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Arabic Language Description

PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY
DEPARTMENT OF WORLD LANGUAGES & LITERATURES
ARABIC SECTION: LANGUAGE, LITERATURE & CULTURE
(Half century of excellence in the field of Arabic Studies)

The Arabic Language: A Brief Definition

Dirgham H. Sbait, Ph.D.
Professor of Arabic/Semitic Languages, Literatures, & Folklore
Section Head: Arabic/Semitic Languages & Literatures

Classical Arabic is Semitic in origin. It is based on consonantal roots, mostly triliteral and quadriliteral. Various meanings are obtained by adding short and long vowels, as well as prefixes and suffixes, or by switching the verbs from one form to another. Arabic employs two major types of sentence: nominal (or equational), and verbal. Each sentence is based on three major features: parts of speech, syntax, and case endings (declension system) completely correlated with the syntax.

Classical Arabic – known as fus-ha (eloquent) Arabic, emerged in the 5th century A.D. or earlier. Arab poets, historians, scholars, scientists, and philosophers used it for many centuries, especially during the Golden Ages of the Arab Empire. It is also the language of the Koran of the Moslem Faith, the Old Testament, and the New Testament of the Christian Arabs.

Modern literary Arabic continues to use the same grammar and syntax of the Classical Arabic. It is almost uniform around the Arab World, and commonly used by authors, poets, scholars, artists, the media, and on formal occasions. It is consistent across the Arab countries, or wherever used formally, regardless of the spoken Arabic language (dialect) associated with it.

Modern Spoken Arabic – known by the name ‘ammiyyah or darijah, is commonly used for daily life communications; it usually varies from one Arab country or region to another.  Still, all spoken Arabic languages (referred to as dialects) are mostly connected with the Standard Arabic, and all spoken Arabic languages are inter-related; thus, it is relatively easy for an Arab of a particular country to understand an Arab of a different country when they communicate in spoken Arabic. Consequently, contemporary standard and spoken Arabic have the phenomenon of diglossia.

Modern Standard Arabic is based on 30 original consonants, four of which are long vowels. It also employs three newly established letters that represent the letters “g – hard”, “p” and “v” commonly used in European languages. Arabic uses four short vowels, and three nunations (unn, ann, and inn sounds) commonly used on indefinite nouns, adjectives, and adverbs; the definite article is “al”; it precedes nouns, adjectives, and numbers.  Shaddah is a doubling sign, maddah a stretch, waslah a connector, and sukun a mark representing vowellessness. Two diphthongs, “aw & ay,” are commonly used, and there are two newly created short vowels by Dirgham H. Sbait, representing the sounds “o” and “ai,” which did not exist in classical Arabic, but are commonly used in spoken Arabic and in borrowed Western names and terms used in standard Arabic (See: Dirgham H. Sbait. The Standard (Fus-ha) Arabic Language: Letters, cursive writing, pronunciation & basic sentences. Textbook for beginners. Xan-Edu 2001). Most punctuation marks used in the Arabic language are mainly borrowed from the Western system of punctuation, but some are modified. The Arabic language employs two sets of numerals: one is the Arabic numbers commonly used in the Western world, and another that may have been Indian in origin.  All Arabic letters are written in cursive style in horizontal lines from right to left. All Arabic letters have independent shapes; however, most of them change their shapes as they appear in the beginning, the middle, or the end of the word, or on their own.  

The Arabic script is written from right to left. It is a cursive language and doesn’t employ a separate printed form or capital letters. During the centuries, Arab, Persian, and Turkish artists created many styles of Arabic calligraphy; the Nabati script was of the first to be standardized and became the most recognized. The Kufi style was used for the earliest published Koran. It was followed by the Naskhi style, one of the most common styles used in modern times, in addition to the Ruq‘i, the Farsi, Thulthi, and Diwani. Other world languages such as Dari, Persian, and Urdu have adopted the Arabic script. Ottoman Turkish abandoned its use in modern times.

The Arabic derivation system is extremely powerful. A root stem such as “k t b” (to write) becomes the source from which one can derive many expressions related to the idea of writing by varying the vowels, and adding pronoun endings or suffixes. Thus, kataba – he wrote; kitab – a book; al-kitab – the book; kitaban(i) – two books; kutub(un) – books; kitabi – my book; kitabiyyun – written or in writing or scriptural; maktabah – library; maktab – office; makatib – offices; maktub – written or letter; katib(un) – male author; katibah(tun) – female author; kuttab – authors or a primary school; katibat – female authors, etc.

Arabic employs two main grammatical genders: masculine and feminine; neutral is not used in Arabic. All nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and numbers have singular, dual, and plural forms. There are sound forms and broken forms of the noun. Human nouns usually follow the sound plural system, but non-human nouns follow the broken plural system. A noun such as “sahra’” (desert) may have more than seven analogical broken plurals. All foreign words adopted by Arabic are subjugated to the normal rules of the language; the word film becomes filmunn (nominative) filminn (genitive), filmann (accusative), al-filmu, al-filmi, al-filma; aflam, as a definite, etc. The noun telephone becomes talfana in the past tense, yutalfinu, in the present tense, telifoniyyunn – telephonic or by phone, etc. Arabic has thousands of root stems of nouns and verbs, as well as idiomatic verbs, almost an unlimited number of connectors. One noun may have hundreds of synonyms; the word lion has 500 synonyms, and the word sword has over 1200 synonyms mostly created by the great poets of Arabia; the term Allah has 99 formally recognized attributes. Classical Arabic is very rich with poetic expressions mostly created by famous orators and poets. 

Al-Khalil Ibn Ahmad, the most celebrated scholar in the history of Arabia (d. 786 A.D.), wrote the first book of Arabic grammar, the first Arabic – Arabic dictionary, and the first book of Arabic prosody in which he defined all the 16 poetic meters that were commonly used by the Pre-Islamic Arab poets – a book that is still in use in modern times.

Classical Arabic provided 11 major verb forms, sound and weak as well as various doubled verbs, all derived from three to six letter root stems. There are 12 different independent pronouns, and matching suffixes and prefixes. Two pronouns represent the dual category. The verbs provide major moods: Indicative, Jussive, Subjunctive, and Imperative; the nouns present three cases: Nominative, Accusative, and Genitive. It also employs active and passive participles, various verbal nouns, and active and passive verbs. There are several diptotes in the Arabic Language governed by specific grammatical and vocalization rules. Most grammatical rules have one exception or more.

The Arabic grammar and syntax were defined by two major schools of Arab grammarians in the cities of Kufa and Basra in Iraq during the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. The Arab linguists and grammarians provided the future generations of users of Arabic with a complete record of the Arabic grammar and syntax covering all familiar language sciences.

The Arabic language is extremely vast and sophisticated; thus, it poses a serious challenge to even the most educated intellectual native speakers. However, most of its grammatical and syntactic rules are systematic; therefore, it is possible to master it after years of learning and practice.