Arabic Language

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A people with the name of Aribi is first mentioned in a cuneiform inscription from the eighth century b.c.e., where it denotes a nomadic tribe. In later centuries tribes named ˓rb are mentioned in several sources, for instance in the Torah (Jeremiah 25:24). It is not known what kind of language these people spoke but it is clear that they had some connection with the North Arabian desert, even though they did not dwell in the Arabian Peninsula itself. Probably their language belonged to the continuum of Semitic languages that was spoken all over the Middle East and that included Aramaic, Hebrew, Canaanite, and others.

The full penetration of the Arabian Peninsula dates from a later period. In the southern part of the peninsula the South Arabian kingdoms such as those of the Minaeans and the Sabaeans flourished from the thirteenth century b.c.e. onward. Their language was South Arabian, a language related to the Ethiopian languages. They had domesticated the camel, which was used for carrying loads but not yet as a riding animal. The South Arabians maintained frequent trade relations with the Middle East, usually by the sea route, and through these contacts the camel was introduced in the north as well. Around the beginning of the common era when a riding saddle was developed for the camel, it became possible to penetrate the desert and even live there permanently. Presumably, some of the tribes that wandered in the border area between sedentary land and the desert fringe eventually made the shift to a nomadic life in the desert and thus developed what may be called a Bedouin society.

In the northern part of the peninsula thousands of (usually short) inscriptions attest to the presence of a language that was very much akin to the Arabic language as it is known today. This language was characterized by the form of the article, h- or hn-, as distinct from the Arabic article al-, but related to the Hebrew form ha-. This language type is usually called Early North Arabic; it was divided into several varieties such as Thamudaean and Lihyanitic. The first inscription in a language that may be recognized as Arabic is the inscription from al-Namara in Syria (328 c.e.) erected by Imru˒al-Qays who calls himself "King of the Arabs." The language shows some similarities with the South Arabian of the South Arabian kingdoms, while at the same time preserving the traces of its relatedness to the Northwest Semitic languages.

Around the fifth century Arabic-speaking tribes lived in large parts of the Arabian peninsula as well as in the areas to the north of the peninsula as far as the Syrian desert and the Sinai; some of them even settled in sedentary areas such as the city of Aleppo. These tribes were Christians. The Bedouin tribes in the peninsula were polytheists. They greatly increased their influence when they took over the caravan trade from the South Arabian kingdoms and settled themselves as middlemen in places like Mecca.

The al-Namara inscription is written in a language with a declensional system, similar to the language of the pre-Islamic poems. It was in this language that the Qur˒an was revealed. According to the indigenous tradition all tribes at the eve of Islam used this language as their vernacular language, although later grammarians document a number of differences between the varieties of the various tribes (lughat). Thus, for instance, the eastern tribes are said to have used a phoneme/˒/(hamza), which was absent in the dialect of the western tribes, but present in the language of poetry and the Qur˒an. According to others the vernacular language of the tribes had already shifted to a different type of language, in which, for instance, case-endings had disappeared. In this view, the language of poetry and the Qur˒an was a literary language that was no longer used as a spoken language but served as a kind of supra-tribal variety, based on the language of the eastern tribes (sometimes called poetico-Qur˒anic koine).

The Spread of the Arabic Language

After the death of the prophet Muhammad the Islamic conquests brought the religion and the language of the Arab tribes into a large area stretching from Islamic Spain to Central Asia. The languages originally spoken in this area (Coptic, Persian, Syriac, Berber) gave way to the linguistic onslaught of Arabic, and even though some of the speakers remained bilingual, the entire area was Arabized within a century. The Arabic as spoken by the inhabitants of this vast empire differed considerably from the language of the Qur˒an, especially in the sedentary centers that were established in the early years of the conquest, such as Basra, Kufa, Fustat, and Kairouan. There was a reduction of the phonemic inventory (loss of interdentals, merger of the phonemes dad and za˒), loss of case-endings and modal endings, reduction of grammatical categories, and emergence of a genitive exponent and aspectual particles. Syntactically speaking, the language had shifted from a synthetic to an analytic type, usually called New Arabic.

