from Hejaz and Najd as well as other places, including not a few Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, and Iraqis).
- Gulf Arabic is spoken around the rim of the Persian Gulf, and thus includes the coastal regions of Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Irannote and Oman.
- Mesopotamian Arabic is spoken in most of Iraq and parts of Syria, while spilling into parts of Turkey as well. Like Levantine Arabic, Mesopotamian Arabic has received much influence from older Semitic languages like Aramaic and Akkadian, the latter of which was the language of ancient Babylonia. Mesopotamian is divided into two major dialect groups, Gelet and Qeltu, which are named after the words for "I said." Interestingly, the moribund Cypriot Arabic, spoken on the European island of Cyprus, resembles most closely this variety, rather than the expected (given Cyprus' geography) Levantine or Egyptian.
The Basic RootOne defining feature of the Semitic family of languages, and therefore also Arabic, is the consonant root system. Each root of usually 3 consonants has a specific meaning; vowels and non-root consonants are added to produce inflectional or extrapolated forms of the root. For example, the root k-t-b means "write"; kataba means "he wrote"; naktubu means "we write" or "we will write." This root system is why vowels can usually be safely eliminated in Arabic and other Semitic languages; virtually all known abjads (writing systems that transcribe consonants but not vowels) were developed to write Semitic languages—and most of those that weren't were developed for other Afro-Asiatic tongues (e.g. Ancient Egyptian writing, which worked as an abjad with logographic elements—a bit like how Japanese script is as a syllabary with logographic elements, really). When explaining how the root system works one will usually use the triliteral root commonly transliterated as "F 3 L" (ف ع ل). Without any affixes these letters in this order (and remember: Arabic is written from right to left) as a noun mean "action" or "verb". As a verb they mean "to do"note . Adding and changing vowels and affixes can change the nature of the word such as (the root is bolded):
- فِعْلٌ (fi3-lun): "action" or "doing" (The vowelization for this noun form varies unpredictably for other roots)
- تَفْعِيْلٌ (taf-3eelun): "the act of making another do something/ to do intensely"
- تَفاعُلٌ (tafaa3ulun): "the act of doing something with somebody" or "to interact"
Arabic ScriptWriting in Arabic is more similar to writing with the Roman alphabet than an English speaker might think at first. Outside of Arabic, the Arabic writing system is referred to as an abjad (أبجد) and functions very similarly to the Roman alphabet. Each phoneme has it's own letter and no letters have more than one phone (excluding alif). What really gets beginners is the way letters are connected. The Arabic alphabet consists of 29 letters (or 28, as Arab grammarians are divided as to whether not ''hamza'' should be considered it's own letter or some kind of auxiliary symbol for an ''alif''). The Arabic alphabet is somewhat peculiar, however, because the letters are always "connected" in one way or another; as the Arabic alphabet is ultimately derived from a cursive form of the Aramaic alphabet (the non-cursive form of which is ancestral to the modern Hebrew alphabet), this should come as no surprise. The really strange thing, though, is that although all Arabic letters can connect to the letter before them, there are two classes of letters depending on their relation to letters after them:
- It cannot connect to the letter after it:
- أ, د, ذ, ر, ز, and و
- It can connect to the letter after it:
- ب, ت, ث, ج, ح, خ, س, ش, ص, ض, ط, ظ, ع, غ, ف, ق, ل, م, ن, ه, and ي