Arabic language

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العربية/عربي/عربی al-ʻarabiyyah/ʻarabī 
Arabic albayancalligraphy.svg
al-ʿArabiyyah in written Arabic (Naskh script)
Pronunciation/al ʕarabijja/, /ʕarabi/
Native toCountries of the Arab League, minorities in neighboring countries: Mali, Niger, Chad, Senegal, South Sudan, Ethiopia etc.
Native speakers
290 million  (2010)[1]
Standard forms
Arabic alphabet
Arabic Braille
Syriac alphabet (Garshuni)
Hebrew alphabet (Judeo-Arabic languages)
Greek alphabet (Cypriot Maronite Arabic)
Latin script (Maltese)
Signed Arabic (national forms)
Official status
Official language in
Modern Standard Arabic is an official language of 27 states, the third most after English and French[2]
Regulated by
Language codes
ISO 639-1ar
ISO 639-2ara
ISO 639-3ara
Use of Arabic as the sole official language (green) and an official language (blue)
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.
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"Arabic" redirects here. For other uses, see Arabic (disambiguation).
This article is about the language. For the literary standard, see Modern Standard Arabic. For vernaculars, see varieties of Arabic. For others, see Arabic languages.
العربية/عربي/عربی al-ʻarabiyyah/ʻarabī 
Arabic albayancalligraphy.svg
al-ʿArabiyyah in written Arabic (Naskh script)
Pronunciation/al ʕarabijja/, /ʕarabi/
Native toCountries of the Arab League, minorities in neighboring countries: Mali, Niger, Chad, Senegal, South Sudan, Ethiopia etc.
Native speakers
290 million  (2010)[1]
Standard forms
Arabic alphabet
Arabic Braille
Syriac alphabet (Garshuni)
Hebrew alphabet (Judeo-Arabic languages)
Greek alphabet (Cypriot Maronite Arabic)
Latin script (Maltese)
Signed Arabic (national forms)
Official status
Official language in
Modern Standard Arabic is an official language of 27 states, the third most after English and French[2]
Regulated by
Language codes
ISO 639-1ar
ISO 639-2ara
ISO 639-3ara
Use of Arabic as the sole official language (green) and an official language (blue)
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Arabic (العربية al-ʻarabiyyah [alʕaraˈbijja] ( ) or عربي ,عربى ʻarabī [ˈʕarabi] ( )) is a name for what are traditionally considered the descendants of the Classical Arabic language of the 6th century. This includes both the literary language and varieties of Arabic spoken in a wide arc of territory, stretching across Western Asia (aka the Middle East), North Africa, and East Africa (aka the Horn of Africa). Arabic belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family.

The literary language is called Modern Standard Arabic or Literary Arabic, which is a pluricentric, fusional language.[3] It is currently the only official form of Arabic, used in most written documents as well as in formal spoken occasions, such as lectures and news broadcasts. However, this varies from one country to the other. Moroccan Arabic was official in Morocco for some time, before Morocco joined the Arab League.

Arabic languages are Central Semitic languages, most closely related to Aramaic, Hebrew, Ugaritic and Phoenician. The standardized written Arabic is distinct from and more conservative than all of the spoken varieties, and the two exist in a state known as diglossia, used side-by-side for different societal functions.

Some of the spoken varieties are mutually unintelligible,[4] both written and orally, and the varieties as a whole constitute a sociolinguistic language. This means that on purely linguistic grounds they would likely be considered to constitute more than one language, but are commonly grouped together as a single language for political and/or religious reasons (see below). If considered multiple languages, it is unclear how many languages there would be, as the spoken varieties form a dialect chain with no clear boundaries. If Arabic is considered a single language, it perhaps is spoken by as many as 420 million speakers (native and non-native) in the Arab world,[5] making it one of the half dozen most populous languages in the world. If considered separate languages, the most-spoken variety would most likely be Egyptian Arabic, with 54 million native speakers[6]—still greater than any other Semitic language. Arabic also is a liturgical language of 1.6 billion Muslim speakers.[7][8] It is one of six official languages of the United Nations.[9]

The modern written language (Modern Standard Arabic) is derived from the language of the Quran (known as Classical Arabic or Quranic Arabic). It is widely taught in schools, universities and used to varying degrees in workplaces, government and the media. The two formal varieties are grouped together as Literary Arabic, which is the official language of 26 states and the liturgical language of Islam. Modern Standard Arabic largely follows the grammatical standards of Quranic Arabic and uses much of the same vocabulary. However, it has discarded some grammatical constructions and vocabulary that no longer have any counterpart in the spoken varieties and adopted certain new constructions and vocabulary from the spoken varieties. Much of the new vocabulary is used to denote concepts that have arisen in the post-Quranic era, especially in modern times.

Arabic is the only surviving member of the Ancient North Arabian dialect group attested in pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions dating back to the 4th century.[10][contradictory] Arabic is written with the Arabic alphabet, which is an abjad script and is written from right-to-left although the spoken varieties are sometimes written in ASCII Latin from left-to-right with no standardized forms.

Arabic has influenced many languages around the globe throughout its history; some of the most influenced languages are Urdu, Persian, Turkish, Somali, Swahili, Bosnian, Kazakh, Bengali, Hindi, Malay, Indonesian, Tigrinya, Pashto, Punjabi, Tagalog, Sindhi and Hausa. During the Middle Ages, Literary Arabic was a major vehicle of culture in Europe, especially in science, mathematics and philosophy. As a result, many European languages have also borrowed many words from it. Many words of Arabic origin are also found in ancient languages like Latin and Greek. Arabic influence, mainly in vocabulary, is seen in Romance languages, particularly Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and Sicilian, owing to both the proximity of Christian European and Muslim Arab civilizations and 800 years of Arabic culture and language in the Iberian Peninsula referred to in Arabic as al-Andalus.

Arabic has also borrowed words from many languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Persian and Syriac in early centuries, Turkish in medieval times and contemporary European languages in modern times, mostly from English and French.


PreIslamic Arabic and Arabic Language[edit]

The earliest Arabic inscriptions date back to AD 512-568.[11] The Aramaic alphabet was introduced to the Arab people through traders from the Mediterranean Empire and the Arab people began using the script during the Christian period in the Middle East.[11] From the Aramaic, the script continued to develop through two separate kingdoms in the region: The Nabatean and the Palmyran. The Arabic script that is widely used today developed from the Nabataean Kingdom’s writing script.[12] While the Nabatean alphabet and writing system met a great deal of the needs, it did not provide letters or symbols for /t/, /d/, /h/, /g/, /z/ and /d/, which were not represented by Aramaic script.[12] The Aramaic writing system also only provided fifteen letter shapes for 28 consonants.[12] In order to differentiate between consonants that had the same shape, a system of placing dots around the letters developed. It took over 100 years in order to codify these dots around letters (Bateson, 55). Evidence of the development of codified dots is recorded on numerous different codes and tombstones.[12] In the 8th century, the dots were finally codified enough that all texts used dots with the exception of purely decorative writings that were not meant to be read.[12] In addition to the issue of codifying the dots above letters, there was also the issue of how to represent vowel sounds in Arabic script, a language made up of an all-consonants script. During the 7th century a dotting system also developed to mark voweling.[13] Red dots were used to mark vowels while black lines were used to mark consonants. Eventually smaller versions of the letters representing short vowels were places above consonants in order to indicate that a vowel was present.[13]

Pre-Islamic Poetry and Early Islamic Literature[edit]

The oral poetic tradition had been alive and well for centuries in the Arabian Peninsula before it was eventually recorded. Arab poets blossomed in the 6th century AD but their work was not recorded or written down until the 8th or 9th century AD.[14] There were linguistic oddities in regards to spelling found throughout the poems. The poems had been recorded, but there were different spelling and pronunciation techniques used by different authors when trying to record a poem that had previously only been recited.[15] These differences reflected how different dialects had a large impact on written Arabic and how texts were recorded. To solve this problem, grammarians and scholars asked Bedouins to recite poems in order to hear how they pronounced the poem as their voices were believed to be pure. Consensus was then used to determine the correct pronunciation of a word so that the word could also be spelt correctly.[16] Eventually, scholars and grammarian developed a system for Standardizing Classical Arabic so that texts and words would be written in a way that the majority of the population could understand.[16] The Quran was revealed to Muhammad in 632 CE, but it was nearly a century before it was written down, during the reign of the Caliph Uthman (Holes, 3).[17] The Quran was written down in a way that reflected the pronunciation of the western dialect of Mecca. Scholars from lower Iraq eventually attempted to reclaim the Quran and have it written to reflect their accent and dialect. The scholars in Lower Iraq did not physically alter the script, as the Western Arab scholars did, but instead wrote a pronunciation guide above the existing version of the Quran.[18] Both a formal and informal version of Arabic existed during the Pre-Islamic Period. The informal dialect was used on coin and tomb inscriptions while the formal variety of Arabic was used on letters and contracts. However, contracts were sometimes written in a mixture of Formal and Informal Arabic, reflecting the large influence dialects had on the written language in Pre-Islamic Arabia.[19]