There are many theories about the reasons for this change, which affected all domains of grammar. Those who believe that even before Islam the vernacular language of the Bedouin already exhibited some New Arabic changes tend to minimize the role of the new learners of the language. They believe the various vernaculars of the Bedouin were homogenized when members from different tribes were thrown together in the conquering armies. As a result, the vernacular varieties that emerged after the conquests became very different from the language of the Qur˒an. Others look for the cause of the linguistic changes in the languages spoken by the inhabitants of the conquered territories. According to them, this substratal influence affected the structure of New Arabic by carrying over features of languages such as Coptic, Persian, Syriac, and Berber to the Arabic language, as spoken by its new speakers. Yet another factor to be taken into account is the process of language acquisition itself. In every language-learning process in an informal setting the native speakers tend to simplify their language and the new learners apply universal strategies of simplification to this input. The result is a drastic reduction of the phonemic inventory and of grammatical categories, a general disappearance of redundancy, and a restructuring of the language.

Whatever the causes of the linguistic changes, there can be no doubt that very early on in the conquests there was a marked difference between the language of the religious and literary heritage on one hand, and the colloquial speech of the Arab empire on the other. According to the classic description of this situation by Ibn Khaldun, the scholars of Arabic became concerned about this corruption of speech and started to codify the language in their grammar books lest the language of the holy scriptures become incomprehensible for later generations.

The original conquest was just the first stage in the Arabization process since it reached only the sedentary areas, in particular the new garrison towns established by the Arab armies. Later centuries brought successive waves of Bedouin migrants to the conquered territories. These were responsible for the Arabization of much larger areas. In some cases they re-Bedouinized the sedentary dialects of the cities. In Baghdad, for instance, the dialect of the Muslims became Bedouinized while the Christians and Jews retained the original sedentary dialect. In North Africa the second wave of migration is associated with the invasion of the Bedouin tribes of the Banu Hilal and the Banu Sulaym in the tenth and eleventh centuries c.e., which brought Arabic to large parts of the countryside.

There is no consensus about the language these Bedouin spoke. Those who maintain that the vernacular of the Bedouin tribes in the pre-Islamic period had already changed in the direction of New Arabic believe that there was not much difference between the dialects of the first and the second invasion. Others believe that the Bedouin tribes continued to speak a type of Arabic that was basically identical with the pre-Islamic Arabic of poetry and Qur˒an. In this view, the Bedouin did not lose their speech until the fourth century of the Hijra (Islamic calendar). This is corroborated by the grammarians who explain that the Bedouin dialects became corrupted through exposure to the sedentary way of speaking.

Arabic in Islamic Society

At the beginning of Islam, Arabic became the language of both private and public life in the Arab empire. During a transitional period the indigenous languages remained in use, for instance in Egypt where Greek and Coptic were used for administrative purposes along with Arabic. But at the end of the first century of the Hijra, Arabic was firmly established as the official language of the empire. The languages that used to be spoken in the conquered territories disappeared or remained in use in a restricted domain only, such as Coptic and Syriac. In the Arab West, Berber remained in use in the countryside and has indeed never been replaced completely by Arabic until the present day.

The codification of standard Arabic by the grammarians started during the second century of Islam, but even before that there must have existed some kind of norm in writing, possibly connected with the emergence of an epistolary style in the chancelleries. The earliest Arabic documents, the Egyptian papyri from the first century of the Hijra, already contain "mistakes" that show the existence of a standard as target in writing. Such mistakes are very common and with the growth of literacy they became even more frequent. In modern linguistic terminology texts containing deviations from the grammatical norms of the standard language are usually called "Middle Arabic." This term does not denote a well-defined variety of the language but is used as a general label for all nonstandard texts. Some of the mistakes reflect the vernacular language, for instance, when people write la yaktubu "they do not write" rather than the more formal la yaktubuna, but very often one encounters pseudo-corrections, when people in their attempt to write standard Arabic over-step their target, for instance when they write lam yaktubuna "they did not write" instead of lam yaktubu. The introduction of vernacular features in written language could also serve to create a humorous effect. This occurs particularly in literature aiming at a popular audience, such as the stories in the Arabian Nights or in dialect poetry.

