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Arabic (Modern Standard) 

Arabic

Introduction

Ahlan wa sahlan - Welcome

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), also called Al-’Arabiyya, Al-Fusha, and Literary Arabic, is the modern standard language based on Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and early Islamic literature. MSA is quite uniform throughout the Arab world and serves as a lingua franca for speakers of various spoken dialects some of which are not mutually comprehensible. The exact number of people who speak MSA is extremely difficult to estimate for a number of reasons. First, it is learned not as a first language, but as a second language in school and through exposure to radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and religion. Second, the skill levels in MSA vary widely. Educated people tend to be highly proficient in speaking and writing in MSA, in addition to speaking their local Arabic varieties. Among the rest of the population, the level of proficiency in MSA varies considerably.

Status
Modern Standard Arabic is one of the official six languages of the United Nations. It is the official or co-official language of Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. It is used in formal speaking situations such as sermons, lectures, news broadcasts, and speeches, and in all formal writing such as official correspondence, literature and newspapers. The use of MSA varies somewhat across the Arab world. For instance, in Saudi Arabia all radio and TV broadcasts are in MSA while in the former French colonies of the Maghreb, there is a continued tendency to use French in formal occasions and in writing.

Dialects

MSA has several registers, or styles, each used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. The higher registers of MSA, used primarily in formal settings, are closer to Classical Arabic in structure and vocabulary. They also tend to be quite uniform across the Arabic-speaking world. ntries. Lower registers of MSA used in informal contexts differ somewhat from country to country since they represent a mixture of MSA and local spoken varieties.

Structure

Sound system

MSA has largely preserved the *Proto-Semitic sound system.

Vowels
MSA has three vowels. The vowels can be short or long. Vowel length makes a difference in word meaning. Vowel length is marked by a tilde over the vowel. There are two diphthongs /ay/ and /aw/.

 

Central
Close
i, ī
u, ū
Open
a, ā

 

Consonants
MSA has 28 consonants. Among their distinguishing characteristics are the following:

  • There is no /p/.
  • There is an opposition between voiceless, voiced, and emphatic stops and fricatives. Emphatic consonants are pronounced with a retracted dorsum or root of the tongue. They are typically realized as pharyngealized consonants. In the table below, they are marked with a dot under the consonant.
  • MSA, like all varieties of Arabic, is rich in uvularpharyngeal and glottal consonants which are produced in the back of the oral cavity.
  • All consonants may be geminated, or doubled.
  • Consonant clusters cannot exceed two consonants and cannot occur at the beginning of words.
  • Words cannot begin with a vowel. Initial vowels are always preceded by a glottal stop.
 
Interdental Palatal
voiceless x
t
ț
xx
k
q
ʔ
voiced
b
d
voiceless
f
θ
s
ʃ
χ
ħ
h
voiced
ð
z
ʁ
ʕ
Affricates x x
x x
m
x
n
x x
x
l
l
x
Trill x
r
xx x xx x
x
j
x
  • /ț, ḍ, ṣ, ẓ/ have no equivalents in English.
  • /ʔ/ = sound between the vowels in uh-oh.
  • /θ/ = th in thin
  • /ð / = th in those
  • /ʃ/ = sh in sheep
  • /dʒ/ = j in job
  • /q, χ, ʁ, ħ, ʕ/ have no equivalents in English.

 

Stress
There are three basic rules for the placement of word stress:

  • If a word consists of CV (Consonant + Vowel) syllables, the first syllable bears the primary stress, e.g., kátaba.
  • If a word has only one long syllable, the long syllable receives the primary stress, e.g., kātib.
  • If a word has more than one long syllable, the long syllable closest to the end of the word bears the primary stress.

 

Grammar

Nouns
MSA nouns have the following distinguishing features:

  • There are three cases: nominativegenitive and accusative. Only educated speakers of MSA master their use.
  • There are three numbers: singular, dual, and plural, e.g., dinaar (singular) - diinaareen (dual, i.e., ‘two dinars’) - danaaniir (plural). The dual number has all but disappeared in a number of colloquial varieties of Arabic. The plural is usually formed by adding a suffix to the end of a word. In some instances, the plural is expressed by changing the vowel structure of a word, e.g., kitāb ‘‘book,’ kutub ”books.’ This is called a broken plural. Broken plurals are found in other Semitic languages, but they are most frequent in Arabic.
  • Arabic has two genders: masculine and feminine.
  • Adjectives, pronouns, and verbs agree with nouns in case, gender and number. This feature is present in all dialects of Arabic.
  • Nouns are marked for definiteness/indefiniteness. Definiteness is marked by the article ‘al-, while indefiniteness is usually indicated by the suffix-n which follows the case marker. Ths category is present in all dialects of Arabic, e.g.,

 

Nominative + definite ‘al-kitābu ‘the book’
Nominative + indefinite kitābun ‘a book’

 

Verbs
The Arabic verb system is very different from that of Indo-European languages. Some of its most salient features are listed below.

