I’ve decided that it would be fun to do some posts detailing interesting facts about different languages around the world. Since I’m currently at the Complete Novice stage of learning Arabic, I figure a good way to continue motivating myself is to write about why it’s such a fascinating and important language.
Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world with over 420 million speakers, and millions of Muslims around the world who do not use it for everyday communication use it and know it as a liturgical language. It is an official language in 19 countries. As the language of a global religion and numerous empires, its influence — whether on writing systems, vocabulary, or grammar — is visible in many other languages, including (but certainly not limited to) Persian/Farsi, Urdu, Swahili, Ottoman Turkish, Spanish, and English. Have you ever wrapped yourself up in gauze while doing some algebra and drinking alcohol on a safari? Then you were speaking Arabic (and Swahili that was directly influenced by Arabic)!
There are a lot of cool things about Arabic, but the most interesting thing I have learned so far is about Arabic’s phonology. Do you wonder why no one seems to know how to spell the name of the deceased Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi/Gadhafi/Qaddafi/Qadhafi? That’s because Arabic has a lot of sounds that simply don’t exist in English, and it has many distinct sounds that can be indistinguishable to an unfamiliar ear. For instance, the letters ه and ح are written in English as /ha/ and /ḥa/, respectively. The second is a more…emphatic h sound — I like to use the English word “hey” to illustrate the difference for my own purposes: the first is pronounced the way you’d say “hey!” to greet someone. The h is soft and doesn’t take much effort to say. The second is pronounced like when you say “HEY!” angrily; the h has much more breath behind it. When I first started out and was using Memrise to learn the alphabet, it was incredibly frustrating to hear the audio of some guy saying “ha” over and over and continually picking the wrong h letter because I couldn’t tell if the “ha” was more or less breathy. These tiny distinctions can make Arabic transliteration very difficult, since you lose a lot of the intricacies of pronunciation by assigning multiple sounds to one Latin letter. And a lack of consensus on which Latin letter to use leads to things like the many ways to spell Muammar Gaddafi’s name.
In addition, transliteration runs into trouble because of Arabic’s many, many varieties and dialects. As I’ve mentioned in my post about Arabic vs. Chinese vs. Romance languages, Arabic is more like an umbrella for many mutually unintelligible languages and dialects. Some of the main varieties include Egyptian Arabic (which many non-Egyptian Arabic speakers understand due to the ubiquity of Egyptian-produced Arabic popular media), Levantine Arabic (spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel [I’m just putting both to avoid as much controversy as I can on this particular issue]), Moroccan Darija, Maghrebi Arabic (spoken in North Africa), Gulf Arabic (spoken in Oman, the UAE, Qatar, and parts of Saudi Arabia), and Iraqi Arabic, not to mention Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Classical Arabic, which is used in the Quran. Words are often pronounced very differently across varieties, so what might be a Q or K sound in one variety may be a hard G in another — hence why Muammar Gaddafi’s name can be spelled or pronounced in so many ways.
Another interesting thing about Arabic that I researched is how it grapples with its status as both a language for everyday communication and a liturgical language. Now, like Modern Hebrew and Liturgical Hebrew, there are definite differences between the kind of Arabic you’d use to talk to your friends or write a newspaper article, and the kind of Arabic (Classical Arabic) you’d use to recite prayers or the Quran. However, because of the many, many varieties of Arabic and the massive linguistic diversity of the worldwide Muslim community, or Ummah (about 1 billion strong, though that counts a lot of Arabic speakers), both Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic are sometimes seen as emblems of a Pan-Arab or Pan-Islamic identity. In addition, because Arabic is the language of prayer and scripture for billions of Muslims around the globe, there is reluctance in some circles to modernize it and accommodate for modern and technical terminology. According to the researchers Almansour and Payne (2014), the highly conservative Wahhabi Muslim leaders of Saudi Arabia fear that language reforms could threaten the integrity of a language considered sacred by millions of people.
An earlier study (Haq and Smadi 1996) indicates that the reluctance to modernize vernacular Arabic led to a sentiment among Saudi students that English was more modern and urbane than Arabic, but Arabic was a language of identity and a mark of ethnic, religious, and national pride. However, these two studies only examined the situation in Saudi Arabia; they are not representative of Arabic language planning policies and social perceptions of Arabic in the rest of the Arabic-speaking world. I’ll go down those myriad research rabbit holes once I finish my dissertation.
My technical knowledge of Arabic is still very limited (I’ve just mastered how to write simple words like “the book” and “the chicken”), but I already find it a fascinating language with plenty of challenges for an English speaker and a learner of languages with fairly simple grammar (oh, how I miss the days of never conjugating anything in Mandarin), and chock full of interesting history and culture to explore. I hope that as my studies progress, I’ll have lots more to say about this great language.
Alosh, M. (2005). Using Arabic: A Guide to Contemporary Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Almansour, M. and Payne, M. (2014). Foreign Language Planning in Saudi Arabia: Beyond English. Current Issues in Language Planning, 15(3), pp. 327-342.
Haq, F. A.-A. A. and Smadi, O. (1996). Spread of English and Westernization in Saudi Arabia. World Englishes, 15, pp. 307–317. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-971X.1996.tb00117.x
Ridout, Scott. (2014). Complete List of Arabic Speaking Countries 2014. IstiZada Arabic and Middle East Marketing Solutions. Accessed 13 March 2016. Available from: http://istizada.com/complete-list-of-arabic-speaking-countries-2014/.