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20 Things You Didn't Know About the Arabic Language

Updated: Dec 18, 2021

Before proceding to learn 20 amazing facts about Arabic, you can watch this video about:

  • The ancient history of Arabic language even before Arabic became in its common form.

  • The development of Arabic writing.

  • The phonological and syntax structure of Arabic as a proto-Semitic language.

  • The use of dotting, short and long vowels in Arabic.

  • The sentence structure in Arabic.

  • The different types of Arabic today: Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and Spoken Arabic dialects, and exactly what each entails; the pros and cons. Which one to learn and why.

And now, it's time for 20 amazing facts about Arabic!

1. Arabic is spoken by around 315 million people, ranking it as the 5th most spoken language in the whole world after Mandarin, Spanish, English and Hindi! It's the official language in 25 countries. It is one of the 6 official language of the United Nations. It is also the language of the Quran, the holly book for 1.8 billion Muslims.

2. Many of the most popular or spoken languages in the world have Arabic influence, such as English, Spanish, Indonesian, French, Persian, Urdu, Kurdish, Bengali, Hindu, Malay, Tagalog, Portuguese and Turkish. Think of the English words cotton, sugar, algebra, and alchemy. They are derived from the Arabic words "qutn", "sukkar", "al jabr", and "al kimya". In Hindu for example, "Lekin", which means "but" is derived from Arabic. The Spanish word "taza" or "cup" also has Arabic roots.

3. Maltese language is considered a branch of Arabic, evolving from Siculo-Arabic influence, prompted by the invasion of Arabs to the island of Sicily and other parts of Europe in the 9th century. It is also the only Arabic dialect written in Latin alphabet!

4. Arabic itself has influences from other languages, like Aramaic, Hebrew, Persian, and Hellenistic Greek. Arabic is a member of the Sematic languages family, some of which have disappeared through time, such as the Phoenician and Akkadian, and some of which are still spoken today, such as Amharic (language of Ethiopia) and Hebrew. The word "madina" (meaning city) for example has a Hebrew origin.

5. Arabic language is at least 1,500 years old. Whilst classic Arabic dates back to the 6h century, older versions of the language and dialects spoken before the emergence of Islam date as far back as the 1st century, such as the Safaitic dialect spoken by the pre-Islamic nomadic inhabitants of the Syro-Arabian desert. In the 2nd century BCE, the Nabataeans, who formed what is known as Jordan today, wrote a cursive Aramaic derived alphabet which developed into the Arabic alphabet.

6. The Arabic language has an "abjad" system and not an alphabet. This abjad has 28 letters, written from right to left. All of the letters are consonants, since the vowels in Arabic are denoted by diacritics or marks, which can be added to the letters, either on top or underneath.

7. Each Arabic alphabet letter can be written in four different ways or shapes when writing a word: (1) when it is stand-alone or isolated, (2) when it is at the beginning of the word, (3) when it is at the middle of the word, and (4) when it is at the end of the word. For example, consider the words باب ("bab" or door) and كبير ("kabeer" or large). You can see for the letter ب how it has changed in accordance to its position in the word, whether at the beginning, middle or end. You may feel it is a bit difficult at first glance, but if you look closer, you can see that all the "baas" ب look similar.

8. The Arabic alphabet includes letters or sounds that are not found in other language, mainly pronounced from the throat, like Haaح , Kha خ, Ayn ع, and Ghain غ. Emphatic consonants are those pronounced deeper and harder within the throat, such as Dad ض, Haa ه, Saa ص, Taa ط, Thaa ظ, and Qaf ق. There are also some unique sounds to Arabic, like the rolled R ر (أرنب) (similar to Spanish R), the raspy Kh خ(خروف), the gargling GH غ (غراب), or the glottal stop ء مساء)), and ع (عنب) which doesn't have an equivalent in English.

9. Arabic language is a cursive language, as the letters are joint together when written and when typed alike, keeping in mind that each letter has four different forms depending on its position in the word, beginning, middle, end, or stand alone, as mentioned earlier.

10. Arabic language has almost unlimited vocabulary, with no exact or verified number of words. Sources are conflicting and claim it can be between 100,000 to 500 million. There is no definitive answer. In comparison, English has 600,000, French 150,000, and Russian 130,000. If you consider the words listed in Mu`jam (Arabic dictionary), that would be around 5,000 to 6,000 (lexical root words, according to "A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic" ). But, the answer varies according to what you consider a word. For example, a root word like أكل or "ate" (Akala; ate, in the past tense), can generate at least 30 other words, depending on who is doing the action or verb, the doers and the tenses أكلت، أكلت، أكل، أكلا، أكلن، أكلوا، يأكل، تأكل، يأكلون) تأكلن), such as I ate, you ate, he ate, they ate, we are eating, she is eating, etc. From the same root word, you can also generate many other nouns and adjectives such as (مأكل، أكل، مأكول، أكول). It may look complicated, but once you learn the Arabic language and the templates into which these words and verbs are used, you are most likely to understand the words derived from the root word, even if you have not heard of it before. So, in brief, Arabic language, just like other Sematic languages, is different form English, in that it is a very systematic language and depends on "theoretical morphology" producing meaningful components and sub-components at a singular word level. One more consideration is that while standard Arabic has not changed much for a long period of time, there is a multitude of varieties in the colloquial or local spoken forms, and even different dialects and accents within the same country.

