Arabic Language

Arabic is the official language of 25 countries, the language spoken by the third most countries in the world after English and French. Arabic is spoken by many individuals in Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, France, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Western Sahara, and Yemen. Modern Arabic is considered to be a macrolanguage, with 27 sub-languages. These varieties are spoken throughout the Arab world. Standard Arabic is widely studied and used throughout the Islamic world. It is estimated that there are over 225 million native speakers of Arabic and as many as 246 million non-native speakers.

Brief History of Arabic

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), in regards to the number of speakers, is the largest member of the Semitic language family. Semitic languages are thousands of years old, originating in the Mediterranean Basin area. The Semitic language family is a descendant of proto-Semitic, an ancient language that has no written record. Arabic is part of the Semitic subgroup of Afro-Asiatic languages and is closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic.

There are three distinct forms of Arabic. Classical (Qur’anical) Arabic, Modern (Formal) Standard Arabic and Colloquial (Spoken) Arabic. Classical Arabic is the form of Arabic found in the Qur’an. It is not used in conversation or in non-religious writing. Classical Arabic is primarily learned for reading and reciting Islamic religious texts.


Diglossia is defined as "the use of two varieties of a language by members of a society for distinct functions or by distinct groups or classes of people." Many people who speak Arabic use two varieties of the Arabic language. The first is Modern Standard Arabic which is considered of high prestige, and the local colloquial dialects are considered of low prestige. Speakers use a certain variety depending on the social context. This daily use of two languages results in "code-switching" (the speaker uses words from both languages) within the same conversation or even sentence to better suit the topic or meaning of what they want to say.



Modern Standard Arabic has three vowels, with long and short forms of /a/, /i/, and /u/. Short vowels in Arabic are typically not written, but must be used in sacred text like the Qurʼan. The difference in vowel length is phonemically contrastive in Modern Standard Arabic. There are also two diphthongs: /aj/ and /aw/ (formed by a combination of short /a/ with the semivowels /j/ and /w/).

Many dialects have reduced diphthongs found in MSA to monophthongs, Lebanese Arabic is one of the only dialects to have maintained the diphthongs. 


Arabic consists of short and long consonants. Long consonants are produced in the same way as the short consonants, but have a longer duration. While pronunciation of the 28 consonants depends on dialect, most are pronounced with a high degree of regularity. Unlike English, Arabic contains a number of uvular, pharyngeal, and pharyngealized ("emphatic") consonants. The presence of simultaneous velarization and pharyngealization during the  production of consonants is referred to as "Retracted Tongue Root". 

Emphatic consonants have no direct correlation in the English sound system. For people who speak but do not read or write in Arabic, transcription of these sounds may be confusing. Emphatic consonants have non-emphatic counterparts that are often used interchangeably when transcribed in English. Emphatic consonants also affect the vowels surrounding them, although this can vary widely between dialects.

Syllable Structure

Arabic contains two types of syllables: open (CV and CVV) and closed (CVC). Syllables begin with a consonant, except when a phrase begins with the definite article, for example, "the car". If a word ends in a vowel and the next word is the definite article, then the initial vowel of the article is left out. In this case the consonant closes the final syllable of the previous word.


In Standard Arabic, word stress is not phonemically contrastive. However, as noted above, vowel length – often an indicator of stress in English – is phonemically contrastive.


Arabic has a complex and rich structure. Nouns and verbs are governed by systematic morphophonemic rules. Each noun and verb is made up of a certain set of base letters, or roots.  Verbs can have either 3 or 4 base letters. Nouns can have 2, 3, 4, or 5. Extra letters can be added to the base letters and they can be dropped or changed due to morphophonemic rules as well. Adding letters can add more meaning, insight, or significance to the basic meaning of the root letters.

For example, the word kataba contains the three consonant root letters of k, t, and b; it means “he wrote” (Arabic grammar textbooks use the third person singular past tense as a starting reference for root words). Some examples of words formed using the k, t, b root are: katiib (writer), koutoub (books), maktoub (letter, fate), maktab (office), istiktaab (dictation), maktaba (library), and so on.

Other examples of nouns and verbs with added, changed, and dropped letters are found below.

Audio Files of Arabic

Grammatical particles* are completely unpredictable and have no patterns. They also do not go through any morphophonemic changes. Therefore, they must be memorized. There are fewer than one hundred particles in Arabic.

Pronouns exist outside of the root system but often experience morphophonemic and morphosyntactic changes depending on their placement.

Particles are also called "function words". The infinitive marker "to" and the negater "not" are examples of English particles.


The placement of verbs in sentences in written Arabic differs from English. The typical order of a written Arabic sentence is Verb-Subject-Object (VSO). For example, in English "The boy stole the bike", would be "Stole the boy the bike" in Arabic. This can be an important factor in understanding how readers of Arab backgrounds react to text. In contrast, however,  spoken Arabic syntax is very similar to English as Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) is typically used.It is important to note that placement does not always determine function. Rather, it is the inclination that determines the relationship. Therefore, it is possible to have a variety of word orders that could still be grammatically acceptable.

