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The Arabic language

   

Introduction

ARABIC ranks sixth in the world's league table of languages, with an estimated 186 million native speakers. As the language of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, it is also widely used throughout the Muslim world. It belongs to the Semitic group of languages which also includes Hebrew and Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia.

There are many Arabic dialects. Classical Arabic – the language of the Qur'an – was originally the dialect of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. An adapted form of this, known as Modern Standard Arabic, is used in books, newspapers, on television and radio, in the mosques, and in conversation between educated Arabs from different countries (for example at international conferences). 

Local dialects vary, and a Moroccan might have difficulty understanding an Iraqi, even though they speak the same language.

Arabic personal names
The components of names - abu, ibn, etc. How they are used and what they mean.

Alternative Arabic Dictionary
This lists the words that respectable dictionaries leave out. Not for anyone who is easily offended.

How to write your name in Arabic  
A French site showing 167 first names written in the Arabic script. Includes some English names.

Names of Arabic origin
Mainly refers to place names in Spain, Portugal and the Americas.

Arabic Language Academy
The idea of maintaining linguistic standards, through an Arab equivalent of the French Academy, has been around since the 19th century. Report by ArabicNews.



Is Arabic difficult?

YES - and no. Learning Arabic certainly takes time and practice, but there are not many irregularities in the grammar. It's much less complicated than Latin, and probably simpler than German, too.

If you speak a European language, the root system of Arabic is an unfamiliar concept. Arabic words are constructed from three-letter "roots" which convey a basic idea. For example, k-t-b conveys the idea of writing. Addition of other letters before, between and after the root letters produces many associated words: not only "write" but also "book", "office", "library", and "author".

Learning vocabulary may cause problems at first. In most European languages there are many words which resemble those in English. Arabic has very few, but it becomes easier once you have memorised a few roots.

Arabic has many regional dialects, and if you want to master one of these the only really effective way is to spend a few years in the place of your choice. For general purposes – such as reading or listening to radio - it's best to concentrate on Modern Standard Arabic (numerous courses and textbooks are available). This would also be useful if you're interested in Islam, though you would need some additional religious vocabulary.

There are 28 consonants and three vowels – a,  i, u – which can be short or long. Some of the sounds are unique to Arabic and difficult for foreigners to pronounce exactly, though you should be able to make yourself understood.

The normal word order of a sentence is verb/subject/object. The function of nouns in a sentence can also be distinguished by case-endings (marks above the last letter of a word) but these are usually found only in the Qur'an or school textbooks.

Feminine nouns add the suffix …aat to form the plural but masculine nouns generally have a "broken" plural which involves changing vowels in the middle of the word: kitaab ("book"); kutub ("books").

Arabic has very few irregular verbs and does not use "is" or "are" at all in the present tense: "the king good" means "the king is good". Subtle alterations in the basic meaning of a verb are made by adding to the root. These changes follow regular rules, giving ten possible "verb forms" (though in practice only three or four exist for most verbs. The root k-s-r produces:

  • form I kasara, "he broke"

  • form II kassara, "he smashed to bits"

  • form VII inkasara, "it was broken up"

Sometimes these must be used with care: qAtala means "he fought" but qatala means "he killed".


Arabic words in English

You may think you don't speak Arabic but there are more words of Arabic origin in English than you might expect ...

admiral
adobe
alchemy
alcohol
alcove
alembic
alfalfa
algebra
algorithm
alkali
almanac
amalgam
aniline
apricot
arsenal
arsenic
artichoke
assassin
aubergine
azure
barbarian?
bedouin
benzine(?)
Betelgeuse
bint
borax
cable
calabash
calibre
caliph
camel
camise
camphor
candy
cane
cannabis
carafe
carat
caraway
carmine

carob
casbah
check
checkmate
cinnabar
cipher
coffee
copt
cotton
crimson
crocus
cumin
damask
dhow
dragoman
elixir
emir
fakir
fellah
garble
gauze
gazelle
ghoul
Gibraltar
giraffe
grab
guitar
gypsum
halva
harem
hashish
hazard
henna
hookah
imam
influenza
jar
jasmine
jerboa
jessamine

jinn
kafir
khamsin
khan
kismet
kohl
lacquer
lake
lemon
lilac
lime
lute
magazine
mahdi
marabout
marzipan
massacre
massage
mastaba
mate
mattress
mecca
minaret
mizzen
mocha
mohair
monsoon
mosque
muezzin
mufti
mullah
mummy
muslim
muslin
myrrh
nabob
nacre
nadir
orange
ottoman

popinjay
racket
safari
saffron
saloop
sash
scallion
senna
sequin
serif
sesame
shackle
sheikh
sherbet
shrub
sirocco
sofa
spinach
sudd
sufi
sugar
sultan
sultana
syrup
tabby
talc
talisman
tamarind
tambourine
tarboosh
tare
tariff
tarragon
Trafalgar
typhoon
vega
vizier
wadi
zenith
zero

See: W Montgomery Watt: The Influence of Medieval Islam on Europe (Edinburgh University Press, 1982)

Arabic speakers: click here to add more words to the list
or view other readers' suggestions


Arabic proverbs

Lebanese proverbs

Egyptian proverbs

Yemeni proverbs

More proverbs are welcome. Click here to add to the lists. 

Arabic Proverbs
Joseph Hanki. Paperback, 1998 (from Amazon, USA)

     

In the Arabic language section

Introduction 

Is Arabic difficult? 

How to learn Arabic

Where to learn Arabic 

Arabic words in English 

Arabic words and the Roman alphabet 

Computer translation

Arabic proverbs 

Related pages: 

Arabic literature

 

 

 
 
 
 


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Last revised on 18 June, 2009