The Islamic Conquests and Arabic Language[edit]

The Islamic Conquests introduced Arabic to new non-Arab regions, such as Spain and Persia. As a result, Osmanli, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Malay, Berber, Swahili and Hausa all adopted some Arabic alphabet into their writing systems and Arabic adopted 12 letters from others (for example, Persian P CH Zh and Ga). These sounds entered Arabic through loanwords (Bateson, 58).[20] In the 8th century Islamic scholars in Lower Iraq feared the influence that the recently conquered non-Arabs would have on the language and scholars became more conservative and a more standardized Classical Arabic writing system developed (Clive Holes, 4) [17] However, non-Arabs had a huge influence on the religious writings at the time since many of intellectual elite were in fact non-Arab (Clive Holes, 4).[17]

Modern era[edit]

During the colonial era, the European powers occupying Arab nations actively encouraged the public spread and use of colloquial Arabic dialects and suppressed the use and teaching of classical Arabic.[21] After wiping out a third of the Algerian population between 1830 and 1872, for example, the French then closed all Qur'anic schools and banned public usage of Arabic; Arabic was actually declared a foreign language in 1938 and while about half the population was literate in Arabic at the beginning of French colonization, 90% of the native population was illiterate in both Arabic and French by its end in the 1960s.[22]

Classical, Modern Standard and spoken Arabic[edit]

Arabic usually designates one of three main variants: Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial or dialectal Arabic.

Classical Arabic is the language found in the Quran, used from the period of Pre-Islamic Arabia to that of the Abbasid Caliphate. Theoretically, Classical Arabic is considered normative, according to the syntactic and grammatical norms laid down by classical grammarians (such as Sibawayh) and the vocabulary defined in classical dictionaries (such as the Lisān al-ʻArab). In practice, however, modern authors almost never write in pure Classical Arabic, instead using a literary language with its own grammatical norms and vocabulary, commonly known as Modern Standard Arabic. This is the variety used in most current, printed Arabic publications, spoken by some of the Arabic media across North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and understood by most educated Arabic speakers. "Literary Arabic" and "Standard Arabic" (فُصْحَى fuṣḥá) are less strictly defined terms that may refer to Modern Standard Arabic or Classical Arabic.

Some of the differences between Classical Arabic (CA) and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) are as follows:

MSA uses much Classical vocabulary (e.g., dhahaba 'to go') that is not present in the spoken varieties. However, when multiple Classical synonyms are available, MSA tends to prefer words with cognates in the spoken varieties over words without cognates. In addition, MSA has borrowed or coined a large number of terms for concepts that did not exist in Quranic times, and MSA continues to evolve.[23] Some words have been borrowed from other languages—notice that transliteration mainly indicates spelling, and not real pronunciation (e.g., فيلم fīlm 'film' or dimūqrāṭiyyah 'democracy'). However, the current preference is to avoid direct borrowings, preferring to either use loan translations (e.g., farʻ 'branch', also used for the branch of a company or organization; jināḥ 'wing', also used for the wing of an airplane, building, air force, etc.) or to coin new words using forms within existing roots (istimātah 'apoptosis', using the root m/w/t 'death' put into the Xth form, or jāmiʻah 'university', based on jamaʻah 'to gather, unite'; jumhūriyyah 'republic', based on jumhūr 'multitude'). An earlier tendency was to repurpose older words that had fallen into disuse (e.g., هاتف hātif 'telephone' < 'invisible caller (in Sufism)'; jarīdah 'newspaper' < 'palm-leaf stalk').

Colloquial or dialectal Arabic refers to the many national or regional varieties which constitute the everyday spoken language. Colloquial Arabic has many regional variants; these sometimes differ enough to be mutually unintelligible, and some linguists consider them distinct languages.[24] The varieties are typically unwritten. They are often used in informal spoken media, such as soap operas and talk shows,[25] as well as occasionally in certain forms of written media, such as poetry and printed advertising. The only variety of modern Arabic to have acquired official language status is Maltese, spoken in (predominately Roman Catholic) Malta and written with the Latin script. It is descended from Classical Arabic through Siculo-Arabic and is not mutually intelligible with other varieties of Arabic. Most linguists list it as a separate language rather than as a dialect of Arabic. Historically, Algerian Arabic was taught in French Algeria under the name darija.

Flag of the Arab league, used in some cases for the Arabic Language.
Flag used in some cases for the Arabic Language

Note that even during Muhammad's lifetime, there were dialects of spoken Arabic. Muhammad spoke in the dialect of Mecca, in the western Arabian peninsula, and it was in this dialect that the Quran was written down. However, the dialects of the eastern Arabian peninsula were considered the most prestigious at the time, so the language of the Quran was ultimately converted to follow the eastern phonology. It is this phonology that underlies the modern pronunciation of Classical Arabic. The phonological differences between these two dialects account for some of the complexities of Arabic writing, most notably the writing of the glottal stop or hamzah (which was preserved in the eastern dialects but lost in western speech) and the use of alif maqṣūrah (representing a sound preserved in the western dialects but merged with ā in eastern speech).

Language and dialect[edit]

The sociolinguistic situation of Arabic in modern times provides a prime example of the linguistic phenomenon of diglossia, which is the normal use of two separate varieties of the same language, usually in different social situations. In the case of Arabic, educated Arabs of any nationality can be assumed to speak both their school-taught Standard Arabic as well as their native, mutually unintelligible "dialects";[26][27][28][29][30] these dialects linguistically constitute separate languages which may have dialects of their own.[31] When educated Arabs of different dialects engage in conversation (for example, a Moroccan speaking with a Lebanese), many speakers code-switch back and forth between the dialectal and standard varieties of the language, sometimes even within the same sentence. Arabic speakers often improve their familiarity with other dialects via music or film.

The issue of whether Arabic is one language or many languages is politically charged, similar to the issue with Chinese, Hindi and Urdu, Serbian and Croatian, Scots and English, etc. Similar to how speakers of Hindi and Urdu will claim they cannot understand each other even when they can, speakers of the varieties of Arabic will claim they can all understand each other even when they can't.[32] The issue of diglossia between spoken and written language is a significant complicating factor: A single written form, significantly different from any of the spoken varieties learned natively, unites a number of sometimes divergent spoken forms. For political reasons, Arabs mostly assert that they all speak a single language, despite significant issues of mutual incomprehensibility among differing spoken versions.[33]

From a linguistic standpoint, it is often said that the various spoken varieties of Arabic differ among each other collectively about as much as the Romance languages.[34] This is an apt comparison in a number of ways. The period of divergence from a single spoken form is similar—perhaps 1500 years for Arabic, 2000 years for the Romance languages. Also, while it is comprehensible to people from the Maghreb, a linguistically innovative variety such as Moroccan Arabic is essentially incomprehensible to Arabs from the Mashriq, much as French is incomprehensible to Spanish or Italian speakers. This suggests that the spoken varieties may linguistically be considered separate languages.

Influence of Arabic on other languages[edit]

The influence of Arabic has been most important in Islamic countries, because it is the language of the Islamic sacred book, Quran. Arabic is also an important source of vocabulary for languages such as Baluchi, Bengali, Berber, Bosnian, Catalan, English, French, German, Gujarati, Hausa, Hindustani, Italian, Indonesian, Kazakh, Kurdish, Kutchi, Malay, Malayalam, Pashto, Persian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Rohingya, Saraiki, Sindhi, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Turkish, Urdu, Uzbek and Wolof, as well as other languages in countries where these languages are spoken.

In addition, English has many Arabic loanwords, some directly but most through the medium of other Mediterranean languages. Examples of such words include admiral, adobe, alchemy, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, alkaline, almanac, amber, arsenal, assassin, candy, carat, cipher, coffee, cotton, ghoul, hazard, jar, kismet, lemon, loofah, magazine, mattress, sherbet, sofa, sumac, tariff and many other words.[citation needed] Other languages such as Maltese[35] and Kinubi derive ultimately from Arabic, rather than merely borrowing vocabulary or grammar rules.

