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What is Arabic?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Arabic is the fifth-most spoken language worldwide, with over 200 million people speaking it as a first language, and more than 20 million people speaking it as a second language. It is related both to Aramaic and Hebrew, and is the largest member of the Semitic language branch. This language consists of many various dialects, some of which are mutually incomprehensible. While everyone knows their own regional dialect, every Arab nation has as its official language a form known as classical or literary Arabic. This is the language of the Qur'an, and is considered by most Arabs to be the true Arabic — while local variations are viewed as simple regional dialects.

The existence of a standardized form allows speakers from drastically different regions to communicate intelligibly, even when their local dialects might not be understood by the other. Most speakers are able to seamlessly switch between their regional dialect and the classical Arabic of the educated classes. It is difficult to separate the language from the holy text of Islam, the Qur'an, and it is even more difficult to separate the Qur'an from the language. Not so long ago, many Muslims considered even the idea of translating the Qur'an to another language to be absurd if not blasphemous, while many modern Muslims believe that while a translation may be attempted, no language other than Arabic can accurately convey many of the thoughts of the text.

While the language plays a huge part in Islam, most Muslims worldwide do not have anything approaching fluency in Arabic. Instead, the majority have a grasp perhaps best compared to a historical Catholic's understanding of Latin. Certain key phrases are memorized, with the meaning learned rather than translated, and some small degree of generalization to other phrases may take place.

Arabic is spoken primarily throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, closely correlating to the spread of Islam in these regions. More than 25 nations have it as one of their national languages, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, Egypt, and Algeria. There are seven main groups of Arabic. Two of them, the classical Arabic discussed earlier, and a standardized form known as Modern Standard, are in widespread usage. The other five are spoken in various regions throughout the world.

Egyptian Arabic is spoken primarily in Egypt. Iraqi Arabic is spoken primarily in Iraq. Gulf Arabic is spoken in parts of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, parts of Syria, and throughout the Persian Gulf. Levantine Arabic is spoken in Lebanon, Palestine, parts of Syria, and parts of Jordon. Maghreb Arabic is spoken throughout Northern Africa.

One distinct language, Maltese, is also a dialect of Arabic. The official language of the Mediterranean nation of Malta, Maltese is technically a part of the dialect group of Maghreb Arabic. Maltese is the only European dialect, and is heavily influenced by the Romance languages of Europe.

The sounds of Arabic are often very difficult for speakers of Romance and Germanic languages to learn, because of their relatively heavy use of glottals and pharyngeal sounds. The pharyngeal noises, made deep within the throat, give many Westerners a great deal of trouble while learning the language, and are one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome in learning to speak with any level of native aptitude. It is considered by most to be one of the most difficult languages for a speaker of a Romance or Germanic language to learn to speak.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon212642 — On Sep 08, 2011

The article fails to mention the elegance of the Arabic language and just how beautiful it is when it comes to fonts, decorative script and banners. Arabic text is easily 'made wider' by connectors called kashidas, and supports some highly creative forms such as thuluth.

On another note, Arabic has a huge vocabulary, making it superior when it comes to poetry and similar.

By anon4873 — On Nov 04, 2007

Arabic does not have proper lower case letters.

By jojorul — On Jun 02, 2007

Why is accommedating Arbic script harder than German when it comes to computers?

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