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ARABIC A Semitic language of West Asia and North Africa that originated in the Arabian peninsula in the early first millennium AD. It is the mother tongue of c.150 m people in Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, as well as communities elsewhere in Asia and Africa, and immigrant communities in Europe (especially France) and the Americas. Because of its role as the scriptural language of Islam, it has cultural significance and linguistic influence in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Turkey, various Central Asian republics and other countries where there are Muslim communities. Arabic has influenced such languages of southern Europe as Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. It was formerly a language of Europe, being spoken for some 400 years in the Iberian peninsula, and is still represented by its offshoot Maltese, which has been strongly influenced by both Italian and English.

Classical and colloquial Arabic

The Arabic language is generally described as having two forms: classical Arabic and colloquial Arabic. The classical or literary language includes and is based on the Arabic of the Qurān (Recitation), the text of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7c. The colloquial form consists of many vatieties that may or may not be mutually intelligible and fall into several groups: those of Arabia, Egypt, the Maghreb (North Africa west of Egypt), Iraq, and Syria. Classical usage is uniform throughout the Arab world, and all colloquial varieties have been influenced by it. Classical Arabic has immense prestige and liturgical significance wherever Muslims live, but, just as there are Muslims who do not speak Arabic, so there are speakers of Arabic who are not Muslim.

Speech and script

(1) Arabic has a series of velarized consonants, pronounced with constriction of the PHARYNX and raising of the tongue, and a group of uvular and pharyngeal fricatives that give the language a characteristic throaty sound. (2) The GLOTTAL STOP is a consonantal phoneme, represented in Arabic script by the letter alif and in ROMAN transliteration by the lenis symbol (or the apostrophe'): ana I, saal he asked. The sign hamza also represents a glottal stop and is transliterated in the same way. In the TRANSLITERATION of the letter ain, a voiced pharyngeal fricative, the asper symbol ʾ(or the turned comma ʿ) is used, as in āmiyya colloquial, sharīa Islamic law. (3) There are three short and three long vowels, transliterated as a, i, u, ā, ī, ū. (4) Words start with a consonant followed by a vowel. Clusters of more than two consonants do not occur. (5) Arabic script, which probably developed in the 4c, is the next most widely used writing system after the Roman alphabet. It has been adapted as a medium for such non-Semitic languages as Malay, Persian, SPANISH, SWAHILI, Turkish, and URDU. It has 28 letters, all representing consonants, and runs from right to left. (6) A set of diacritics, developed in the 8c, can be used for short vowels and some otherwise unmarked grammatical endings.

Grammar and word-formation

Arabic syntax and word-formation centre on a system of tri-consonantal roots that provide the basic lexical content of words: for example, the root k–t–b underlies words relating to writing and books, and s–l–m underlies words relating to submission, resignation, peace, and religion. Such roots are developed in patterns of vowels and affixes: words formed from k–t–b include the nouns kitāb (book) and kātib (one who writes, a clerk or scribe); words formed from s–l–m include aslama (he submitted), islām (submission to the will of God), muslim (one who so submits), and salām (peace, safety, security).

Arabic in English

Contacts between Arabic and English date from the Crusades (11–13c). BORROWINGS, though often individually significant, have never been numerous: for example, in the 14c admiral, alchemy, alkali, bedouin, nadir, syrup; 16c alcohol, algebra, magazine, monsoon, sheikh, sultan; 17c albatross, alcove, assassin, ghoul, harem, jinn, mullah, sofa, zenith; 19c alfalfa, jihad/jehad, majlis, safari, yashmak; 20c ayatollah, intifada, mujahedin. Arabic words in English tend to relate to Islam (ayatollah, mullah), Arab society and culture past or present (alcove, bedouin, sultan), and learning (alchemy, alkali), including mathematics and astronomy (algebra, nadir, zenith). Many have come into English through a third language: admiral through French, albatross through Portuguese and Spanish, safari through Swahili, ayatollah through Persian. One set of loanwords incorporates the Arabic definite article al, and includes albatross, alchemy, alchol, alcove, alembic, alfalfa, algebra, alhambra, alkali, almanac.

Variations in spelling

Some Arabic words have more than one spelling in English. Of these, the more traditional forms, usually because of rivalry and animosity between Christians and Muslims, have taken little account of Muslim sensibilities. Vernacular and academic orthography are therefore often sharply contrasted, the latter having strict conventions for transliterating Arabic into Roman script. Forms of the name of the Prophet include the obsolete and highly pejorative Mahound (equating him with a devil, false god, or idol), the archaic Mahomet (disliked by Muslims because ma- is a negative Arabic prefix), Mohammed and Mohamed (currently common among Muslims and others), and Muhammad (used principally by scholars). Similarly, a believer in Islam has been a Mahometan or Mohammedan (on the analogy of Christian, terms disliked by Muslims because they emphasize the Prophet and not God), Moslem (widely used), and Muslim (used especially by scholars, but increasingly in general writing). Names for Islam have included the obsolete and offensive Mahometry and Maumetry (meaning ‘false religion’) and the more recent Mahometanism and Mohammedanism, neither of which is acceptable to Muslims. The name for the Islamic scriptures has been the Alcoran (archaic: redundantly incorporating the definite article), the Koran (in general use), and the Qurān (especially among scholars). In the following excerpt, the Arabic words are transliterated using current scholarly conventions:
The Shāfiī school traces its founding to Abū ‘Abdallah Muhammad ibn Idrīs alShāfiī, a Meccan of the Quraysh, who taught in Egypt in Fusṭāṭ (now part of Cairo). He died there A.H. 204/AD 920 ( J. E. Williams, Islam, 1962).

