Language Profile: Arabic

I. History & Distribution: Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. As a result, it is deeply embedded in various cultural contexts and manifests itself in a myriad of dialects. However, because the written form is fairly uniform, Arab speakers from around the world are able to communicate. It is spoken as the primary language in over 20 countries by around 186 million people. Arabic’s roots lie in Ancient Saudi Arabia with Proto-Arabic from the 8th century BCE, and MSA’s literary tradition extends back to the 7th century. The amazing proliferation of Arabic and its impact on various Indo-European languages can be felt in every day speech, as a significant portion of the lexicons of English, Spanish, Turkish, Farsi, Urdu, Portuguese, and more contain Arabic words.

II. Orthography: The Arabic alphabet originated with the holy books in Islam, most notably the Qur’an. Amazingly, the Arabic alphabet is used in over 20 languages from West Africa to China. It is written from right to left using 28 basic consonants. Vowels are written using a register of diacritics.

III. Phonology: MSA’s 28 consonant sounds are phonemically contrastive through pharyngealization and velarization. In layman’s terms, that means that sounds which are seemingly the same result is differing meaning depending on whether the place of articulation is pharyngeal (the back of the mouth) or velar (the roof of the mouth). A parallel to English is the difference in meaning between ‘fine’ and ‘vine’. In languages where voicing is not contrastive, these would be the same word! In English, something as simple as vibrating vocal chords can give rise to so-called contrastive pairs, like ‘sing’ and ‘zing’. By using this contrastive phoneme system, Arabic makes 14 sounds into 28, which helps out when you only have three short vowels, three long, and two diphthongs.

IV. Morphology: Arabic uses a root-and-pattern morphology, where the consonant sounds compromise the root, and the vowel sounds compromise the pattern. So ‘salaam’ means ‘peace’ and ‘salama’ means health or safety. And you need health and safety to be at peace. Essentially, certain root combinations (in this case s-l-m) carry a semantic load, and the vowel pattern creates the specific meaning. Neat, huh?

V. Syntax: Arabic has a notoriously complex syntax, though with this complexity comes great generative power. That is, with more ways to say something, more shades of meaning arise. This is one of the reasons that Arabic, like English, has such a rich and respected literary tradition. It’s not worth getting too in depth here, but I can tell you that MSA is a VSO (verb-subject-object) language, but it often follows a SVO pattern in conversational or informal speech.

If you know an 11 to 14-year-old in the Seattle area who would like to learn Arabic for FREE from 9 to 3 PM, July 13th to the 24th, please call A.C.E. at (206) 217-9644 or e-mail programs@cultural.org.

To learn more about Arabic, refer to the sources below.

http://www.oclc.org/languagesets/educational/languages/arabic.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_phonology
http://www.ricps.umd.edu/persianlanguage3.php
http://www.indiana.edu/~arabic/arabic_history.htm

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