Arabic Language: it's history from ancient times, features, interesting facts and differences between Classical, Modern Standard, and Spoken Arabic.
Before you start learning Arabic, and even if you have already started, it is important to have an idea about the history of the language and it's main features. This will broaden your knowledge and provide you with an informed approach to learning. Here is a detailed YouTube video that will take you on a journey from the very start of Arabic or when it is believed to have been born, even before the birth of Arabic letters! Yes, did you know that Arabic was written with other letters initially and that Arabic letters came at a later stage! Watch the video to find out more and to find out also why and how short vowels or diacritics (called "ḩarakāt" in Arabic) were added. It also informs you about the introduction of dotting or "iʻjām" which changed the shape of Arabic letters forever.
In this video you will learn 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?
Where is Arabic spoken and who speaks it?
Arabic language is the language spoken by 274 million people, ranking it the 6th most spoken language in the world (www.statistica.com, 2019). It is also the liturgical language of approximately 1.9 billion Muslims who have some knowledge of Arabic to read or recite the Quran, as well as for prayers and religious study (www.worldpopulationreview.com, 2020). There are 26 countries in Asia and Africa where Arabic is the official language, 18 of which it is used as the first language.
Did you know there are three main types of Arabic language?
• Classical Arabic: is the language in which the holy Quran was written, and is considered to be the base of grammatical and syntactical norms of Arabic language. It is mainly used for religious studies, and is thus considered to be more of a written than spoken language.
• Modern Standard Arabic (MSA): similar to classical Arabic, but easier and adapted to suit modern times. It is used for official and formal forms of communication, such as: government publications, formal emails, press releases and conferences, newspapers, news broadcasts, textbooks and academic research and study, modern Arabic literature, and used by diplomats and officials.
• Spoken Arabic: also called the “colloquial” Arabic is the language naturally used for everyday conversation. It varies greatly from region to region, country to country, and even within the same country. The main dialect branches, keeping in mind each country's own variations, are: Levantine Arabic (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan); Egyptian Arabic (Egypt); North African Maghrebi Arabic (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya); Gulf or Khaleeji Arabic (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq and Oman); Sudanese Arabic (Sudan and Chad)… Arabic dialects are a continuum, where the closer the geographical location, the most likely that people will understand each other; of course taking into consideration the element of exposure through media, the internet, and globalization.
Here's a practical example of the differences in a simple "Hello. How are you?":
MSA: Marḩaban. Kayfa ḩaaluk?
Levantine: Marḩaba. Keefak?
Egyptian: Ahlan. Izzayyak?
P.S.: The standard Islamic greeting is also used across all Arabic speaking countries: "Assalaamu ʻAlykum".
Which type of Arabic do learners usually choose?
It depends on the personal goals of the learner. Those who seek to expand their Islamic knowledge and want to understand the Quran choose classical Arabic. Those who want to read and savor modern Arabic literature, watch news in Arabic, do business with Arabic speakers, work for an embassy in an Arabic country, translate Arabic texts, work in politics, study or research in Arabic, typically choose Modern Standard Arabic. Whereas, those who simply want to converse with the locals of a specific Arabic-speaking country choose to study that country's distinct dialect.
If you are planning to study Arabic as a second language, it is therefore important that you carefully consider your learning objectives and long term goals. Also note that if you study MSA, you would still be able to understand the Quran, if your purpose is religious, since MSA stems from classical Arabic. In addition, most Arabic language schools recommend that a student learns MSA first and then a dialect at some point after of alongside MSA. This gives you an advantage of being able to communicate with all Arabic speakers, versus those of only one country, and it also allows you to be receptive of more than one dialect.
10 Interesting Facts about Arabic Language
1. 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.
2. 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!
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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 andكبير “kabeer" or large. You can see for the letterب 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.
7. The Arabic alphabet includes letters or sounds that are not found in other language, mainly pronounced from the throat, like Haa , Kha, Ayn and Ghain. Emphatic consonants are those pronounced deeper and harder within the throat, such as Dad, Haa, Saa, Taa, Thaa, and Qaf. There are also some unique sounds to Arabic, like the rolled R similar to Spanish R ر , the raspy Kh خ , the gargling GH غ , or the glottal stop ء , and ع which doesn't have an equivalent in English.
8. 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. 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 “sitta wa-tahlathoun” 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.
9. 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 asمأكل، أكل، مأكول، أكول.
10. 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.
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