English in Arabic

Because of increasing contacts between the Arab world and English, many words have been borrowed into both spoken and written Arabic: for example, in Egypt, where the British had a colonial presence for 72 years (1882–1954), loans span many spheres and include the colloquial, such as: general aftershave, ceramic, shampoo, spray; architectural motel, roof garden, shopping centre, supermarket; clothing cap, overall, shorts; foodstuffs grape-fruit, ice cream; sport football, half-time, match, tennis. The question of how to transfer foreign terms into the written language, especially scientific and technical terms, has long been hotly debated; innovators advocate borrowing terms where there are gaps, while purists urge the use of equivalents coined for the purpose. By and large, the Arabiciation of such words takes three forms: loan concepts that use the language's own system of roots and derivatives (ea to broadcast, idāea broadcasting, mūīe broadcaster); loan translations that create new Arabic forms (semiotics becoming eilm al-rumūz); loan adaptations that give an Arabic look to foreign borrowings (philosophy becoming al-falsafa, morpheme becoming al-murfīm).

English in the Arab world

In the late 20c, English is a significant additional language in most Arab countries. Four European languages of empire have affected the Arab world, especially in the 19–20c: English especially in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen; French especially in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia; Spanish in Morocco; and Italian in Libya. Although the age of European colonial power passed in the 1950s/1960s, the English and French spheres of linguistic influence in particular are still clear-cut. Currently, English is extensively used for business, technical, and other purposes, especially in and around the Arabian peninsula and the Gulf, and is an increasingly important technical and educational resource in countries formerly closely associated with French.



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Language of Islam, the Qurʾan, and about 185 million people.

Arabic is a Semitic language and the major language of the modern Middle East; it is spoken by an estimated 185 million people. It spread throughout the region during the seventh century c.e., replacing in the Levant Aramaicas well as non-Semitic languagesas Islam began its conquest and conversion. The Arabic language went as far east as Iran and as far west as all of North Africa, crossing Gibraltar to the Iberian Peninsula in the early eighth century.

Arabic is related to two Semitic languages still used in the Middle East: chiefly Hebrew in its ancient liturgical and modern (nineteenth- and twentieth-century) revival forms, but also Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. Arabic is classified as South Central Semitic, sharing features not only with Amharic but also with the ancient languages Geez and Akkadian. Some countries that are now home to predominantly Arabic speakers also have speakers of traditional, non-Semitic languages, such as Berber, Nubian, Kurdish, and Coptic.

Arabic has a special relationship to Islam; it is considered the divine language of Allah by Muslims. The language has therefore been constrained by reverence, with the liturgical or classical Arabic (called Fusha, the "purest" style) remaining basically unchanged since the revelation of the Qurʾan in the seventh century. Today's spoken Arabic is, however, considered corrupt, with diverse local vernacular versions used throughout the region.

Arabic script is written in phonetic symbols similar to Hebrew letters in that each symbol represents a letter and words are written and read from right to left. A feature of Arabic script is its use as an Islamic art form, since there is a religious pronouncement against rendering figures in art. Such calligraphy decorates books, buildings, banners, and jewelry; most words are so stylized that they cannot be read, but as they are often taken from the Qurʾan, their sources are recognized by most Muslims.

Arabic Dialects

The most noticeable linguistic situation in the Arab world is termed diglossia, which literally means "twin vocabularies," referring to the fact that every speaker of Arabic knows a local spoken vernacular and learns the formal Fusha in addition to it. Because of the historical spread of Islam and, with it, Arabic, the language has today been spoken for more than 1,300 years over a wide territory that includes parts of Europe, North Africa, and the Levant. Despite the freezing of the literary grammatical style of Arabic, the colloquial versions, like all spoken languages, changed unfettered by normalized rules or classical prescriptions of correctness. Often speakers from one end of the region cannot understand speakers from another without difficulty, although they can understand the versions spoken in adjacent areas.

At the same time, Arabic is said to be the uniting factor of the modern Arab worldthe one institution all Arabs share regardless of the cultures or subcultures of the countries they now inhabit. Where Arabic is the nation's official language, the classical style is used for government, religion, and schooling. No pressure seems to exist for adopting a type of "Esperanto" Arabic, or even agreeing on one dialect as the standard for all sophisticated communication.

With the advent of radio, television, and the broadcasting of news in literary Arabic, comprehension of that form has increased. Knowledge of other dialects has also been spread by the motion picture industry. For example, Egyptian Arabic (Cairene) has been used in the scripts of many movies, and television soap operas produced in Cairo have helped to familiarize many non-Egyptians with that dialect.

