Facts Sheets of Major World Languages Arabic

About the major world language Arabic, history, samples, words used in English, trivia and more.


Samples of Language: Sala:mtul'insa:ni fi:hafthillisa:ni. ("The safety of man is in the guarding of the tongue.")

Ra'sulhikmati maxa:fatulla:hi. ("The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.")

How Many Speakers: 135 million

Where Spoken: In a broad belt extending from the Arabian Peninsula across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean; official language of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, South Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Sundan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.

History: Great languages arise in great empires, and Arabic is no exception. In the 7th century, as the language of the Koran, this isolated tongue of the Arabian peninsula was spread like wildfire by Muslim conquerors across North Africa, where it replaced African Latin. It also penetrated southern Europe, where it left many Arabic words and place-names, especially in Spain and Sicily. It gave rise to Maltese, a hybrid mixture of Arabic and Italian. Moving northward and eastward, it became the vernacular in the Near East and influenced Turkish, Persian, Hindustani, and even the Malay of southeastern Asia and Indonesia. Between the 9th and 15th centuries, Arabic was so important as the language of science that scholars of northern Europe had to learn it as they learned Latin. Today, in all Muslim regions from the Balkans to the Philippines, millions of believers have some knowledge of Arabic. As the primary language of the powerful oil-producing nations, it is becoming an international force in economics. In 1974 it was made the sixth official language of the U.N.

Arabic is a Semitic language of the Semito-Hamitic group, named after Shem and Ham, whose descendants supposedly started their respective tongues after the Tower of Babel incident. It is closely related to Hebrew. The main structural characteristic of Arabic is the word root consisting of three consonants, with shifting vowels that carry auxiliary meanings. For example, the Arabic root that conveys the general meaning of "killing" is K-T-L. Vowels are added to indicate specific meanings. Thus, katala, "he sought to kill"; aktala, "he caused to kill"; katil, "murder"; kitl, "enemy." Spoken Arabic varies from country to country, but classical Arabic, the language of the Koran, has remained largely unchanged since the 7th century. When two educated Arabs from different countries meet, they converse in classical Arabic.

The Arabic alphabet is believed to have evolved from that of an ancient people known as the Nabataeans some 3,000 years ago, when the Aryans were still letterless savages. By the early Muslim period, two scripts were in use: Naskhi, the everyday cursive from, and Kufic, a decorative, angular script. The present alphabet consists of 28 nonroman letters, basically consonants, with vowels indicated by marks above and below the letters. However, these marks are omitted except in elementary school texts and the Koran. Arabic's flowing script is written from right to left.

Oddities: Arabic has more guttural sounds than any other language. There are no infinitives at all, and no words for have or be. A different "you" is used according to the sex of the person addressed, and even verbs are classified as either masculine or feminine. Numbers after 10 are considered singular, and some noun plurals are shorter than their singular forms. Because there are so few word patterns, Arabic tends to sound monotonous; a poem must have the same rhyme throughout. Arabic abounds in homographs, which have the same spelling but different pronunciations, as in the English sow, "to scatter seed," and sow, "female pig." Speakers of many Moroccan dialects precede every present-tense verb with "I insist." Euphrates Arabs avoid all words beginning with the first letter of Satan's name. One of the worst insults in Arabic is: "May your mouth be full of pig's flesh."

Words Now Used in English: cotton, coffee, magazine, alcohol, chemistry, algebra, zero, sofa, mattress, harem, syrup, sherbet, camphor, amber, apricot, artichoke, admiral, carat, giraffe, arsenal, ghoul, and assassin (literally, "hashish eater").

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