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DL Logo Spotlight on Arabic

About the Arabic Language

Arabic is one of the languages in the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, which also includes Hebrew and Aramaic. It is remarkably rich and varied, owing in part to the diglossic situation in which varieties of Arabic are used, each variety having distinct functions. Classical Arabic is the language of the Qur'an and is used for liturgical and religious purposes. Literary works of pre-20th century authors also continue to be read in Classical Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is the formal language common to official correspondence, education, and media across all Arabic-speaking countries. Colloquial Arabic varieties are used in daily life. Like the threads of a fabric, the varieties of Arabic form a cohesive whole that enriches Arabic speakers and learners.

It has been estimated that there are over 450 million Arabic speakers in the world, the majority of whom live in the Middle East and North Africa. Countries that list Arabic as an official or national language include Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen (Gordon, 2005).

Descended from Phoenician lettering, all 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet are consonants, although three of them also represent the long vowels, [u:], [i:], and [a:]. As is true in other Semitic languages, the letters are combined in a triconsonantal (also known as triliteral) arrangement, wherein vowels are added to roots that typically consist of three consonants to convey variations of the root meaning. This is an example of a triconsonantal arrangement:

Thicken in Arabic

/s-m-k/ is a verb meaning “thicken”

Thickness in Arabic

/sumk/ is a noun meaning “thickness”

Thick in Arabic

/samīk/ is an adjective meaning “thick”

The above example also illustrates the manner in which vowels are noted with marks surrounding the letters in the word, although the marks are increasingly considered optional.

Arabic is written from right to left, and letters are formed differently depending on their position within a word and on the letters that surround them. For example, the letter /mīm/, which makes the sound /m/, is formed differently in these positions:

Freestanding

Beginning of a word

Middle of a word

End of a word


Arabic is widely admired for its beautiful calligraphic script, an art that remains intrinsic to Arabic writing even in the modern context. For a description and sample of several Arabic scripts, see the Web sites of NationMaster.com or ArabicCalligraphy.com.

References
National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project. (1999). Standards for foreign language learning in the 21st century (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Read more about CAL's activites and resources related to Arabic.

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Compiled by Cate Coburn