Of the large number of Arabic dialects, only a few have been given names and studied in any detail: Egyptian and Iraqi Arabic refer to the colloquial dialects of the educated classes of Cairo and Baghdad, respectively. Media broadcasts from country capitals have also become comprehensible to rural and nomadic speakers with access to radios, televisions, and video- and audiocassette recorders. Uneducated or rural vernacular dialects differ, though, sometimes dramatically, because many have developed in relative isolation. Nevertheless, speakers of similar backgrounds understand one another over short geographic distances.

The differences between dialects are mostly confined to vocabulary and the shifting or loss of some sounds. The Egyptian use of gim for jim or even djim is one of the best examples of a sound shift. Greater shifts have affected the entire sound of a dialect; for example, in North Africa, most short vowels have been lost and the stress of most words moved from the medial to the last syllable. This produces many words that start with consonant clusters. In contrast, the dialects of Cairo and those farther to the east have maintained most of the short vowels and lost mostly those at the end of the word, keeping the stress, as in Fusha, on the next-to-last syllable. Consonant clusters are generally limited to word-final positions and are no more than two consonants in length. In addition, word borrowing from other languages has occurred in both Fusha and the dialects. In some cases older Arabic words are used to meet the needs of modern life, but in others a borrowed word is usedthe word for "telephone" might be written hatif ("one who calls out"), and it might be spoken as telefon.

Arabic-language academies existin Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdadeach attempting to minimize the use of borrowings. They publish lists of desired usages, but it is difficult to legislate language change.

Classical Arabic

Fusha, the high style, is characterized by a complicated system of conjugations that change the case of words, which are composed of three consonants (s-l-m, for example). Using prefixes, infixes, and suffixes, as well as a change of vocalization according to rules, is basic to all Semitic languagesand formal Arabic demonstrates this practice to a greater extent than any of the others. None of these case markings has survived in the dialects; however, the Qurʾan and children's books are published with them written in place so that they will not be read aloud incorrectly. Nevertheless, even the pronunciation of Fusha varies with the colloquial background of the speaker. Fusha is used in all writing that does not attempt to represent casual speech. In most novels the characters speak in Fusha, but cartoon characters speak in vernacular Arabic, as do actors in most modern plays, and some modern novels are written in dialect. The Arabic version of Sesame Street uses Fusha because it is the language style that children must learn to read.

Rise and Development of Arabic

The early history of Fusha is not clear. Before the appearance of Islam there are few traces of Arabic in the Arabian Peninsula, but it is clear from the language of the Qurʾan that an oral tradition of poetical style was well established before the revelation of that holy book. The language of the Qurʾan is not just a reflection of the dialect of the Hijaz (western Arabia, the original center of Islam); it is a style reflecting the koine of the poets, used for sophisticated performances of oral poetry at the markets to which the nomads came at least once a year. It is probably a combination of both language usages, which is why it is said to have been unique and miraculous at the time of Muhammad's reception of it.

Arabic script was already in use before the codification of the Qurʾan, but it was unified and provided with diacritical marks to resolve ambiguities in the holy text. As the Islamic conquests began in the seventh and eighth centuries, the language of formal usage was being standardized by grammarians in the towns of Basra and Kufa (Iraq). By the ninth and tenth centuries, this linguistic work was completed, and these rules became the standard by which to measure all future literary Arabic output. To this day, "correct" Arabic is measured by these rules, and they are maintained in the belief that to change them is to offend Allah, who produced them.

see also arabic script; calligraphy; hebrew; islam; qurʾan; semitic languages.


Bateson, Mary C. Arabic Language Handbook. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1967.

Bergstrasser, Gotthelf. Introduction to the Semitic Languages, translated by Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983.

Killean, Carolyn G. "Classical Arabic." In Current Trends in Linguistics, Vol. 6: Linguistics in South West Asia and North Africa, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1971.

Omar, Margaret. From Eastern to Western Arabic. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1974.

Wright, C. Grammar of the Arabic Language, 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Carolyn Killean


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Arabic Language originating in the Arabian Peninsula and now spoken in a variety of dialects throughout North Africa and the Middle East. It is a Semitic language, belonging to a major subfamily of Afro-Asiatic languages. Classical Arabic is the language of the Koran. It began to spread during the Islamic expansion of the 7th and 8th centuries. It is estimated that more than 100 million people are native speakers. Arabic uses a script written from right to left. Other languages, such as Urdu, borrowed the script.


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Ar·a·bic / ˈarəbik/ • n. the Semitic language of the Arabs, spoken by some 150 million people throughout the Middle East and North Africa.• adj. of or relating to the literature or language of Arab people.


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Arabic. The language of the Qurʾān, and thus the most sacred language for all Muslims, since it is the language of the final and uncorrupted language of revelation. For that reason, the Qurʾān cannot be translated: it can only be interpreted or paraphrased in other languages. Arabic is the language of the obligatory prayers (ṣalāt).