Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world and the official language in 22 countries. Arabic is part of the Semitic language family. As some may not know, this language family also includes Aramaic and Hebrew. Among the Semitic languages, it is the most common spoken Semitic language. With more than 250 million people, there are more speakers of Arabic than the population of England, France, Spain, and Germany combined!
Here are some interesting facts about Arabic.
1. There are many subcategories of Arabic language
Arabic language is defined as a diglossic language. This term has a long history and a great deal of research since it was first defined by Charles Ferguson in 1959. For our purposes, Diglossia describes a situation where within a single language such as Arabic, there are two varieties of use. This means that Arabic has two main varieties “written/standard Arabic” and “spoken/colloquial Arabic”; then from the colloquial spoken Arabic there are tens of dialects in each Arabic speaking country.
The high variety or the standard Arabic is shared among all Arabic speakers, and it’s used in media, newspapers, education, literature and any official documents.
When it comes to the spoken dialects, Egyptian Arabic is the most common one. This can be a result of the large Egyptian cinema industry and TV series. It also happens to be the closest to the standard Arabic with less “folk/foreign” terms than other dialects. Levantine Arabic comes second after Egyptian Arabic in the common used dialects. Levantine Arabic is the spoken version of Arabic used in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. The reason for this can be because of their large production of dubbed cartoon, series and movies from all over the world.
2. Arabic has influenced so many languages including English
The very common form of influencing languages is through borrowing the term as it is. Some borrowed Arabic words that are used in English are “racquet, alchemy, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, alkaline, (the article ‘al’ in Arabic denotes ‘the’), amber, arsenal, candy, coffee, cotton, ghoul, hazard, lemon, loofah, magazine, sherbet, sofa, tariff – and many more.” 1
Turkish, Hindi and Bengali are some of many other languages that are filled with Arabic words. For example, the Hindi word “lakn,” which means “but,” is the same Arabic word for “but”. In Turkish, the word “lutfan,” which means please, is used just as it is. At the same time, Arabic language itself has many borrowed words from all different languages, but these can mostly be found in colloquial dialects. English, Italian, French and Turkey are the top languages that Arabic language borrowed from. This can be due to the fact that all the above countries experienced colonization in the Middle East and South Africa.
A language that has been deeply influenced by Arabic is Spanish. “It is estimated that there are about one thousand Arabic roots, and approximately three thousand derived words, for a total of around four thousand words or 8% of the Spanish dictionary – the second largest lexical influence on Spanish after Latin.2 For reference, I’ve provided a few: aceite, alcachofa, harén, jarabe, momia, taza, etc. Since Muslim Arabs lived in Spain for 8 centuries, naturally, language, culture and religion co-existed in a myriad of ways that greatly impacted the Spanish language even until today.
3. Arabic is extremely difficult to translate accurately
Arabic language is mainly constructed from derivation. Any word has a root and each root can form hundreds of words. In fact, Arabic grammar has a main branch dedicated for forming words, adverbs, adjectives, verbs and many other forms from one root. This can be slightly similar to prefixes and suffixes in English but on a much wider scale. In an article published by the British Council, Faraan Sayed describes it this way:
Using the root system means that direct translation, particularly of poetic texts, is often difficult – the root of a word may contain a meaning that could take a few sentences to translate. This adds to the beauty of the language, and it conveys a depth in both meaning and emotions unmatched by any other languages.”3
Another serious problem of directly translating Arabic is that each word has tens of meanings depending on the context, and it can be used to express all of them at the same time. Furthermore, Arabic has so many synonyms to express the same thing, and each one of them has a slightly different meaning. For example, for the word walk, there are so many synonyms in Arabic that give a really detailed description of the speed, the movement, the sound and even the force. Translation in that case requires that the target language has these varieties as well or at least some descriptive adverbs.
4. Arabic sounds and phonetics
Arabic has sounds that don’t exist in any other language. For example, in Arabic there are throat letters. Those can’t be written or said in English and many of the world languages. They are six sounds made in the throat. The “H” is one of these sounds that English has, but then there is a deeper version of “H” and four other sounds.
Arabic has a mixed feature of grammar and phonetics which is called “tashkeel” and can be translated as “accentuation/formation”. It means adding a different vowel sound “o-a-i” to the end of the word based on its position in the sentence and on its grammatical analysis. For example, if the word is a subject we add the sound “o” known as “dammah,” and if it’s an object we add “a” sound known as “fat-ha”. In other words, the word cat “kettat” can be “Kettat-o” Kettat-a” “kettat-i” based on its grammatical position in the sentence.
5. Arabic grammar is a real headache even for native speakers
For all the above reasons and more, you can already realize why learning Arabic wouldn’t be that easy. Arabic grammar is one of the most difficult grammars of all languages in the world. Arabic has masculine and feminine suffixes, and singular, dual, plural suffixes, and then the combination of number and gender. In other words, it has dual feminine suffixes, dual masculine suffixes, and masculine and feminine plural suffixes. Adding to this is “tashkeel,” so that the suffixes have subcategories identifying whether the word is subject, object, or fulfills other grammatical functions.
In respect to Arabic grammar, try perusing an Arabic grammar book. The sheer number of chapters is mindboggling. As a native Arabic speaker, however, this is very normal. All spoken versions of Arabic have simpler grammar and all native speakers struggle in studying the grammar of the written standard Arabic. To put it plainly, it’s hard. And don’t let me get started with the Arabic used in ancient poetry and in the Holy Qura’an; it’s a very sophisticated and lofty version of Arabic that can’t be understood by average Arab speakers but only by scholars and students of advanced Arabic dictionaries.
- (Source: https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/surprising-facts-about-arabic-language)
- Source: Dworkin, Steven N. (2012). A History of the Spanish Lexicon: A Linguistic Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 83. ISBN 0199541140.
- Source: https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/surprising-facts-about-arabic-language