The acceptance of deviations from the norms was particularly strong in non-Muslim circles. Jewish and Christian writers, who did not have the same attachment to the language of the Qur˒an, felt free to use a more popular kind of language. Thus we find Jewish writers using certain vernacular constructions when writing to fellow Jews, but studiously avoiding these when writing for a more general Muslim audience. One might even say that this kind of Arabic became an in-group language with a special status. This Judaeo-Arabic was written in Hebrew characters and contained a large number of Hebrew loanwords.

Arabic remained the language par excellence of the Islamic empire for well over five centuries, until the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258. Even in Mamluk Egypt, where the political and military elite consisted of Turkic-speaking people, Arabic continued to be regarded as a language of prestige. Mamluk intellectuals used it in writing, even though Qipcaq Turkic was their colloquial language. In the East the position of Arabic as a religious, cultural, and administrative language started to change from the tenth century onward. Middle Persian, the language of the Persian empire, had become marginalized after the conquests, but New Persian (Farsi) became popular as the language of poetry in the ninth century. The dynasty of the Samanids reintroduced it as the language of the court, and in the sixteenth century the Safavid dynasty started to use it as the new "national" language of Iran. As a result, the spreading of Islam in South and Southeast Asia took place in Persian, particularly when the Moguls began to use it as their literary language. In the Islamic East, Arabic was retained solely as the language of the Qur˒an, Persian having become the language of preaching, literature, and administration.

With the advent of the Turkic peoples Arabic gradually lost its position in the Islamic West as well. In the Seljuk Empire and later in the Ottoman Empire the language of administration became Ottoman Turkish, while Persian was the language used by the intellectual elite for cultural purposes. Arabic was relegated to the domain of religion, although it continued to serve as a source for thousands of loanwords in both Persian and Turkish, ranging from learned words such as mo allem "teacher" in Persian and akide "dogma" in Turkish to common words such as ve- 'and' in both languages. Yet, when the Arab world became integrated in the Ottoman Empire, spoken Arabic was treated as a minor provincial language and its written variety was only used for religious purposes. Even though most inhabitants of the Arab provinces did not know Turkish, official contacts with the empire had to take place in that language.

The nineteenth-century Arab renaissance (Nahda) brought a change in the self-awareness of the Arabs and the position of Arabic. In Egypt, Muhammad ˓Ali initiated a movement to translate European writings into Arabic. In its wake a new idiom was created to convey the new ideas, and the language was modernized through the introduction of a host of new terms in the fields of the technical sciences, economics, and politics. Once again, Arabic became a language in which political and administrative issues were discussed.

The fall of the Ottoman Empire signified a new beginning for Arabic but the simultaneous invasion of the colonial powers introduced a new danger to the language. Because of the military and cultural dominance of the English and the French the attitude toward Arabic was often a negative one. After the Arab countries gained their independence Arabic became the official language of most of these countries and the symbol of Arab nationalism. In the Mashreq, it did not take long before English was replaced by Arabic, but in the formerly French-dominated countries it took decades before the French language had disappeared from the administrative, educational, and legal systems.

Fusha and ˓Ammiyya

The contemporary linguistic situation in the Arab world is characterized by diglossia, in which two varieties of the language have strictly separate roles or functions in the speech community. The so-called High variety, called fusha or al-˓arabiyya, is the language learned at school as the carrier of a rich religious and literary heritage; it is the language that is used in writing, both in the educational system and the media, and in formal speech. The Low variety, called ˓ammiyya or in North Africa darija, is the colloquial language, which is the mother tongue of all speakers. It is the language of everyday communication, the language of friends and family, the language of informal speaking.

The coexistence of two varieties of the language is not without its problems. Since the standard language is learned at school, only those who are literate have access to the written production. For the vast majority of the population the formal language is not immediately comprehensible so that a large part of linguistic communication in the community is beyond their linguistic competence. The two varieties have quite different associations, the standard language being associated with education and therefore with social success and wealth, whereas the vernacular is associated with illiteracy and poverty. At the same time, its function as the language of informal talk makes it the symbol of in-group communication, whereas the standard language is seen as a stereotyped and distanced means of communication.