Terms borrowed range from religious terminology (like Berber taẓallit 'prayer' < salat) (صلاة ṣalāh), academic terms (like Uyghur mentiq 'logic'), economic items (like English coffee) to placeholders (like Spanish fulano 'so-and-so') and everyday conjunctions (like Hindustani lekin 'but', or Spanish taza meaning 'cup' and Portuguese até meaning 'until'), and expressions (like Catalan a betzef 'galore, in quantity'). Most Berber varieties (such as Kabyle), along with Swahili, borrow some numbers from Arabic. Most Islamic religious terms are direct borrowings from Arabic, such as salat 'prayer' and imam 'prayer leader.'

In languages not directly in contact with the Arab world, Arabic loanwords are often transferred indirectly via other languages rather than being transferred directly from Arabic. For example, most Arabic loanwords in Hindustani entered through Persian though Persian is an Indo-Iranian language. Older Arabic loanwords in Hausa were borrowed from Kanuri.

Some words in English and other European languages are derived from Arabic, often through other European languages, especially Spanish and Italian. Among them are commonly used words like "coffee" (qahwah), "cotton" (quṭn) and "magazine" (makhāzin). English words more recognizably of Arabic origin include "algebra", "alcohol", "alchemy", "alkali", "zenith," and "nadir".

Arabic words also made their way into several West African languages as Islam spread across the Sahara. Variants of Arabic words such as kitāb (book) have spread to the languages of African groups who had no direct contact with Arab traders.[36]

As, throughout the Islamic world, Arabic occupied a position similar to that of Latin in Europe, many of the Arabic concepts in the field of science, philosophy, commerce etc. were coined from Arabic roots by non-native Arabic speakers, notably by Aramaic and Persian translators, and then found their way into other languages. This process of using Arabic roots, especially in Turkish and Persian, to translate foreign concepts continued right until the 18th and 19th century, when swaths of Arab-inhabited lands were under Ottoman rule.

Influence of other languages on Arabic[edit]

Arabic was influenced by other languages as well. The most important sources of borrowings into (pre-Islamic) Arabic are from the related (Semitic) languages Aramaic,[37] which used to be the principal, international language of communication throughout the ancient Near and Middle East, Ethiopic, and to a lesser degree Hebrew (mainly religious concepts). In addition, many cultural, religious and political terms have entered Arabic from Iranian, notably Middle Persian or Parthian and (Classical) Persian,[38] and Hellenistic Greek (kīmiyāʼ has as origin the Greek chymia, meaning in that language the melting of metals; see Roger Dachez, Histoire de la Médecine de l'Antiquité au XXe siècle, Tallandier, 2008, p. 251), alembic (distiller) from ambix (cup), qalam (pen, pencil, feather) from kalamos (reed, pen), almanac (climate) from almenichiakon (calendar). (For the origin of the last three borrowed words, see Alfred-Louis de Prémare, Foundations of Islam, Seuil, L'Univers Historique, 2002.) Some Arabic borrowings from Semitic or Persian languages are, as presented in De Prémare's above-cited book:

Arabic Alphabet and Nationalism[edit]

There have been many instances of national movements to convert Arabic script into Latin script or to Romanize the language.


A Beirut newspaper “La Syrie” pushed for the change from Arabic script to Latin Script in 1922. The major head of this movement was Louis Massignon, a French Orientalist, who brought his concern before the Arabic Language Academy in Damacus in 1928. Massignon’s attempt at Romanization failed as the Academy and population viewed the proposal as an attempt from the Western world to take over their country. Sa’id Afghani, a member of the Academy, mentioned that the movement to Romanize the script was a Zionist plan to dominate Lebanon.[40][41]


After the period of colonialism in Egypt, Egyptians were looking for a way to reclaim and reemphasize Egyptian culture. As a result, some Egyptians pushed for an Egyptianization of the Arabic language in which the formal Arabic and the colloquial Arabic would be combined into one language and the Latin alphabet would be used.[40][41] There was also the idea of finding a way to use Hieroglyphics instead of the Latin Alphabet, but this was seen as too complicated to use.[40][41] A scholar, Salama Musa agreed with the idea of applying a Latin alphabet to Arabic, as he believed that would allow Egypt to have a closer relationship with the West. He also believed that Latin script was key to the success of Egypt as it would allow for more advances in science and technology. This change in script, he believed, would solve the problems inherent with Arabic, such as a lack of written vowels and difficulties writing foreign words that made it difficult for non native speakers to learn.[40][41] Ahmad Lutfi As Sayid and Muhammad Azmi, two Egyptian intellectuals, agreed with Musa and supported the push for Romanization.[40][42] The idea that Romanization was necessary for modernization and growth in Egypt continued with Abd Al Aziz Fahmi in 1944. He was the chairman for the Writing and Grammar Committee for the Arabic Language Academy of Cairo.[40][42] However, this effort failed as the Egyptian people felt a strong cultural tie to the Arabic alphabet.[40][42] In particular, the older Egpytian generations believed that the Arabic alphabet had strong connections to Arab values and history, which is easy to believe due to the long history of the Arabic alphabet (Shrivtiel, 189).

Arabic and Islam[edit]

Classical Arabic is the language of the Qur'an. Arabic is closely associated with the religion of Islam because the Qur'an is written in the language, but it is nevertheless also spoken by Arab Christians, Mizrahi Jews and Iraqi Mandaeans. Most of the world's Muslims do not speak Arabic as their native language, but many can read the Quranic script and recite the Quran. Among non-Arab Muslims, translations of the Quran are most often accompanied by the original text.

Some Muslims present a monogenesis of languages and claim that the Arabic language was the language revealed by God for the benefit of mankind and the original language as a prototype symbolic system of communication, based upon its system of triconsonantal roots, spoken by man from which all other languages were derived, having first been corrupted.[43][44] Judaism has a similar account with the Tower of Babel.

External history[edit]

Arabic languages (brown) within Semitic languages.

Among the earliest surviving texts in Ancient North Arabian, a group of languages closely related to but not a direct predecessor of Arabic, are the Hasaean inscriptions of in eastern Saudi Arabia, from about the 4th century BC, written not in the modern Arabic alphabet, nor in its Nabataean ancestor, but in variants of the epigraphic South Arabian musnad. More numerous are the 6th-century BC Lihyanite texts from southeastern Saudi Arabia and the Thamudic texts found throughout Arabia and the Sinai, and not actually connected with Thamud. Later come the Safaitic inscriptions beginning in the 1st century AD and the many Arabic personal names attested in Nabataean inscriptions (which are, however, written in Aramaic).

Classical Arabic co-existed with the Old North Arabian languages. In the 5th century BC, Herodotus (Histories I,131; III,8) quotes the epithet of a goddess in its preclassical Arabic form as Alilat (Ἀλιλάτ, i. e.,ʼal-ʼilat), which means "the goddess".[45] Apart from this isolated theonym, Arabic is first attested in an inscription in Qaryat al-Fāw (formerly Qaryat Dhat Kahil, near Sulayyil, Saudi Arabia) in the 1st century BC.[46][47] The oldest inscription in Classical Arabic known in 1985 goes back to 328 AD and is known as the Namārah inscription, written in the Nabataean alphabet and named after the place where it was found in southern Syria in April 1901.[48] By the fourth century AD, the Arab kingdoms of the Lakhmids in southern Iraq and the Ghassanids in southern Syria appeared. The Kindite Kingdom emerged in Central Arabia. Their courts were responsible for some notable examples of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry and for some of the few surviving pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions in the Arabic script.[49]

Internal history[edit]

The Semitic languages changed a great deal between Proto-Semitic and the establishment of the Central Semitic languages, particularly in terms of grammar. Innovations of the Central Semitic languages — all maintained in Classical Arabic — include

Phonological history[edit]

Of the 29 Proto-Semitic consonants, only one has been lost: */ʒ/, which merged with /ʃ/.[50] But the consonant */ʒ/ is still found in many colloquial Arabic. Various other consonants have changed their sound too, but have remained distinct. An original */p/ lenited to /f/, and */ɡ/ became palatalized to /ɡʲ/ or /ɟ/ by the time of the Quran and /d͡ʒ/, /ɡ/, /ʒ/ or /ɟ/ in MSA (see Arabic phonology#Local variations for more detail).[51] An original voiceless alveolar lateral fricative */ɬ/ became /ʃ/.[52] Its emphatic counterpart /ɬˠ~ɮˤ/ was considered by Arabs to be the most unusual sound in Arabic (Hence the Classical Arabic's appellation lughat al-ḍād or "language of the ḍād"); for most modern dialects, it has become an emphatic stop /dˤ/ with loss of the laterality[52] or with complete loss of any pharyngealization or velarization, /d/. (The classical ḍād pronunciation of pharyngealization /ɮˤ/ still occurs in the Mehri language and the similar sound without velarization exists in other Modern South Arabian languages.)