11. Another confusing fact about Arabic language is that whilst letters or words are written from right to left, numbers are written from left to right. This is important when beginning to learn the Arabic language, to avoid confusion later on. No wonder, some modern research has claimed that learning Arabic is challenging and hard, and even described it as a "brain workout". The grilling question is why numbers are written from left to right. The answer may be that Arabic take the natural ordering of things into consideration, the least significant number first, followed by the higher. So for example, if you were to say 36 in Arabic, you would say ستة وثلاثون, or "six and thirty". Keep in mind that the western numbering was adopted from Hindu-Arabic numerical systems, which when translated, they opted to keep the order of left to right.

12. Arabic uses punctuation marks like other languages; however, they are sort of inverted! So, considering that Arabic is written from right to left, the punctuation marks would face to the right, instead of facing left. Makes sense? (كيف الحال؟ الفاصلة تسهل القراءة، فتريح النظر وتساهم بإيضاح المعنى). So in English (,.; ") would be (،.؛ ") in Arabic.

13. Another fun fact is that the Arabic language does not use capitalization (A,B,C) or abbreviation (like don't, cant, wouldn't..). There are no capital letters versus small letters as in English, since the Arabic language is a written in cursive, and each letter is written in four different forms as mentioned earlier, depending on its position in the word. In English, capitalization is used to denote letters in the beginning of a sentence or of certain significance or for abbreviation... It's worth mentioning though, that Latin originally only used upper case.

14. Did you also know that there is no verb "to be" in Arabic language? So instead of saying for example, I am Jad, you would simply say " I Jad" (أنا جاد), or instead of "The teacher is a woman", "The teacher a woman" (المعلمة امرأة). Keeps getting more interesting, right?

15. The Arabic language is indeed rich in vocabulary and synonyms. For example, there are at least 11 words for "love" (Hubb, حب), and a 100 for "camel" (Jamal, جمل). It's interesting to know that Hubb comes from the root word "seed" in Arabic, meaning to grow something. The word "heart" or "qalb" means "to flip or turn", since our emotions are constantly turning!

16. According to the Common European Framework for Reference for Languages, it would take you between 1000 and 1,500 hours to learn Arabic as a beginner, and to reach a high "intermediate level".

17. I mentioned earlier, that learning Arabic can be hard. In fact, it can be considered as one of the hardest to learn, ranking second after Mandarin! Mainly due to the deeper guttural tones of some of the consonants, the way the letters are written, the root system of words, ad moreover how the brain works studying Arabic! The reason is because it forces the brain to work in a completely different way than when learning English for example. Many of the Arabic consonants have similar shapes, distinguished by dots (15 shapes in total for 28 letters, for example س ش ح ج خ ب ت ث ف ق). This means Arabic learning encourages paying attention to detail. And whilst learning other languages usually requires the use of both left and right hemispheres of the brain (left to study local details, and right to understand the general picture or global aspects), learning Arabic mainly depends on using the left side of the brain only, as the right side is challenged by the amount of details entailed in the letters.

18. Did you also know that meters of rhymed Arabic poetry are very difficult, and known as "buhour" or "seas"; where adding or even removing one consonant or vowel (haraka) can disrupt the entire balance, and change the meter or "bayt". Poetry played an important part of Arabic history and language, and was used for war propaganda, praise and mockery. Very often, poetry battles would stand in lieu of real war-field battles.

19. Arabic calligraphy is considered a form of art on its own, just like painting or drawing, due to the beauty and detail of the letters. It started as a tool of communication, progressing to be used for artistic expression such as construction, design, currency, and books… Arabic calligraphy is not static. It has continued to develop over fourteen centuries, with artists getting creative with their styles, adding to existing their own personal touch to existing scripts. Moreover, it has also developed with digital and computer-based arts.

20. Finally, what is the future of the Arabic language? The British council is now promoting teaching Arabic in primary schools, considering it is rated as the second most important language for workers of the future, after Spanish and before French. The challenge is that only a few primary schools teach it and even fewer secondary schools, which makes it harder for pupils wishing to continue learning Arabic. Another challenge, is the threat of modernization and globalization, combined with outdated teaching methods, which may force half of the world's 7,000 language into extinction by the end of the century. There is also a new generation of Arabic speakers who have adopted an "Arabzi" dialect, a hybrid of Arabic and English. Many students in the Arab world treat the language as "inferior" or "outdated", treating it as an "uncool" language, and opting to rely on English for self-expression. This is combined by the lack of modern teaching techniques and the fact that standard Arabic can be very different from spoken dialects. And although, in many countries parents ensure their children learn basic Arabic, the main reason is purely to read the Quran, leaving out the daily use and understanding of the language. And ironically, despite an increasing number of Arabic language users online, the digital content available in Arabic is still limited, especially with those users gravitating towards English in light of the lack of content and dominance of English language. We can conclude that the future of the Arabic language is uncertain and depends on the future presence or absence of content creation in Arabic. So, what do you think? Will Arabic become an archaic language used only for religious scripts and by linguistics and researchers, or will it revolutionize and continue to strive in the future?

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