The Arab language is a vital part of the Islamic faith. For 200 millions of people throughout the Arab world, it is the first language. Arabic was the language that was used to write the Qur’an, making the language a requirement for most Muslims.
The language is distinct from many modern languages because it is largely spoken in a multitude of regional dialects that vary widely from each other.
In this article, thanks to the expertise of our researchers, we will explore the Arab language and its significance in the Arab world.
What is the Arab Language?
The Arab language is spoken today by over 200 million people in 28 countries throughout the Arab world and beyond. Its large use in Muslim countries descends from the fact that Arabic is the sacred language of the Qur’an. As such, it is the designed Muslim language, despite being the language of Arabs more generally.
The official formal language of the Arab world is Modern Standard Arabic, a direct descendent of Classical Arabic. While the written form remains largely consistent from country to country, the spoken language varies a great deal, taking the form of many different colloquial dialects.
Modern Standard Arabic, due to its derivation from the language of the Qur’an, is the purest form of the language in the eyes of most Arab people. Most educated people in Arab-speaking countries can speak or understand it fluently.
On the contrary, not many people speak Classical Arabic in the Arab world today. However, it is still the language used in the Qur’an. As such, it is the theological language of Islam. For this reason, Classical Arabic is still a school subject in most Islamic countries.
The first Arabic inscription that we know of dates back to 512 AD. Since the 6th century, the language has undergone a multitude of changes. The modern form of Arabic, called “Naskh”, appeared in the 11th century and has remained the primary form of Arabic ever since.
– How Old Is the Arab Language? Roots and Origins
While there are many different theories on the origin of Arab language, most scholars agree that the language first originated in the northwest region of the Arabian Peninsula. During this pre-Islamic period, the language was largely spoken by Arabian nomads.
The Silk Road trade routes that passed through the northern Arabian Peninsula helped spread the language considerably. The diffusion mostly happened at the hands of Arab merchants. As a matter of fact, Mecca was considered a major metropolitan city in the region by the time of the Prophet Muhammed’s birth. The Quraysh dynasty controlled and governed the city.
By this time, the northwestern tribes of the Arabian Peninsula spoke several distinct dialects, but the Quraysh dialect of Arabic would serve as the prominent Arabic dialect of the Arabian Peninsula and its surrounding areas during the time of the Prophet.
Mecca was considered a city of immense cultural fusion during this period. Its location near important trade routes made it an ideal stopping point for foreign merchants and travelers. The city also comprised vast Jew and Christian populations.
Most importantly, it was a hotbed for interaction between different tribes and speakers of Arabic. This element fostered some degree of homogenization of the language.
The city became especially prominent for its Arabic poetry, which would gradually become an integral part of Arabic society. Many of these poems were recited publicly, so that Arabic poets continually borrowed from each other’s dialects and vocabularies.
– The Arab Language and the Qur’an
From the year 610 AD on, the Prophet Muhammed became a preacher and orator throughout the city of Mecca, as he began to receive his divine revelations. After being forced to leave Mecca, the Prophet continued preaching and eventually took over the city and united the different tribes under the umbrella of a unique Arabian society.
The writing of the Qur’an, which occurred from 610 AD to the Prophet’s death, in 632 AD, is by far the single most important event in the history of the Arab language. Classical Arabic in which the sacred book was written became the central language of the Islamic religion. This further helped the diverse tribal dialects become more concrete and homogenized.
During the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, the language was dispersed throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Its diffusion was, of course, closely tied to its role as an integral part of Muslim culture, due to its use by the Prophet Muhammed and the Qur’an. The language even spread to European society, particularly in modern day Spain and Sicily.
Many consider this period — from the seventh to 11th century — as an “Arabic renaissance,” as the region saw a significant surge in Arabic poetry and writing. The Abbasid dynasty was an especially important time period for the Arab language, as it made it the esteemed language of Arabic education. During this period, the Arabic vocabulary grew exponentially while the Islamic Arab society became more and more complex.
– The Decline of the Arab Language
The language began to go into decline during the 11th century when regional languages, such as Persian and Turkish, began to replace Arabic. This happened as invaders like the Mongols and Ottoman Turks began to take over Arab territory.
The language reached an especially low point during the four centuries of Ottoman control of the Middle East, as the Turkish language began to gradually replace Arabic in some parts of the Arab world.
The nineteenth and 20th century were marked by a gradual revival of the language, in particulars as Arab nationalism grew across the Middle East.
Dialects and Variations of the Arab Language
Though Modern Standard Arabic is used in formal situations, most Arab people use colloquial dialects of their language throughout their day-to-day life, based on their location or community.
The spoken Arab language has distinct dialects in every country, though the Egyptian form of spoken Arabic is considered the most prominent and well understood, as much of the Arab world’s media has come from Egypt. Besides the Algerian dialect, which has its own distinctive characters, all Arabic dialects are strongly influenced by the classical language of the Qur’an.