Other changes may also have happened. Classical Arabic pronunciation is not thoroughly recorded and different reconstructions of the sound system of Proto-Semitic propose different phonetic values. One example is the emphatic consonants, which are pharyngealized in modern pronunciations may have been velarized in the eighth century and glottalized in Proto-Semitic.[52]

Reduction of /j/ and /w/ between vowels occurs in a number of circumstances and is responsible for much of the complexity of third-weak ("defective") verbs. Early Akkadian transcriptions of Arabic names shows that this reduction had not yet occurred as of the early part of the 1st millennium BC.

The Classical Arabic language as recorded was a poetic koine that reflected a consciously archaizing dialect, chosen based on the Bedouin tribes in the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula, who spoke the most conservative variants of Arabic. Even at the time of Mohammed and before, other dialects existed with many more changes, including the loss of most glottal stops, the loss of case endings, the reduction of the diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/ into monophthongs /eː, oː/, etc. Most of these changes are present in most or all modern varieties of Arabic.

An interesting feature of the writing system of the Quran (and hence of Classical Arabic) is that it contains certain features of Muhammad's native dialect of Mecca, corrected through diacritics into the forms of standard Classical Arabic. Among these features visible under the corrections are the loss of the glottal stop and a differing development of the reduction of certain final sequences containing /j/: Evidently, final /-awa/ became /aː/ as in the Classical language, but final /-aja/ became a different sound, possibly /eː/ (rather than again /aː/ in the Classical language). This is the apparent source of the alif maqṣūrah 'restricted alif' where a final /-aja/ is reconstructed: a letter that would normally indicate /j/ or some similar high-vowel sound, but is taken in this context to be a logical variant of alif and represent the sound /aː/.

Dialects and descendants[edit]

Different dialects of Arabic.
Main article: Varieties of Arabic

Colloquial Arabic is a collective term for the spoken varieties of Arabic used throughout the Arab world, which differ radically from the literary language. The main dialectal division is between the varieties within and outside of the Arabian peninsula, followed by that between sedentary varieties and the much more conservative Bedouin varieties. All of the varieties outside of the Arabian peninsula (which include the large majority of speakers) have a large number of features in common with each other that are not found in Classical Arabic. This has led researchers to postulate the existence of a prestige koine dialect in the one or two centuries immediately following the Arab conquest, whose features eventually spread to all of the newly conquered areas. (These features are present to varying degrees inside the Arabian peninsula. Generally, the Arabian peninsula varieties have much more diversity than the non-peninsula varieties, but have been understudied.)

Within the non-peninsula varieties, the largest difference is between the non-Egyptian North African dialects (especially Moroccan Arabic) and the others. Moroccan Arabic in particular is hardly comprehensible to Arabic speakers east of Libya (although the converse is not true, in part due to the popularity of Egyptian films and other media).

One factor in the differentiation of the dialects is influence from the languages previously spoken in the areas, which have typically provided a significant number of new words and have sometimes also influenced pronunciation or word order; however, a much more significant factor for most dialects is, as among Romance languages, retention (or change of meaning) of different classical forms. Thus Iraqi aku, Levantine fīh and North African kayən all mean 'there is', and all come from Classical Arabic forms (yakūn, fīhi, kā'in respectively), but now sound very different.


Transcription is a broad IPA transcription, so minor differences were ignored for easier comparison.

VarietyI love reading a lotWhen I went to the libraryI didn't find this old bookI wanted to read a book about the history of women in France.
Literary Arabic in Arabic script
(dialects are written in other non-standardized spellings)
أنا أحب القراءة كثيرا
عندما ذهبت إلى المكتبة
لم أجد هذا الكتاب القديم
أردت أن أقرأ كتابا عن تاريخ المرأة في فرنسا
Classical Arabic
(liturgical or poetic only)
ʔanaː ʔuħibbu l-qiraːʔata kaθiːranʕindamaː ðahabtu ʔilaː l-maktabatilam ʔaɡʲid haːðaː l-kitaːba l-qadiːmakuntu ʔuriːdu ʔan ʔaqraʔa kitaːban ʕan taːriːxi l-marʔati fiː faransaː
Modern Standard Arabicʔana(ː) ʔuħibb al-qiraːʔa kaθiːranʕindama(ː) ðahabtu ʔilaː l-maktabalam ʔaɡʲid haːða(ː) l-kitaːb al-qadiːmʔaradtu ʔan ʔaqraʔ kitaːb ʕan taːriːx al-marʔa fiː fara(ː)nsa(ː)
Yemeni Arabic (Sanaa)ˈʔana bajn aˈħibb el-geˈraːje ˈgawiˈlaw ma ˈsert saˈla: el-ˈmaktabema leˈge:t-ʃ ˈðajje al-keˈtaːb el-gaˈdiːmkont ˈaʃti ˈʔagra keˈtaːb ʕan taˈriːx al-ˈmare wastˤ faˈraːnsa
Gulf Arabic (Kuwait)ʔaːna waːyed aħibb aɡraːlamman reħt al-maktabama liɡeːt hal ketaːb al-ɡadiːmkent abiː aɡra ketaːb an tariːx el-ħariːm eb fransa
Gilit Mesopotamian (Baghdad?)ˈaːni aˈħibb el-qˈraːja ˈkulliʃˈlamman ˈreħit lel-maktabama liˈɡeːt haːða l-ketaːb al-qadiːmredet aqra ketaːb ʕan tariːx al-niswan eb-fransa
Hijazi Arabic (Makka?)ˈana aˈħubb al-ɡiraːja kaθiːrˈlamma ruħt al-ˈmaktabama laɡeːt haːða l-kitaːb al-ɡadiːmkunt abɣa aɡra ktaːb ʕan tariːx al-ħariːm fi faransa
Western Syrian Arabic (Damascus)ʔana ktiːr b'ħəbb lᵊ-ʔraːjeˈlamma ˈrəħt ʕal-ˈmaktabema laʔeːt ha-l-ᵊkˈtaːb lᵊ-ʔˈdiːmkaːn ˈbaddi ʔra ktaːb ʕan taˈriːx ᵊl-ˈmara bᵊ-ˈfraːnsa
Lebanese Arabic (Beyrut?)ktiːr bħibb il-ʔiˈreːjeˈlamma ˈreħit ʕal-ˈmaktabema lʔeːt ha-l-ikˈteːb le-ʔˈdiːmkeːn ˈbaddi ʔra kteːb ʕan teˈriːx il-ˈmara bi-ˈfraːnsa
Urban Palestinian (Jerusalem).'ʔana ba'ħebb l-ᵊʔ'raːje ktiːrˈlamma ˈruħᵊt ʕal-ˈmaktabema laˈʔeːtᵊʃ ha-l-ᵊkˈtaːb ᵊl-ʔaˈdiːmkaːn ˈbeddi ˈʔɑʔrɑ ktaːb ʕan taˈriːx ᵊl-ˈmɑrɑ fi fˈransa
Rural Palestinian (West Bank).'ʔana ba'ħebb l-ᵊk'raːje kθiːrˈlamma ˈruħᵊt ʕal-ˈmatʃtabema laˈkeːtᵊʃ ha-l-ᵊtʃˈtaːb ᵊl-kaˈdiːmkaːn ˈbeddi ˈʔɑkrɑ tʃtaːb ʕan taˈriːx ᵊl-ˈmɑrɑ fi fˈransa
Egyptian (Cairo)ana baħebb el-ʔeraːja ʔawiˈlamma ˈroħt el-makˈtabama-lˈʔet-ʃ l-keˈtaːb el-ʔaˈdiːm daˈana ˈkont-e ˈʕawz-ˈaʔra kˈtaːb ʕan taˈriːx el-setˈtaːt fe faˈransa
Libyan Arabic (Tripoli?)ana nħəb il-ɡraːja wajədlamma mʃeːt lil-maktbamalɡeːtiʃ ha-li-ktaːb lə-ɡdiːmkunt nibi naɡra ktaːb ʔleː tariːx ə-nsawiːn fi fraːnsa
Tunisian (Tunis?)eːne nħibb il-qreːje barʃawaqtelli mʃiːt l il-maktbama-lqiːt-ʃ keːn ha l-kteːb l-qdiːmkunt nħibb naqra kteːb ʕala tariːx l-mra fi fraːnsa
Algerian (Algiers?)eːne nħibb il-qreːje bezzafwaqtelli ruht l il-maktabama-lqiːt-ʃ keːn ha l-kteːb l-qdiːmkunt ħaːb naqra kteːb ʕala tariːx l-mra fi fraːnsa
Moroccan (Rabat?)ana ʕziz ʕlija bzzaf nqramelli mʃit l-lmaktabama-lqiːt-ʃ had l-ktab l-qdimkent baɣi nqra ktab ʕla tarix l-mra f-fransa


