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.
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 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.
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.
The links on this page explain the historical development of calligraphy and provide examples that illustrate both its beauty and its variety.
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.
Arabic Language Academy
The idea of maintaining linguistic standards, through an Arab equivalent of the French Academy, has been around since the 19th century. Report by ArabicNews.