– Written Language
The Arabic written language was created in the 6th century AD and is read from right to left. The script is written in horizontal lines and its alphabet contains 28 consonants. There are several kinds of Arabic script, with the “Kufic” and “Thuluth” being the most common.
Arabic script is derived from the Nabataean alphabet, which was used to notate the Aramaic Nabataean dialect. While creating their alphabet, Nabateans added six symbols for sounds that, albeit present in their dialect, weren’t a part of the Aramaic language.
While the Nabataean alphabet was exclusively composed of consonants, Arabs expanded the alphabet by adding dots below or above consonants to indicate vowels.
The Arabic alphabet includes 28 symbols, along with some additional letters for sounds that do not occur in the spoken Arab language. Each letter in the alphabet may have four different forms, depending on its place in a given word.
Inscriptions in the Arab language can be found throughout houses, schools, and mosques in the entire Arab World due to its decorative qualities. Many of the letters’ shapes allow for them to be joined together, to create ornamental motives.
Arabic letters are usually written in a simplified form when they are written by hand, and letters are usually joined in both handwritten and printed Arabic. Capital letters do not exist in the Arabic alphabet, and most letters can be attached to those that precede them.
– Arab Language Family
Arabic is considered a part of the Afro-Asiatic group of world languages and is descended from the Proto-Semitic language, which was spoken in the Levant region during the Early Bronze Age. The Arab language spoken today is classified as part of the Arabo-Canaanite sub-branch of the central group of the Western Semitic languages.
The Arabic influence can be found in many other languages, such as Indo-Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Turkic and African languages. These languages used Arabic scripts and borrowed many words from the Arabic vocabulary.
The Persian, Pashto, and Urdu languages all adopted components of the Arabic script, in a mix called Perso-Arabic. The Turkish, Swahili, and Uzbek languages all borrowed from Arabic script before they adopted Latin or Cyrillic alphabets.
Due to the period of Arab influence in Portugal and Spain, many words that originate from Arabic are found throughout the two languages. Some English words also originate from Arabic, such as “algebra,” “tariff,” “elixir,” and “zero.”
– Arabic Numerals
Contrary to popular belief, Arabs did not invent arabic numerals, as they were actually developed in India around the 5th century. The use of these Indian numerals spread into Persia and eventually into Arabic trade routes.
While the arabic numeral system uses many different sets of symbols, the two main groups are West Arabic and East Arabic. The West Arabic symbols were created in the Maghreb, while East Arabic symbols were created in modern-day Iraq.
Arab Language FAQs
- Is Arabic a major language?
Yes! Arab is the sixth language in the world for the number of speakers.
- Is Arabic the oldest language?
While many other languages and dialects already existed in the world before the advent of Classical Arabic, the Arab language is indeed one of the first ancient languages that are still spoken today. In other words, even if it was not the first to be invented, it is one of the most long-lived languages in history.
- Is Arabic in demand?
Absolutely yes. In the United States, there are many vacant places that require professionals who speak the Arab language. As of today, there are not enough people to satisfy this demand. Therefore, if you are still in college or are otherwise interested in learning this language, we highly encourage you to do so!
- Is Arab easy to learn?
Both for its complex grammar and difficult — albeit beautiful — calligraphy, Arabic is not easy to learn. For English speakers, it is certainly harder than Spanish or other European languages. However, with the right amount of commitment it is perfectly possible to learn fluent Arabic.
- Is Arabic or Chinese harder?
This question does not have a univocal answer, as the ease or difficulty in learning a new language largely depends on your interest and commitment, and on the set of languages that you already know. However, experts deem Chinese as being harder to learn than Arabic, due to its complicated character system.
- What other languages do Arabic countries speak?
Hebrew, Pesian and Turkish are also widely spoken in Middle Eastern and North African countries. French is also widely used, especially in North Africa, due to French colonization. In older British dominions, English is still widespread.
- Are Turks Arabs? Do they speak the Arab language?
Many people get confused when speaking about Turks and Arabs. To be clear, Turks are not Arabs. Rather, they descend from the Central Asian Turkic people, who then mixed with the indigenous inhabitants of the Anatolian Peninsula.
As such, their official language is Turkish. A minority of people speak Arabic, and ostensibly many Turks understand it at least well enough to be able to read the Qur’an and pray.
In this article, we went through many different aspects of the Arab language, from its origins to calligraphy. Let’s go over the central ideas:
- The Arab language is the language of the Qur’an. As such, it is considered the official language of Islam.
- The language has many different dialects that can vary greatly from each other, with the Alegian one being the most peculiar.
- The language is thought to have originated in the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula, largely spoken by Arab nomads of the region.
- The language spread extensively across the Middle East and North Africa during the Muslim conquests of the 7th century
The Arab language is alive and well today, not only in the Middle East but also in Western culture, as more non-Muslims have begun to learn the language throughout the 21st century. The language is still a vital part of the religion of Islam. For this reason, most Muslims around the world are required to learn Arabic.