According to Charles A. Ferguson,[53] the following are some of the characteristic features of the koine that underlies all of the modern dialects outside the Arabian peninsula. Although many other features are common to most or all of these varieties, Ferguson believes that these features in particular are unlikely to have evolved independently more than once or twice and together suggest the existence of the koine:

Dialect groups[edit]


Main article: Arabic phonology

The "colloquial" spoken varieties of Arabic are learned at home and constitute the native languages of Arabic speakers. "Formal" Literary Arabic (usually specifically Modern Standard Arabic) is learned at school; although many speakers have a native-like command of the language, it is technically not the native language of any speakers. Both varieties can be both written and spoken, although the colloquial varieties are rarely written down and the formal variety is spoken mostly in formal circumstances, e.g., in radio broadcasts, formal lectures, parliamentary discussions and to some extent between speakers of different colloquial varieties. Even when the literary language is spoken, however, it is normally only spoken in its pure form when reading a prepared text out loud. When speaking extemporaneously (i.e. making up the language on the spot, as in a normal discussion among people), speakers tend to deviate somewhat from the strict literary language in the direction of the colloquial varieties. In fact, there is a continuous range of "in-between" spoken varieties: from nearly pure Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), to a form that still uses MSA grammar and vocabulary but with significant colloquial influence, to a form of the colloquial language that imports a number of words and grammatical constructions in MSA, to a form that is close to pure colloquial but with the "rough edges" (the most noticeably "vulgar" or non-Classical aspects) smoothed out, to pure colloquial. The particular variant (or register) used depends on the social class and education level of the speakers involved and the level of formality of the speech situation. Often it will vary within a single encounter, e.g., moving from nearly pure MSA to a more mixed language in the process of a radio interview, as the interviewee becomes more comfortable with the interviewer. This type of variation is characteristic of the diglossia that exists throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

Literary Arabic[edit]

Although Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is a unitary language, its pronunciation varies somewhat from country to country and from region to region within a country. The variation in individual "accents" of MSA speakers tends to mirror corresponding variations in the colloquial speech of the speakers in question, but with the distinguishing characteristics moderated somewhat. Note that it is important in descriptions of "Arabic" phonology to distinguish between pronunciation of a given colloquial (spoken) dialect and the pronunciation of MSA by these same speakers. Although they are related, they are not the same. For example, the phoneme that derives from Proto-Semitic /g/ has many different pronunciations in the modern spoken varieties, e.g., [d͡ʒ ~ ʒ ~ j ~ ɡʲ ~ ɡ]. Speakers whose native variety has either [d͡ʒ] or [ʒ] will use the same pronunciation when speaking MSA, even speakers from Cairo, whose native Egyptian Arabic has [ɡ], normally use [ɡ] when speaking MSA. [j] of Persian Gulf is the only pronunciation which isn't pronounced in MSA, but instead [d͡ʒ~ʒ].

Another example: Many colloquial varieties are known for a type of vowel harmony in which the presence of an "emphatic consonant" triggers backed allophones of nearby vowels (especially of the low vowels /aː/, which are backed to [ɑ(ː)] in these circumstances and very often fronted to [æ(ː)] in all other circumstances). In many spoken varieties, the backed or "emphatic" vowel allophones spread a fair distance in both directions from the triggering consonant; in some varieties (most notably Egyptian Arabic), the "emphatic" allophones spread throughout the entire word, usually including prefixes and suffixes, even at a distance of several syllables from the triggering consonant. Speakers of colloquial varieties with this vowel harmony tend to introduce it into their MSA pronunciation as well, but usually with a lesser degree of spreading than in the colloquial varieties. (For example, speakers of colloquial varieties with extremely long-distance harmony may allow a moderate, but not extreme, amount of spreading of the harmonic allophones in their MSA speech, while speakers of colloquial varieties with moderate-distance harmony may only harmonize immediately adjacent vowels in MSA.)


Modern Standard Arabic has six pure vowels, with short /a i u/ and corresponding long vowels /aː iː uː/. There are also two diphthongs: /aj/ and /aw/.

The pronunciation of the vowels differs from speaker to speaker, in a way that tends to echo the pronunciation of the corresponding colloquial variety. Nonetheless, there are some common trends. Most noticeable is the differing pronunciation of /a/ and /aː/, which tend towards fronted [æ(ː)], [a(ː)] or [ɛ(ː)] in most situations, but a back [ɑ(ː)] in the neighborhood of emphatic consonants. (Some accents and dialects, such as those of Hijaz, have central [ä(ː)] in all situations.) The vowels /u/ and /i/ are often affected somewhat in emphatic neighborhoods as well, with generally more back and/or centralized allophones, but the differences are less great than for the low vowels. The pronunciation of short /u/ and /i/ tends towards [ʊ~o] and [ɪ~e] in many dialects.

The definition of both "emphatic" and "neighborhood" vary in ways that echo (to some extent) corresponding variations in the spoken dialects. Generally, the consonants triggering "emphatic" allophones are the pharyngealized consonants /tˤ dˤ sˤ ðˤ/; /q/; and /r/, if not followed immediately by /i(ː)/. Frequently, the uvular fricatives /x ɣ/ also trigger emphatic allophones; occasionally also the pharyngeal consonants /ʕ ħ/ (the former more than the latter). Many dialects have multiple emphatic allophones of each vowel, depending on the particular nearby consonants. In most MSA accents, emphatic coloring of vowels is limited to vowels immediately adjacent to a triggering consonant, although in some it spreads a bit farther: e.g., waqt [wɑqt] 'time'; waṭan [wɑtˤɑn] 'homeland'; wasṭ al-madīnah [wæstˤɑl-mædiːnɐ] 'downtown' (sometimes [wɑstˤɑl-mædiːnæ] or similar).

In a non-emphatic environment, the vowel /a/ in the diphthong /aj/ tends to be fronted even more than elsewhere, often pronounced [æj] or [ɛj]: hence sayf [sajf ~ sæjf ~ sɛjf] 'sword' but ṣayf [sˤɑjf] 'summer'. However, in accents with no emphatic allophones of /a/ (e.g., in the Hijaz), the pronunciation [äj] occurs in all situations.


Standardized Arabic consonant phonemes
  1. This phoneme is represented by the Arabic letter jīm (ج) and has many standard pronunciations. [d͡ʒ] is characteristic of north Algeria, Iraq, also in most of the Arabian peninsula but with an allophonic [ʒ] in some positions; [ʒ] occurs in most of the Levant and most North Africa; and [ɡ] is used in most of Egypt and some regions in Yemen and Oman. Generally this corresponds with the pronunciation in the colloquial dialects.[58] In some regions in Sudan and Yemen, as well as in some Sudanese and Yemeni dialects, it may be either [ɡʲ] or [ɟ], representing the original pronunciation of Classical Arabic. Foreign words containing /ɡ/ may be transcribed with ج‎, غ‎, ك‎, ق‎, گ‎, ݣ‎ or ڨ‎, mainly depending on the regional spoken variety of Arabic or the commonly diacriticized Arabic letter. Note also that in northern Egypt, where the Arabic letter jīm (ج) is normally pronounced [ɡ], a separate phoneme /ʒ/, which may be transcribed with چ, occurs in a small number of mostly non-Arabic loanwords, e.g., /ʒakitta/ 'jacket'.
  2. /l/ is pronounced [ɫ] in /ʔallaːh/, the name of God, q.e. Allah, when the word follows a, ā, u or ū (after i or ī it is unvelarized: bismi l–lāh /bismillaːh/). Some speakers velarize other occurrences of /l/ in MSA, in imitation of their spoken dialects.
  3. The emphatic consonant /dˤ/ was actually pronounced [ɮˤ], or possibly [d͡ɮˤ][59]—either way, a highly unusual sound. The medieval Arabs actually termed their language lughat al-ḍād 'the language of the Ḍād' (the name of the letter used for this sound), since they thought the sound was unique to their language. (In fact, it also exists in a few other minority Semitic languages, e.g., Mehri.)
  4. In many varieties, /ħ, ʕ/ (ح,‎ ع) are actually epiglottal [ʜ, ʢ] (despite what is reported in many earlier works).
  5. /x/ and /ɣ/ (خ,‎ غ) are often post-velar, though velar and uvular pronunciations are also possible.[60]
  6. /θ/ (ث) can be pronounced as [t] or even [s]. In some places of Maghreb it can be also pronounced as [t͡s].

