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The Arab Language History

Arabic belongs to the Semitic family of languages, which also includes Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, and several languages of Ethiopia, such as the Amharic and the Tigrinya. Arabic and Hebrew are the only Semitic languages that are still used today both in their writing and speaking forms.

Arabic is widely spoken on two continents, from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. It is the official language of twenty countries with more than 220 million inhabitants, placing it among the top ten languages of the world in number of speakers. The numerical, political, cultural, and religious status of the language was formally recognized by the United Nations in 1973 when Arabic was made the sixth official language of that body (the others are Chinese, English, Russian, French, and Spanish).

Most people know that Arabic is the written and spoken language of the 220 million people of the Arab world, but few realize that the Arabic script is used by approximately one-seventh of the world's population. Its alphabet, with some modification, is used to write non-Semitic languages as well, such as Persian, Urdu and Kurdish (i.e. The Arabic Zaa' with the addition of two dots, becomes the sound 'Zhe' as in Zhivago; the Arabic Faa' with the addition of two dots, makes the 'V' sound and so on—sounds that do not exist in Arabic, but do in Kurdish, Persian and Urdu). The Turkish language employed Arabic script until the 1920's. Several African and Asian languages, such as Swahili and the Malaysian tongue, have also used the Arabic script at some point. The Arabic script is still used today in Afghanistan, sections of China, and Muslim areas of the Soviet Union.

While it is universally written, read, and understood in its standard (or formal) form, spoken Arabic has undergone regional and dialectical variations. Colloquial Arabic is diverse from region to region. For instance, the diversity within the family of dialects spoken in the Levantine (Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon) resembles the diversity between British and American English. The same can be said of the family of dialects spoken in Iraq and the Gulf (Arabic) countries.

The Arabic language was developed in what is today Yemen and Saudi Arabia far before the birth of Christ (there is no evidence available as to how far back the development of any of the Semitic languages began). Pre-Islamic Arab poets had developed a language of incredible richness and flexibility despite the fact that many were desert Bedouins with little or no formal education.

The Arabic language was, and still is, easily capable of creating new words and terminology in order to adapt to the demands of new scientific and technological discoveries.

The most important thing to know about the Arabic language is that, like other Semitic languages, it is based on what is usually called a " consonantal root system," which means that almost every word in the language is ultimately derived from one or another "root," usually a verb. This root almost always consists of three letters. By making changes to the root letters - adding a letter to the beginning of the root, changing vowels between the consonants, or inserting extra consonants - new words with new meanings are produced. For example, the three consonants d, r, s, combined in that order denote the idea of education. The simplest word based on those letters is 'darasa', which means "studied". Other possible words derived from this root are:

darrasa taught
diraasa studying
madrasa school
mudarris teacher (m)
mudarrisa teacher (f)

The term Arabic is used to describe three different forms of the same language: classical Arabic, which is the language of the Qur'aan, the holy book of Islam; colloquial or spoken Arabic, as used in the daily lives of Arabs; and literary Arabic, sometimes also called modern standard Arabic (incorrectly labeled as 'classical'),which is used in literature, books, newspapers, and on TV/radio.

In written Arabic, unlike in English, French and other European languages, there has been no change at all in the alphabet, in spelling, or in the majority of the vocabulary, in, at least, four millenniums.

Source: Wafaa' Salman, founder and president of the Institute of Near Eastern & African Studies (INEAS),

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