Language choice between standard and vernacular depends on a number of factors such as the person of the interlocutor, the topic being spoken about, and the setting of the speech act. By their language choice speakers express their attitude toward these factors, their evaluation of the situation and the interlocutor. Since language variation is not a matter of choice between two discrete varieties, but takes place on a continuum between the highest standard and the lowest vernacular, there are endless possibilities of language choice. Such linguistic behavior is often indicated with the term of code-mixing. Since the span of the continuum attainable for the individual speaker directly depends on the degree of literacy, most people may be said to have only a relatively small variation at their disposal. But even the best educated speakers are unable to extemporize in standard Arabic and inevitably mix vernacular elements in their speech.

Because of its symbolic value as a binding element for all Arabic-speaking peoples language choice is intimately connected with Arab nationalism. The fusha is the symbol of Arab unity, whereas the vernacular dialects stand for divisiveness and regionalism (iqlimiyya). It is widely believed in the Arab world that during the colonial period the European powers intentionally propagated the study and the use of the dialect in order to divide the Arab world. Even today, Western interest in dialectology is still regarded as a manifestation of neo-imperialism. This creates a problem for Arab politicians who wish to show their adherence to the ideals of Arab nationalism but at the same time their strong ties with the population. Politicians like Jamal ˓Abd al-Nasser made a skillful use of the language variation by mixing standard and vernacular in their political speeches. The connection with the standard language is especially strong in those countries that emphasize their role in the Arab nationalist movement. The different attitudes toward Arab nationalism correlate with the attitude toward the vernacular. In those countries where Arab nationalism is part of the dominant ideology the use of standard Arabic is emphasized and attempts to replace it with the vernacular are met with severe criticism.

The attitude toward the dialect is not wholly negative, however. In a country such as Egypt the ˓ammiyya may be said to hold a special position. Because of the pride they take in their country Egyptians are also proud of the Egyptian dialect, and although they share with other Arab countries the mistrust toward the imperialists who used the dialect to further their own interests and although in Egypt, too, the fusha holds a special prestige position, the use of the dialect is widespread even in situations where in other countries it would be unthinkable to use dialect. Thus, Egyptian presidents are never averse to using partly Egyptian dialect in their political speeches—at least for internal use; in their contacts with other Arab countries they tend to switch to standard Arabic. Since the Egyptian film industry and more recently the television soaps have gained enormous popularity outside Egypt, knowledge of this dialect in other Arab countries is widespread and many speakers of other dialects are familiar with Egyptian.

In North Africa the linguistic policies of the French have left unmistakable traces. After independence there was a class of intellectuals who only knew French and could not communicate in Arabic. The first decades after gaining independence were therefore characterized by a movement toward Arabization, the replacement of French by Arabic in domains such as administration and education. Several school reforms were needed before at least primary and secondary schools adopted Arabic as the main medium of instruction. Even today French/Arabic bilingualism in North Africa is widespread and French has retained a special position of prestige. In particular among intellectuals the mixing of French and Arabic in franco-arabe has remained popular.

In the Levant, Syria, and Lebanon became independent from French colonial rule with a somewhat different outcome. In Syria, French never took hold the way it did in the Maghreb. In Lebanon, however, bilingualism was connected with a widespread feeling, both among Muslims and Christians, that Lebanon was a bicultural country. The civil war has changed this situation in the sense that Arabic-French bilingualism has become associated more exclusively with the Christian community.

Arabic as a World Language

After the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 c.e., the influence of the Arabic language spread beyond the borders of the Islamic world. Due to its role as the language in which Greek philosophy and science were transmitted, European scholars came to regard Arabic as the language of culture and scholarship. A large amount of translations of Arabic texts circulated in Western Europe, and through the contact with Arab culture in al-Andalus many loanwords, such as algebra, zero, algorithm, alchemy, sugar, artichoke, apricot, and admiral, entered the European languages. This international role of Arabic ended with the Renaissance when Western Europe rediscovered the Greek sources and no longer needed Arabic as an intermediary.