Arabic has consonants traditionally termed "emphatic" /tˤ, dˤ, sˤ, ðˤ/ (ط,‎ ض,‎ ص,‎ ظ), which exhibit simultaneous pharyngealization [tˤ, dˤ, sˤ, ðˤ] as well as varying degrees of velarization [tˠ, dˠ, sˠ, ðˠ], so they may be written with the "Velarized or pharyngealized" diacritic ( ̴ ) as: /t̴, d̴, s̴, ð̴/. This simultaneous articulation is described as "Retracted Tongue Root" by phonologists.[61] In some transcription systems, emphasis is shown by capitalizing the letter, for example, /dˤ/ is written D; in others the letter is underlined or has a dot below it, for example, .

Vowels and consonants can be phonologically short or long. Long (geminate) consonants are normally written doubled in Latin transcription (i.e. bb, dd, etc.), reflecting the presence of the Arabic diacritic mark shaddah, which indicates doubled consonants. In actual pronunciation, doubled consonants are held twice as long as short consonants. This consonant lengthening is phonemically contrastive: qabala 'he accepted' vs. qabbala 'he kissed'.

Syllable structure[edit]

Arabic has two kinds of syllables: open syllables (CV) and (CVV)—and closed syllables (CVC), (CVVC) and (CVCC). The syllable types with three morae (units of time), i.e. CVC and CVV, are termed heavy syllables, while those with four morae, i.e. CVVC and CVCC, are superheavy syllables. Superheavy syllables in Classical Arabic occur in only two places: at the end of the sentence (due to pausal pronunciation) and in words such as ḥārr 'hot', māddah 'stuff, substance', taḥājjū 'they disputed with each other', where a long ā occurs before two identical consonants (a former short vowel between the consonants has been lost). (In less formal pronunciations of Modern Standard Arabic, superheavy syllables are common at the end of words or before clitic suffixes such as -nā 'us, our', due to the deletion of final short vowels.)

In surface pronunciation, every vowel must be preceded by a consonant (which may include the glottal stop [ʔ]). There are no cases of hiatus within a word (where two vowels occur next to each other, without an intervening consonant). Some words do have an underlying vowel at the beginning, such as the definite article al- or words such as ishtarā 'he bought', ijtimāʻ 'meeting'. When actually pronounced, one of three things happens:


Word stress is not phonemically contrastive in Standard Arabic. It bears a strong relationship to vowel length. The basic rules for Modern Standard Arabic are:

Examples:kib(un) 'book', -ti-b(un) 'writer', mak-ta-b(un) 'desk', ma--ti-b(u) 'desks', mak-ta-ba-tun 'library' (but mak-ta-ba(-tun) 'library' in short pronunciation), ka-ta-bū (Modern Standard Arabic) 'they wrote' = ka-ta-bu (dialect), ka-ta--h(u) (Modern Standard Arabic) 'they wrote it' = ka-ta- (dialect), ka-ta-ba-tā (Modern Standard Arabic) 'they (dual, fem) wrote', ka-tab-tu (Modern Standard Arabic) 'I wrote' = ka-tabt (short form or dialect). Doubled consonants count as two consonants: ma-jal-la-(tan) 'magazine', ma-ḥall(-un) "place".

These rules may result in differently stressed syllables when final case endings are pronounced, vs. the normal situation where they are not pronounced, as in the above example of mak-ta-ba-tun 'library' in full pronunciation, but mak-ta-ba(-tun) 'library' in short pronunciation.

The restriction on final long vowels does not apply to the spoken dialects, where original final long vowels have been shortened and secondary final long vowels have arisen from loss of original final -hu/hi.

Some dialects have different stress rules. In the Cairo (Egyptian Arabic) dialect a heavy syllable may not carry stress more than two syllables from the end of a word, hence mad-ra-sah 'school', qā-hi-rah 'Cairo'. This also affects the way that Modern Standard Arabic is pronounced in Egypt. In the Arabic of Sanaa, stress is often retracted: bay-tayn 'two houses', -sat-hum 'their table', ma--tīb 'desks', -rat-ḥīn 'sometimes', mad-ra-sat-hum 'their school'. (In this dialect, only syllables with long vowels or diphthongs are considered heavy; in a two-syllable word, the final syllable can be stressed only if the preceding syllable is light; and in longer words, the final syllable cannot be stressed.)

Levels of pronunciation[edit]

The final short vowels (e.g., the case endings -a -i -u and mood endings -u -a) are often not pronounced in this language, despite forming part of the formal paradigm of nouns and verbs. The following levels of pronunciation exist:

Full pronunciation[edit]
Full pronunciation with pausa[edit]

This is the most formal level actually used in speech. All endings are pronounced as written, except at the end of an utterance, where the following changes occur:

Formal short pronunciation[edit]

This is a formal level of pronunciation sometimes seen. It is somewhat like pronouncing all words as if they were in pausal position (with influence from the colloquial varieties). The following changes occur:

Informal short pronunciation[edit]

This is the pronunciation used by speakers of Modern Standard Arabic in extemporaneous speech, i.e. when producing new sentences rather than simply reading a prepared text. It is similar to formal short pronunciation except that the rules for dropping final vowels apply even when a clitic suffix is added. Basically, short-vowel case and mood endings are never pronounced and certain other changes occur that echo the corresponding colloquial pronunciations. Specifically:

Colloquial varieties[edit]

Further information: Varieties of Arabic


As mentioned above, many spoken dialects have a process of emphasis spreading, where the "emphasis" (pharyngealization) of emphatic consonants spreads forward and back through adjacent syllables, pharyngealizing all nearby consonants and triggering the back allophone [ɑ(ː)] in all nearby low vowels. The extent of emphasis spreading varies. For example, in Moroccan Arabic, it spreads as far as the first full vowel (i.e. sound derived from a long vowel or diphthong) on either side; in many Levantine dialects, it spreads indefinitely, but is blocked by any /j/ or /ʃ/; while in Egyptian Arabic, it usually spreads throughout the entire word, including prefixes and suffixes. In Moroccan Arabic, /i u/ also have emphatic allophones [o~ɔ e~ɛ].

Unstressed short vowels, especially /i u/, are deleted in many contexts. Many sporadic examples of short vowel change have occurred (especially /a/→/i/ and interchange /i/↔/u/). Most Levantine dialects merge short /i u/ into /ǝ/ in most contexts (all except directly before a single final consonant). In Moroccan Arabic, on the other hand, short /u/ triggers labialization of nearby consonants (especially velar consonants and uvular consonants), and then short /a i u/ all merge into /ǝ/, which is deleted in many contexts. (The labialization plus /ǝ/ is sometimes interpreted as an underlying phoneme /ŭ/.) This essentially causes the wholesale loss of the short-long vowel distinction, with the original long vowels /aː iː uː/ remaining as half-long [aˑ iˑ uˑ], phonemically /a i u/, which are used to represent both short and long vowels in borrowings from Literary Arabic.

Most spoken dialects have monophthongized original /aj aw/ to /eː oː/ (in all circumstances, including adjacent to emphatic consonants). In Moroccan Arabic, these have subsequently merged into original /iː uː/.


In some dialects, there may be more or fewer phonemes than those listed in the chart above. For example, non-Arabic [v] is used in the Maghrebi dialects as well in the written language mostly for foreign names. Semitic [p] became [f] extremely early on in Arabic before it was written down; a few modern Arabic dialects, such as Iraqi (influenced by Persian and Turkish) distinguish between [p] and [b]. The Iraqi Arabic uses also sounds [ɡ], [t͡ʃ] and uses Persian adding letters, e.g.: گوجة gawjaha plum; چمة chimah a truffle and so on.

Early in the expansion of Arabic, the separate emphatic phonemes [ɮˤ] and [ðˤ] coalesced into a single phoneme [ðˤ]. Many dialects (such as Egyptian, Levantine, and much of the Maghreb) subsequently lost interdental fricatives, converting [θ ð ðˤ] into [t d dˤ]. Most dialects borrow "learned" words from the Standard language using the same pronunciation as for inherited words, but some dialects without interdental fricatives (particularly in Egypt and the Levant) render original [θ ð ðˤ ɮˤ] in borrowed words as [s z zˤ dˤ].

