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 and Aramaic are also Semitic languages, while other non-Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages include Amharicnote , Berbernote , and Ancient Egyptiannote . 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 Arabic that was spoken there.

Generally speaking, English speakers will have a harder time of it learning Arabic than, say, French, but the same holds true in the opposite direction. Arabic contains a lot of unfamiliar phonemesnote  and grammaticizes features English (and other Indo-European) speakers aren't usually used to paying attention to.

Here-abic, There-abic...

Although usually considered a single language for political and cultural reasons, under typical linguistic analysis, "Arabic" is in fact not a single language, but a language family consisting of many different languages, in a situation mirroring Latin and its Romance language derivatives. The Arabic typically learned by foreigners is specifically Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), generally very similar to the Arabic of the Koran but with modifications to accomodate things like loanwords and technical terminology. However, while MSA is used in formal writing, politics, and diplomacy, no one speaks it as a native language, even if "Arabic" is the general native language of their country. After 1500 years of language change, spoken varieties of Arabic are now different languages entirely from the language of the Koran or MSA.

Arabic is usually grouped into these varieties:

  • Classical or Koranic 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 is largely the same as Classical Arabic, only with accomodations made for the modern world. 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 Frozen, all Arabic dubs of Disney movies were dubbed into Egyptian Arabic (Frozen was dubbed into MSA, and future films 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. As most of the region was inhabited by Berber speakers, Berber influence on the dialect is also quite marked. In the modern-day Maghreb, there is a strong movement for Berber revival nowadays.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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 and Najdi.
  • 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 Root

One 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.

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"

Outfitting different roots with the same noun form (also called وزن, or "measure") will yield similar changes in meaning. For example, "عون" means "help" and "تعاون" means "cooperation". There are many more measures and every noun form follows (more-or-less) the same pattern of conjugation for the verb form.

Arabic Script

Writing 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''). Each letter can connect to other letters in the same word in one of two ways:

  • 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

Upon learning which letters cannot connect and which can all you need to learn is how each letter is written depending on its position in a word and then plug them in as is appropriate. For the sake of brevity in this section that will not be shown on this page.

Short vowels (and a symbol specifically to not have a vowel) are marked with diacritics. A small tick above a letter is a fat-ha (فتحة) and it indicates a short "eh" sound as in the word "bed". A small tick below a letter is a kasra (كسرة) and it indicates a short "ih" sound as in the word "sit". A small symbol that looks like a "و" that sits above a letter is a dhamma (ضمة) and indicates a small "u" sound as in the word "put". Dipthongs are created when placing a fat-ha before a "و" or a "ي" making an "oh" and "ey" sound, respectively.

In Everyday Writing

The kind of Arabic used in the Qur'an is known today as Classical Arabic and bears extreme resemblance to—and may even be considered identical to—the Formal Arabic of today. Only in religious texts or the Qur'an itself will one find diacritics being written. They are merely implied in text written for mundane things like a letter to a friend or a newspaper. This poses a problem for people who have learned how to read diacritics but don't have much vocabulary down, as the pronunciation will have to be inferred by the context of the word.


It is common to adorn covers of the Qur'an, household pictures, curtains, and anything else you would most definitely find when visiting the home of an Arab family with complex renderings of stock phrases such as "The Noble Qur'an", "In the name of God, Most Glorious, Most Merciful". Sometimes they are so complex they just look like a bunch of illegible squiggly lines and dots. It looks awesome, though.