Arabic language

Introduction to Arabic

Arabic is usually ranked among the top six of the world's major languages. As the language of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, it is also widely used throughout the Muslim world. It belongs to the Semitic group of languages which also includes Hebrew and Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia.

There are many Arabic dialects. 

  • Classical Arabic – the language of the Qur'an – was originally the dialect of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. 

  • An adapted form of this, known as Modern Standard Arabic, is used in books, newspapers, on television and radio, in the mosques, and in conversation between educated Arabs from different countries (for example at international conferences). 

  • Local dialects vary considerably, and a Moroccan might have difficulty understanding an Iraqi, even though they speak the same language.

Arabic is not the only language spoken in Arab countries. The two main minority languages. Several varieties of Amazigh are used by the Berbers of North Africa, while Kurdish is spoken in parts of Iraq and Syria.

Arabic's exact position in the league table of world languages varies according to the methodology used.

The linguists' website, Ethnologue, places it fourth in terms of the numbers of people who use it as their first language. Other rankings have placed Arabic anywhere between third and seventh. 

One of the difficulties is that it is almost impossible to compile accurate data. There are also debates among linguists about how to define "speakers" of a language, and speakers of "Arabic" in particular. Many Arabs, for example, are not proficient in Modern Standard Arabic. The complexities are discussed further in an article by George Weber.


The Arabic alphabet

Arabic is written from right to left. There are 18 distinct letter shapes, which vary slightly depending on whether they are connected to another letter before or after them. There are no "capital" letters.

The full alphabet of 28 letters is created by placing various combinations of dots above or below some of these shapes. (An animated version of the alphabet shows the correct way to move the pen).

The three long vowels are included in written words but the three short vowels are normally omitted – though they can be indicated by marks above and below other letters.

For more about reading and writing Arabic, see: Learning the alphabet

Although the Arabic alphabet as we know it today appears highly distinctive, the Latin, Greek, Phoenician, Aramaic, Nabatian alphabets probably share some common ancestry. Other languages – such as Persian, Urdu and Malay – use adaptations of the Arabic script.

The numerals used in most parts of the world – 1, 2, 3, etc – were originally Arabic, though many Arab countries use Hindi numerals.

The following four lessons (part of the Babel course) give a fair idea of what is involved in learning to read and write Arabic:

Decorative writing – calligraphy – is one of the highest art forms of the Arab world. This is partly because strict Muslims disapprove of art which represents humans or living things. 

Next: Is Arabic difficult to learn?


Bits and pieces

Arabic personal names
The components of names - abu, ibn, etc. How they are used and what they mean.

Names of Arabic origin
Arabic place names in Spain, Portugal and the Americas.

Is Arabic dying?
Blog post, 2010

The future of Arabic
Blog post, 2010

The future of Arabic (2)
Blog post, 2010

Learn Arabic ... or else
Blog post, 2013

Arabic and information technology
Blog post, 2009

Blaming Arabic
Blog post, 2010

The Arabic blogosphere
Blog post, 2009

Street Arabic 
Some words and phrases that should not be used in polite company, from The Alternative Arabic Dictionary. Two versions, here (PDF) and here.