Another key distinguishing mark of Arabic dialects is how they render the original velar and uvular plosives /q/, /d͡ʒ/ (Proto-Semitic /ɡ/), and /k/:

Pharyngealization of the emphatic consonants tends to weaken in many of the spoken varieties, and to spread from emphatic consonants to nearby sounds. In addition, the "emphatic" allophone [ɑ] automatically triggers pharyngealization of adjacent sounds in many dialects. As a result, it may difficult or impossible to determine whether a given coronal consonant is phonemically emphatic or not, especially in dialects with long-distance emphasis spreading. (A notable exception is the sounds /t/ vs. // in Moroccan Arabic, because the former is pronounced as an affricate [t͡s] but the latter is not.)


Examples of how the Arabic root and form system works.
Main article: Arabic grammar

Literary Arabic[edit]

As in other Semitic languages, Arabic has a complex and unusual morphology (i.e. method of constructing words from a basic root). Arabic has a nonconcatenative "root-and-pattern" morphology: A root consists of a set of bare consonants (usually three), which are fitted into a discontinuous pattern to form words. For example, the word for 'I wrote' is constructed by combining the root k-t-b 'write' with the pattern -a-a-tu 'I Xed' to form katabtu 'I wrote'. Other verbs meaning 'I Xed' will typically have the same pattern but with different consonants, e.g. qaraʼtu 'I read', akaltu 'I ate', dhahabtu 'I went', although other patterns are possible (e.g. sharibtu 'I drank', qultu 'I said', takallamtu 'I spoke', where the subpattern used to signal the past tense may change but the suffix -tu is always used).

From a single root k-t-b, numerous words can be formed by applying different patterns:

Nouns and adjectives[edit]

Nouns in Literary Arabic have three grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, and genitive [also used when the noun is governed by a preposition]); three numbers (singular, dual and plural); two genders (masculine and feminine); and three "states" (indefinite, definite, and construct). The cases of singular nouns (other than those that end in long ā) are indicated by suffixed short vowels (/-u/ for nominative, /-a/ for accusative, /-i/ for genitive).

The feminine singular is often marked by /-at/, which is reduced to /-ah/ or /-a/ before a pause. Plural is indicated either through endings (the sound plural) or internal modification (the broken plural). Definite nouns include all proper nouns, all nouns in "construct state" and all nouns which are prefixed by the definite article /al-/. Indefinite singular nouns (other than those that end in long ā) add a final /-n/ to the case-marking vowels, giving /-un/, /-an/ or /-in/ (which is also referred to as nunation or tanwīn).

Adjectives in Literary Arabic are marked for case, number, gender and state, as for nouns. However, the plural of all non-human nouns is always combined with a singular feminine adjective, which takes the /-ah/ or /-at/ suffix.

Pronouns in Literary Arabic are marked for person, number and gender. There are two varieties, independent pronouns and enclitics. Enclitic pronouns are attached to the end of a verb, noun or preposition and indicate verbal and prepositional objects or possession of nouns. The first-person singular pronoun has a different enclitic form used for verbs (/-ni/) and for nouns or prepositions (/-ī/ after consonants, /-ya/ after vowels).

Nouns, verbs, pronouns and adjectives agree with each other in all respects. However, non-human plural nouns are grammatically considered to be feminine singular. Furthermore, a verb in a verb-initial sentence is marked as singular regardless of its semantic number when the subject of the verb is explicitly mentioned as a noun. Numerals between three and ten show "chiasmic" agreement, in that grammatically masculine numerals have feminine marking and vice versa.


Verbs in Literary Arabic are marked for person (first, second, or third), gender, and number. They are conjugated in two major paradigms (past and non-past); two voices (active and passive); and six moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive, jussive, shorter energetic and longer energetic), the fifth and sixth moods, the energetics, exist only in Classical Arabic but not in MSA.[62] There are also two participles (active and passive) and a verbal noun, but no infinitive.

The past and non-past paradigms are sometimes also termed perfective and imperfective, indicating the fact that they actually represent a combination of tense and aspect. The moods other than the indicative occur only in the non-past, and the future tense is signaled by prefixing sa- or sawfa onto the non-past. The past and non-past differ in the form of the stem (e.g., past katab- vs. non-past -ktub-), and also use completely different sets of affixes for indicating person, number and gender: In the past, the person, number and gender are fused into a single suffixal morpheme, while in the non-past, a combination of prefixes (primarily encoding person) and suffixes (primarily encoding gender and number) are used. The passive voice uses the same person/number/gender affixes but changes the vowels of the stem.

The following shows a paradigm of a regular Arabic verb, kataba 'to write'. Note that in Modern Standard Arabic, many final short vowels are dropped (indicated in parentheses below), and the energetic mood (in either long or short form, which have the same meaning) is almost never used.


Unlike most languages, Arabic has virtually no means of deriving words by adding prefixes or suffixes to words. Instead, they are formed according to a finite (but fairly large) number of templates applied to roots.

For verbs, a given root can construct up to fifteen different verbs, each with one or more characteristic meanings and each with its own templates for the past and non-past stems, active and passive participles, and verbal noun. These are referred to by Western scholars as "Form I", "Form II", and so on through "Form XV" (although Forms XI to XV are rare). These forms encode concepts such as the causative, intensive and reflexive. These forms can be viewed as analogous to verb conjugations in languages such as Spanish in terms of the additional complexity of verb formation that they induce. (Note, however, that their usage in constructing vocabulary is somewhat different, since the same root can be conjugated in multiple forms, with different shades of meaning.)

Examples of the different verbs formed from the root k-t-b 'write' (using ḥ-m-r 'red' for Form IX, which is limited to colors and physical defects):

Most of these forms are exclusively Classical Arabic
Ikataba'he wrote'yaktubu'he writes'
IIkattaba'he made (someone) write'yukattibu"he makes (someone) write"
IIIkātaba'he corresponded with, wrote to (someone)'yukātibu'he corresponds with, writes to (someone)'
IVʾaktaba'he dictated'yuktibu'he dictates'
VItakātaba'he corresponded (with someone, esp. mutually)'yatakātabu'he corresponds (with someone, esp. mutually)'
VIIinkataba'he subscribed'yankatibu'he subscribes'
VIIIiktataba'he copied'yaktatibu'he copies'
IXiḥmarra'he turned red'yaḥmarru'he turns red'
Xistaktaba'he asked (someone) to write'yastaktibu'he asks (someone) to write'

Form II is sometimes used to create transitive denominative verbs (verbs built from nouns); Form V is the equivalent used for intransitive denominatives.

The associated participles and verbal nouns of a verb are the primary means of forming new lexical nouns in Arabic. This is similar to the process by which, for example, the English gerund "meeting" (similar to a verbal noun) has turned into a noun referring to a particular type of social, often work-related event where people gather together to have a "discussion" (another lexicalized verbal noun). Another fairly common means of forming nouns is through one of a limited number of patterns that can be applied directly to roots, such as the "nouns of location" in ma- (e.g. maktab 'desk, office' < k-t-b 'write', maṭbakh 'kitchen' < ṭ-b-kh 'cook').

The only three genuine suffixes are as follows:

Colloquial varieties[edit]

Main article: Varieties of Arabic

The spoken dialects have lost the case distinctions and make only limited use of the dual (it occurs only on nouns and its use is no longer required in all circumstances). They have lost the mood distinctions other than imperative, but many have since gained new moods through the use of prefixes (most often /bi-/ for indicative vs. unmarked subjunctive). They have also mostly lost the indefinite "nunation" and the internal passive.

The following is an example of a regular verb paradigm in Egyptian Arabic.

Example of a regular Form I verb in Egyptian Arabic, kátab/yíktib "write"
Tense/MoodPastPresent SubjunctivePresent IndicativeFutureImperative

Writing system [edit]

Main articles: Arabic alphabet and Arabic Braille
Islamic calligraphy written by a Malay Muslim in Malaysia. The calligrapher is making a rough draft.

The Arabic alphabet derives from the Aramaic through Nabatean, to which it bears a loose resemblance like that of Coptic or Cyrillic scripts to Greek script. Traditionally, there were several differences between the Western (North African) and Middle Eastern versions of the alphabet—in particular, the faʼ had a dot underneath and qaf a single dot above in the Maghreb, and the order of the letters was slightly different (at least when they were used as numerals).

