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Arabic Language, the language of written communication and of most formal, oral communication for speakers of the various forms of Arabic from Morocco to Iraq. Among Muslims, Arabic is considered sacred since it is the language through which the Koran is believed to have been revealed. With the rise of Islam as a dominant religion after ad 622, Arabic became the most widespread of the living Semitic languages, and today the various Arabic varieties are spoken by some 206 million as a mother tongue, and 246 million as a second language. Classified as South Central Semitic, Arabic is related to Hebrew, spoken in Israel, and Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia, as well as to the ancient Semitic languages. The earliest written inscriptions in Arabic are found in the Arabian Peninsula and date from the early 4th century ad, but the language is thought to have been in use as early as the 5th century bc. Today, Standard Arabic is a unifying bond among Arabs, and it is the liturgical language of Muslims in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Arabic exists in two main forms—Classical and colloquial. Classical Arabic has many archaic words and is the sacred language of Islam and the lingua franca of educated people throughout the Arabic-speaking world (in most countries, only the well educated are fluent in it). Standard Arabic is a slightly more modern and more-used version of Classical Arabic. Neither variation is spoken by anyone as a mother tongue as it is learnt in schools and places of worship, although it is the official language in many countries. Colloquial Arabic refers to the form of the language heard on television and radio as well as in mosques. The diverse colloquial forms of Arabic are interrelated but vary considerably among speakers from different parts of the Middle East and Africa, so much so that many are considered separate languages. These languages differ from Standard Arabic and from one another in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar and are usually labelled according to major geographical areas, such as Algerian, Egyptian, and Gulf. Some of these languages, including those mentioned above, have their own different dialects. Within these classifications, the daily speech of urban, rural, and nomadic speakers is distinctively different. Illiterate speakers from widely separated parts of the Arab world may not understand one another, although each is speaking a version of Arabic.
The sound system of Arabic has 28 consonants, including all the Semitic guttural sounds produced far back in the mouth and throat. Each of the three vowels in standard Arabic occurs in a long and short form, creating the long and short syllables so important to the metre of Arabic poetry. Although the dialects retain the long vowels, they have lost many of the short-vowel contrasts.
All Arabic word formation is based on an abstraction, namely, the root, usually consisting of three consonants. These root sounds join with various vowel patterns to form simple nouns and verbs to which affixes can be attached for more complicated derivations. For example, the borrowed term bank is considered to have the consonantal root b-n-k; film is formed from f-l-m.
Arabic has a very regular system of conjugating verbs and altering their stems to indicate variations on the basic meaning. This system is so regular that dictionaries of Arabic can refer to verbs by a number system (I-X). From the root k-s-r, the form I verb is kasar, “he broke”; form II is kassar, “he smashed to bits”; and form VII is inkasar, “it was broken up”.
Nouns and adjectives are less regular in formation, and have many different plural patterns. The so-called broken plurals are formed by altering the internal syllable shape of the singular noun. For example, for the borrowed words bank and film, the plurals are, respectively, bunuk for banks and aflam for films.
Normal sentence word order in standard Arabic is verb-subject-object. In poetry and in some prose styles, this word order can be altered; when that happens, subject and object can be distinguished by their case endings, that is, by suffixes that indicate the grammatical function of nouns. These suffixes are only spelled out fully in school textbooks and in the Koran to ensure an absolutely correct reading. In all other Arabic texts, these case endings (usually short vowels) are omitted, as are all internal short-vowel markings. The Arabic script does not include letters for these vowels; instead, they are small marks set above and below the consonantal script. The language has two tenses, the perfect and imperfect, and three cases, nominative, accusative, and genitive.
The Arabic script, which is derived from that of Aramaic, is written from right to left. It is based on 18 distinct shapes that vary according to their connection to preceding or following letters. Using a combination of dots above and below 8 of these shapes, the full complement of 28 consonants and the 3 long vowels can be fully spelled out. The Arabic alphabet, which is the second most widely used alphabetic system in the world, has been adopted by non-Semitic languages such as Modern Persian, or Farsi, Spanish, Urdu, Malay, and some West African languages such as Hausa. The use of verses from the Koran in Arabic script for decoration has led to the development over 1,400 years of many different calligraphic styles. Calligraphy is a high art form in the Arab world.
The long history of Arabic includes periods of high development in literature. The Arabic of medieval writing is termed Classical Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is a descendant of Classical Arabic; frequently, however, the stylistic influence of French and English is evident. In the 20th century, in particular, much scientific, medical, and technical vocabulary was borrowed from French and English. See Arabic Literature.
Selected statistical data from Ethnologue: Languages of the World, SIL International.
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