Nowadays, Arabic is spoken as a mother tongue outside the Arab world in a number of linguistic enclaves, such as Anatolian Arabic in Turkey, and tiny pockets of speakers in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Cyprus. Malta is a different case altogether. Here, the Maltese language, written in Latin characters, has become the only Arabic dialect with the status of a national language. The Maltese, who are Christians, tend to deny the connection of their language with the Arabic-speaking world and prefer to regard the language as a remnant of the Phoenician language.

Apart from these enclaves, large numbers of Arabs have migrated outside the Arab world (mahjar). In the Americas, early immigrants came mostly from Lebanon and Syria. Most of them were merchants, who assimilated without difficulty to their new countries, especially in Latin America. Most of them retained Arabic and in countries such as Brazil and Argentina they even managed to establish a thriving literary tradition.

The immigration of speakers of Arabic to western Europe has a different background. In the early 1960s the western European countries started to hire unskilled laborers from the Mediterranean countries on a large scale. The original plan was to hire these people for a restricted period of time and then remigrate them to the countries of origin. Soon it became apparent that they were there to stay. As a result the western European countries suddenly realized that they had a sizable Arabic-speaking minority. In most of these countries the official policy of the government consisted in providing education in the home language of the immigrants' children. Nonetheless, many children of the second and third generation are losing their language of origin and shifting to the dominant language. In most cases they go through a lengthy period of code-switching in which they mix their home language and the language of the country they are living in.

The main role of Arabic outside the Arab world is that of being the language of the Qur˒an, even though in many regions it was not the language of the Islamic spreading of the faith (da˓wa). This role was played in the East by Persian, and further east by Malay. In Africa, the language in which Islam was preached was Hausa or Swahili. Yet, for all Muslims Arabic has a special status as the language chosen by God for his last revelation. The reverence for this status does not lead, however, to intensive study of the language itself. Ordinary Muslims in countries such as Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Senegal do not know more Arabic than a few ayahs from the Qur˒an, even though in some of these countries there is an extensive public or private network of Qur˒an schools where the text of the Holy Book and the basic elements of Arabic are being taught.

Historically, Arabic functioned in Africa not only as a religious language but also as a language of trade. Even before West Africa was Islamicized, Arabic was used there as a lingua franca between the courts of different kingdoms. This is also clear from the loanwords in African languages, which are not restricted to the domain of religion but comprise also other semantic domains. In Hausa, for instance, such words as "book" (littaafi) and "news" (laabaari) derive from Arabic as do some conjunctions such as saboo da "because," from Arabic sabab "reason." In Swahili something like 30 percent of the lexicon is derived from Arabic. Most of these loans were introduced by a small class of so-called mallams (Ar. mu allim "teacher") who maintained the ties with Arabic even after the trade connections had been severed.

In Asia, Islam was spread by Persian-speaking traders and missionaries. Here the Arabic language was known exclusively from the text of the Qur˒an. Even though the ordinary believers did not know Arabic, they became used to some of the religious terms through the recitation of the Qur˒an. Other Arabic words entered the Asian languages through Persian, as evidenced by their phonological shape, for instance, in Urdu hazirin "audience," with Persian z for Arabic dad. A further source of borrowing was the written medium. A small class of scholars used their pilgrimage to Mecca in order to study the Islamic sciences and through their books they introduced hundreds or even thousands of loanwords from Arabic. It has been estimated that in Malay more than three thousand words were borrowed in this way, for instance, the word hukum "judgment," which gave rise to the derived verb menghukumkan "to pronounce judgment."

The relatively low level of knowledge of Arabic may be changing with the increasing influence of Arabic sites on the Internet. In some countries, such as Mali, learning Arabic has become quite fashionable among young people. In other countries, international Islamic contacts may lead to an increase in Arabic as the primary language of Islam.

See alsoAfrican Culture and Islam ; Arabic Literature ; Grammar and Lexicography ; Identity, Muslim ; Pan-Arabism ; Persian Language and Literature ; Qur˒an ; South Asian Culture and Islam ; Urdu Language, Literature, and Poetry .


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