However, the old Maghrebi variant has been abandoned except for calligraphic purposes in the Maghreb itself, and remains in use mainly in the Quranic schools (zaouias) of West Africa. Arabic, like all other Semitic languages (except for the Latin-written Maltese, and the languages with the Ge'ez script), is written from right to left. There are several styles of script, notably naskh, which is used in print and by computers, and ruqʻah, which is commonly used in handwriting.[63]


Main article: Islamic calligraphy

After Khalil ibn Ahmad al Farahidi finally fixed the Arabic script around 786, many styles were developed, both for the writing down of the Quran and other books, and for inscriptions on monuments as decoration.

Arabic calligraphy has not fallen out of use as calligraphy has in the Western world, and is still considered by Arabs as a major art form; calligraphers are held in great esteem. Being cursive by nature, unlike the Latin script, Arabic script is used to write down a verse of the Quran, a hadith, or simply a proverb. The composition is often abstract, but sometimes the writing is shaped into an actual form such as that of an animal. One of the current masters of the genre is Hassan Massoudy.


Examples of different transliteration/transcription schemes
اāʾāaaaa / Aaa/e/é
يj, yy; īy; ey; iiyy; i/ee; ei/ai

There are a number of different standards for the romanization of Arabic, i.e. methods of accurately and efficiently representing Arabic with the Latin script. There are various conflicting motivations involved, which leads to multiple systems. Some are interested in transliteration, i.e. representing the spelling of Arabic, while others focus on transcription, i.e. representing the pronunciation of Arabic. (They differ in that, for example, the same letter ي is used to represent both a consonant, as in "you" or "yet", and a vowel, as in "me" or "eat".) Some systems, e.g. for scholarly use, are intended to accurately and unambiguously represent the phonemes of Arabic, generally making the phonetics more explicit than the original word in the Arabic script. These systems are heavily reliant on diacritical marks such as "š" for the sound equivalently written sh in English. Other systems (e.g. the Bahá'í orthography) are intended to help readers who are neither Arabic speakers nor linguists to intuitively pronounce Arabic names and phrases.[64] These less "scientific" tend to avoid diacritics and use digraphs (like sh and kh). These are usually more simple to read, but sacrifice the definiteness of the scientific systems, and may lead to ambiguities, e.g. whether to interpret sh as a single sound, as in gash, or a combination of two sounds, as in gashouse. The ALA-LC romanization solves this problem by separating the two sounds with a prime symbol ( ′ ); e.g., as′hal 'easier'.

During the last few decades and especially since the 1990s, Western-invented text communication technologies have become prevalent in the Arab world, such as personal computers, the World Wide Web, email, bulletin board systems, IRC, instant messaging and mobile phone text messaging. Most of these technologies originally had the ability to communicate using the Latin script only, and some of them still do not have the Arabic script as an optional feature. As a result, Arabic speaking users communicated in these technologies by transliterating the Arabic text using the Latin script, sometimes known as IM Arabic.

To handle those Arabic letters that cannot be accurately represented using the Latin script, numerals and other characters were appropriated. For example, the numeral "3" may be used to represent the Arabic letter ع. There is no universal name for this type of transliteration, but some have named it Arabic Chat Alphabet. Other systems of transliteration exist, such as using dots or capitalization to represent the "emphatic" counterparts of certain consonants. For instance, using capitalization, the letter د, may be represented by d. Its emphatic counterpart, ض, may be written as D.


In most of present-day North Africa, the Western Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) are used. However, in Egypt and Arabic-speaking countries to the east of it, the Eastern Arabic numerals (٠‎ – ١‎ – ٢‎ – ٣‎ – ٤‎ – ٥‎ – ٦‎ – ٧‎ – ٨‎ – ٩‎) are in use. When representing a number in Arabic, the lowest-valued position is placed on the right, so the order of positions is the same as in left-to-right scripts. Sequences of digits such as telephone numbers are read from left to right, but numbers are spoken in the traditional Arabic fashion, with units and tens reversed from the modern English usage. For example, 24 is said "four and twenty" just like in the German language (vierundzwanzig) and Classical Hebrew, and 1975 is said "a thousand and nine-hundred and five and seventy" or, more eloquently, "five and seventy and nine-hundred and a thousand."

Language-standards regulators[edit]

Academy of the Arabic Language is the name of a number of language-regulation bodies formed in the Arab League. The most active are in Damascus and Cairo. They review language development, monitor new words and approve inclusion of new words into their published standard dictionaries. They also publish old and historical Arabic manuscripts.

Studying Arabic[edit]

Arabic has been taught worldwide in many elementary and secondary schools, especially Muslim schools. Universities around the world have classes that teach Arabic as part of their foreign languages, Middle Eastern studies, and religious studies courses. Arabic language schools exist to assist students to learn Arabic outside the academic world. There are many Arabic language schools in the Arab world and other Muslim countries. Because the Quran is written in Arabic and all Islamic terms are in Arabic, millions of Muslims (both Arab and non-Arab) study the language. Software and books with tapes are also important part of Arabic learning, as many of Arabic learners may live in places where there are no academic or Arabic language school classes available. Radio series of Arabic language classes are also provided from some radio stations.[citation needed] A number of websites on the Internet provide online classes for all levels as a means of distance education; most teach Modern Standard Arabic, but some teach regional varieties from numerous countries.[65]

EnglishArabicArabic (vowelled)Romanization (ALA-LC)IPA
or الإنكليزية
or الإنْجلِيزِيّة
al-ingilīziyyah (varies)/alʔinɡ(i)liːzijja/ (varies)
Peace (Usually Islamic)السلام عليكمالسَّلامُ عَلَيْكُمْal-salāmu ʻalaykum/ʔassalaːmu ʕalajkum/
How are you?کيف الحال؟کَيْفَ ٱلْحَال؟kayfa al-ḥāl/kajfa lħaːl/
Goodbyeمع السلامةمَعَ السّلامَةmaʻa al-salāmah/maʕa ssalaːma/
Pleaseمن فضلكمِنْ فَضْلِكmin faḍlik/min fadˤlik/
Excuse meعفواعَفْوًاʻafwan/ʕafwan/
I'm sorryآسفآسِفāsif/ʔaːsif/
What's your name?ما اسمك؟مَا ٱسْمُك؟mā ismuka/ismuki?/masmuka, -ki/
How much?كم؟كَمْ؟kam?/kam/
I don't understand.لا أفهملا أفْهَمlā afham/laː ʔafham/
I don't speak Arabic.لا أتكلم العربيةلا أتَكَلّمُ الْعَرَبيّةlā atakallamu al-ʻarabiyyah/laː ʔatakallamu lʕarabijja/
I don't know.لا أعرفلا أعْرِفlā aʻrif/laː ʔaʕrif/
I'm hungry.أنا جائعأنا جائِعanā jāʼiʻ/ʔanaː dʒaːʔiʕ/
Elevenأحد عشرأَحَدَ عَشَرaḥad(a) ʻashar/ʔaħad(a) ʕaʃar/
Twelveاثنا عشراِثْنَا عَشَرiṯnā ʻashar/iθnaː ʕaʃar/

Arabic speakers and other languages[edit]

Historically, Arab linguists considered the Arabic language to be superior to all other languages, and took almost no interest in learning any language other than Arabic. With the sole example of Medieval linguist Abu Hayyan al-Gharnati - who, while a scholar of the Arabic language, was not ethnically Arab - scholars of the Arabic language made no efforts at studying comparative linguistics, considering all other languages inferior.[66]

In modern times, the educated upper classes in the Arab world have taken a nearly opposite view. Yasir Suleiman wrote in 2011 that "studying and knowing English or French in most of the Middle East and North Africa have become a badge of sophistication and modernity and when feigning, or asserting, weakness or lack of facility in Arabic is sometimes paraded as a sign of status, class, and perversely, even education through a mélange of code-switching practises."[67] Arab-American professor Franck Salamah went as far as to declare Arabic a dead language conveying dead ideas, blaming its stagnation for Arab intellectual stagnation and lamenting that great writers in Arabic are judged by their command of the language and not the merit of the ideas they express with it.[68]

See also[edit]



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  12. ^ a b c d e Bateson, Mary Catherine (2003). Arabic Language Handbook. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press. p. 55. 
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  14. ^ Holes, Clive (2004). Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions and Varieties. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press. p. 3. 
  15. ^ Holes, Clive (2004). Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions and Varieties. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press. p. 11. 
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External links[edit]