Monday, October 1, 2012

Language Profile: Arabic

This week we're looking at Arabic, which is the native language of somewhere between 200 and 300 million people worldwide. Arabic is not just one language, but instead a group of languages descended from Classical Arabic, which was used between the 7th and 9th centuries. Some spoken varieties of Arabic are even considered to be mutually unintelligible.

Each color represents a different dialect of Arabic.

However, there is only one official form of Arabic, which is called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). It is the written variety of Arabic, but is also used in formal situations, including news broadcasts and lectures. MSA is the official language of 24 countries, as well as several organizations including the UN, the Arab League and the African Union.

Classical Arabic is considered by most Muslims to be sacred since it was the variety of Arabic used to write the Qur'an, the most important Islamic religious text. It is forbidden in Islam to represent God with images, so instead God is often depicted through Arabic calligraphy. While in Christian churches the walls are lined with pictures of saints, mosques are often covered with geometric designs and calligraphy quoting excerpts of the Qur'an.
Here's a wall inside a mosque decorated with Arabic calligraphy.
Latin script definitely isn't beautiful enough to pull this off.

Arabic uses an abjad writing system, meaning that each symbol usually stands for a consonant, and the correct vowels must be supplied by the reader. It's written from right to left in a cursive style. Every letter has four forms: isolated, initial, medial, and final. It's a bit of a nightmare for students who are used to the Latin alphabet... you have to change the direction you read, intuitively know which vowels to use, and memorize four ways to write each letter! No wonder so few English speakers choose to study Arabic.

People should study Arabic, though! It's a fascinating language that has contributed significantly to other languages around the world. Pretty much any word in English that starts with "al-" comes from Arabic, since al is the definite article we translate as "the". What would we do without words such as algebra, algorithm, alchemy, or most importantly, alcohol?