 Sentence subjects determine verb conjugation. Because of this, subjective pronouns are not often used to avoid redundancy. When they are, it is generally for emphasis.


Inflection of Arabic nouns occurs to express gender, number, case, and state. Gender exists in masculine and feminine forms, although there are no markers for the masculine. Number markers indicate singular, dual (two people or things), or plural. The three cases are nominative, dative, and genitive/ablative.     


The following subjective pronouns are possible in MSA: First person, Second person (one male, one female, two males, two females, plural males, or plural females), First person plural, Third person (male, female, two males, two females, plural males, plural females). Some dialects collapse certain categories of these subjective pronouns. MSA employs the use of the dual subject, but this use of the dual has disappeared in most Arabic dialects. 

Gender is also taken into account. A speaker conjugates verbs differently when addressing a male/males versus a female/females.

Object and possessive pronouns are possible in the same forms as listed above; however, object and possessive pronouns are not independent. These pronouns are attached to verbs or objects as necessary.

Repetition of Definite and Indefinite Articles

Words preceded by a direct article repeat the article in following adjectives to mark the direct case. For example, “the big, old school” would be translated word by word from Arabic as “the school the big the old.” The indefinite article is marked by the suffix an (tanwin) on the noun and following adjectives.


Writing System

Modern Standard Arabic is written from right to left in a cursive style (calligraphy is used and highly regarded) and consists of 28 letters. While there are several styles of script, Ruq'ah is the most commonly used in handwriting. The Naskh style is what is typically used in print and on computers. Arabic script has been adopted for many different languages. The following map represents countries that use Arabic script as the official orthography (dark green) or alongside other orthographies (light green).


The Arabic alphabet comes from the Aramaic script.


Colloquial dialects are generally only spoken languages. People who speak Arabic use the colloquial language in their daily interactions, but Modern Standard Arabic is used in formal situations. Colloquial language is what Arabic speakers learn as their L1 (first language spoken at home) and then Modern Standard Arabic is learned based on Classical or Quranic Arabic. While there can be differences between the various colloquial dialects, Standard Arabic is the same throughout the Arab World. Some of the colloquial language differences are so great that dialects can be mutually unintelligible.

The major dialects are:

  • Andalusi Arabic
    • Andalusi Arabic is now extinct, but it played an important role in Arabic literary history. 

  • Egyptian Arabic (Considered a "second dialect")
    • The Egyptian colloquial Arabic is spoken by some 50 million people, mostly in Egypt. Egyptian Arabic is understood across most of the Arab world due to the predominance of Egyptian media, making it the most widely spoken and one of the most widely studied varieties of Arabic.  

  • Gulf Arabic
    • Gulf Arabic is spoken by around 22 million people.

    • Gulf Arabic is a dialect spoken around the shore of Persian Gulf, in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Oman. 

    • Oregon’s largest number of Arab immigrants come from this region. 

  • Hassaniiya
    • Hassaniiya Arabic is spoken by some 7 million people, predominantly in western Saudi Arabia.

  • Hijazi Arabic
    • Hijazi Arabic is spoken by around 7 million people in western Saudi Arabia. 

  • Levantine Arabic 
    • Levantine Arabic is spoken by almost 35 million people 

    • Levantine Arabic refers to a general group of Arabic spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Jordan. 

    • In Lebanese Arabic, in particular, there are strong English and French influences, due to the multilingualism in the country. 

    • Levantine Arabic permits word shapes that begin with CC, this strays significantly from MSA which only allows for CV, CVV, or CVC syllables. 

Slang and Phrases

  • Arabic slang has developed from Classical Arabic. It does not use all the rules and contains sounds that do not exist in the standard language.
  • Examples of common phrases:
  • Shlonkom?: how are you all? 
  • zen/zena [M/F]:fine 
  • Shako mako?: what’s new? 
  • Kulshi mako: nothing new.
  • Shonak?/Shonik? [M/F]: how are you? 
  • Kafe al haal?: how are you? 
  • tamam, bikhair: Very well
  • ma ismiki (f): What is your name?
  • ismee: My name is ...
  • Alhamdo lillah: thanks God 
  • Safiya Dafiya: everything is fine (literally means: sunny and warm) 

Body Language & Gesture

The messages embedded in body language and gesture are far from universal. People who make the assumption that gestures are the same regardless of language spoken run the risk of unintentionally sending a nonverbal message that is misinterpreted by, or even offensive to, the recipient. For example:

  • The "OK" hand sign used in the US to indicate that something is good is the same as an Arab sign for the evil eye that is used in conjunction with curses.
  • A quick upward movement of the head accompanied by a click of the tongue is used to indicate "no" in Arab culture, which could be mistaken for nodding "yes" in the U.S.
  • In the U.S., sitting in a chair with one foot placed on the opposite knee is a relatively common and innocuous posture. In Arab culture, it is considered an insult to those around you to show the soles of the feet while sitting.

    Original Contributors: Claire Barnes, Katy Brandt, & Devin Dolan; Winter 2010. Additional Informartion was added by Sarah Crowder, Stephanie Gaslin, & Kristín Ragnarsson; Spring 2013

    Resources and References