The ability to comprehend the Arabic language and converse in it is considered by some to be one of the most defining traits of the Arab people.
With 300 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, and is the dominant language in North Africa and West Asia. Despite the fact that not All Muslims Are Arab, Arabic still holds prestige among the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, who revere it as the language of the holy text of Islam, the Q'uran. Linguistically speaking, it belongs to the Semitic subgroup of the Afro-Asiatic languages; Hebrew, Aramaic, Maltese, and Amharicnote are also Semitic languages (though those four and Arabic each use a different alphabet), while other non-Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages include Somali, Tamazight,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 aren't usually used to paying attention to.
There are a few important things to know about Arabic. First, the Arabic that people claim is spoken by "300 million people" is called "Modern Standard Arabic," commonly 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. In fact, there are no native speakers of MSA. Instead, much like Chinese, all Arabs speak a wide variety of "dialects," many of which are only partially mutually intelligible with each other, and some not at all.note Though they are grouped together for political and cultural reasons, the so-called "dialects" of Arabic are only slightly more similar to each other than Dutch-German, or Italian-Spanish.
Many language learning courses advertise MSA as the "lingua franca" of the Arab world spoken by "300 million people," or as the fifth most spoken language in the world and so on. 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. Their success will depend greatly on the distance between dialects, but it is possible - especially when speakers deliberately moderate their speech. Many Arabs have at least some experience hearing other dialects and accents, which eases communication somewhat. However, sometimes the dialects are simply too far apart for mutual comprehension. Yet even then Arabs will often switch, not to MSA, but to a western language like French or English to communicate with each other. Using MSA directly to talk about daily life would be considered weird and even comical. Even if you speak to a regular Arab in MSA, he will not respond in it - meaning you probably won't understand him.
Modern Standard Arabic is taught because 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 - a surprisingly not-uncommon phenomenon called "diglossia." Secondly, because of its association with the Quran, it remains the language of high society and the media. note 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 have to decide whether to go for 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. note
Most Arabs will tell foreigners that MSA is the kind of Arabic they should learn, despite the fact that this might not be the most useful. As already stated, most Arabs speak only in dialect. They will tell you, in short, to learn something they don't even speak themselves. This strange situation is due to the widespread view among Arabs that only Classical Arabic (and by extension MSA) is "Real Arabic," and that dialects are all just slang. This is because the issue is also bound up with Arab political and cultural unity, and therefore many Arabs will claim they can all understand each other even when they cannot. When Arabs of different dialects converse, they tend to avoid vocabulary and grammar they know is unlikely to be understood outside their own dialect. As a result, this masks the actual depth of differences between them, and leads Arabs to express puzzlement when someone wants to study a specific dialect.
However learning a dialect presents its own challenges. One is because MSA is still the written form, you won't be able to read anything if you study only dialect. However another issue is that, due to their low prestige as "street languages," resources to learn dialects are scarce. Even dialect study materials written in Arabic are rare, nevermind written in English.
This comparative dearth of resources available to Arabic language learners makes the language more difficult to learn, even compared to other "hard" languages like Chinese or Japanese. There are more resources available for learning Irish (spoken by less than 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.
Learning and becoming fluent in Arabic is not impossible, but it definitely presents unique challenges that even learners of other "hard" languages may not face. 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 (100 million out of 300 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 (save 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, Wreck-It Ralph 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), and if Arabic were to split up into separate languages, Sudanese would almost certainly be seen as a dialect of Egyptian by at least some speakers. 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 - with the notable exception of Israeli Arabs, who pepper their speech with Hebrew loanwords, to the point that Palestinian Arabs call them the besedernote Arabs. 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 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—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"
Outfitting different roots with the same noun form (also called وزن wazn, or "measure") will yield similar changes in meaning. For example, "عون" `awn means "help" and "تعاون" ta`āwun means "cooperation". There are many more measures and every noun form follows (more-or-less) the same pattern of conjugation for the verb form.
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 its 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 its 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
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.
There are a number of pairs of certain Arabic letters, such as س and ص and ت and ط, where the only difference between them is one is an "emphatic" version of the sound (i.e. pronounced a little harder).
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.
Plural in Arabic
Plural forms in Arabic are highly irregular. Some Arab words follow English in simply adding a suffix to the singular form, but a majority of Arabic nouns become plural by changing their form entirely (mostly by rearranging, adding, or removing vowels inside it). Attempts to quantify the Arabic "broken plurals" (as they are called) into a teachable system produces dozens of distinct patterns. In other words, practically speaking, it's almost random. While not too much of a problem for native speakers, even Arabs will sometimes be at a loss what the plural form is of a more-rarely-used word. For those learning Arabic, the best advice is simply to memorize the plural of every word.
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 newspaper or a letter to a friend. 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. That said, even mundane, mostly-diacritic-less texts may have some diacritics in places where even an experienced reader would be confused (e.g. where either of two otherwise identically-spelled words would make sense in context).
An interesting point that's being discovered as people start to write down dialects (for things like the Internet) is that if you use etymological spellings (à la English and French) rather than phonetic ones, even dialect ends up looking remarkably like Standard. This lends some credence to the theory that the various dialects really are dialects—not of MSA, but of a hypothesized "Koiné Arabic" spoken in all the Arab countries...except the ones in the Arabian Peninsula (where this commonality starts to break down).
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.