  • Person, mood, and aspect are marked by prefixes and suffixes.
  • There is one basic stem plus nine derived stems, each with a range of meanings, such as reflexivity, and causativity. Each form has its own set of active and passive participles and verbal nouns.
  • MSA has a past, or perfect, suffixed conjugation and a non-past, or imperfect, prefixed conjugation. The perfect can refer to present, pluperfect, or future. The imperfect can refer to present, past, or future. It must be noted that the problem of tense vs. aspect in Arabic verbs is not fully resolved.

 

Word order 
The normal word order in MSA is Subject-Verb-Object.

Vocabulary

Most of MSA vocabulary, as in other Semitic languages, is formed by the application of vowels and affixes to three-consonant roots, e.g., the root K-T-B underlies kitāb ‘book’ and kātib ‘writer.’ MSA tends not to borrow words from other languages. New words are usually created from existing Arabic roots, while loanwords such as radyu ‘radio’ compete with native words such as midhyaa’ ‘broadcast’.

Below are a few basic Arabic words and sentences in romanization.

Hello Marhaba
Peace be with you As-salaamu alaykum (greeting)
Wa alaykum is-salaam (response)
Goodbye Maas-salaama
Thank you Shukran 
If Allah wishes (multipurpose response for all occasions) Inshalla
Thank God Nushkur alla
Please Tfaddal
Welcome Ahlan wa sahlan
Yes Naam
No Laa
Man Rijjaal, rajul
Woman Mara, niswaan

 

Below are the Arabic numerals 1-10 in romanization.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
waahid (masculine.), wihda (feminine)
thneen
tlaatha
arbaa
khamsa
sitta
saba
thmaanya
tisa
ashra

 

Writing

The Arabic script is based on the Nabataean alphabet used to write the Nabataean dialect of Aramaic. Nabateans added 6 symbols to the Aramaic alphabet to represent sounds that did not occur in Aramaic. The Nabataean alphabet contained only symbols for consonants. The Arabs added dots above and below the consonant to represent vowels. The earliest Arabic inscription dates to 512 AD. Since then, the script has undergone several modifications. Its present form (Naskh) first appeared in the 11th century AD, and has been used ever since, especially for print.

Several other unrelated languages use the Arabic script including PersianPashto, and Urdu that use an adapted version of the Arabic script, called Perso-ArabicTurkishSwahiliHausa, and Uzbek are among languages that used the Arabic script, before they switched to the Latin or Cyrillic alphabets.

The Arabic script is characterized by the following features:

  • Words are written in horizontal lines from right to left.
  • Each letter in the Arabic alphabet can have four different forms depending on its position in a word. There are independent, initial, medial and final forms.
  • The shape of some letters allows them to be joined, while the shape of others does not. Letters that can be joined are always joined in both hand-written and printed Arabic.
  • The letters are simplified in handwritten form.
  • All but six letters can be attached to the preceding ones.
  • There are no capital letters.

 

The Arabic alphabet is a fairly accurate representation of the Arabic sound system. It is a writing system called abjad in which each symbol stands for a consonant. It contains 28 symbols with additional letters for loanwords that contain sounds that do not occur in Arabic, e.g., /p/ and /g/.

The consonant symbols are given below.

Arabic consonants

MSA long vowels are represented by the first three letters below. Short vowels or absence of a vowel are represented by diacritics as shown by the following four letters. Diacritics are used only in the Qur’an, religious texts, classical poetry, children’s books, and textbooks for learners of Arabic.

Arabic vowels

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Arabic.

1 المادة
يولد جميع الناس أحرارًا متساوين في الكرامة والحقوق. وقد وهبوا عقلاً وضميرًا وعليهم أن يعامل بعضهم بعضًا بروح الإخاء.

Yūladu jamī’u n-nāsi aḥrāran mutasāwīna fī l-karāmati wa-l-ḥuqūq. Wa-qad wuhibū ‘aqlan wa-ḍamīran wa-’alayhim an yu’āmila ba’ḍuhum ba’ḍan bi-rūḥi l-ikhā’.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and cconscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

 

 

Did You Know?

Arabic words in English
There are many words of Arabic origin in English, spread over a variety of fields. A recent study found 400 Arabic loanwords in English dictionaries.Most of them have entered English through other languages, notably French and Spanish. Below is a small sampling of Arabic loanwords. One can easily find English words starting with al- (the definite article in Arabic) in everyday English, e.g., algebra, alcohol, alcove.

English word

from Arabic

adobe

al-tob ‘the brick’

albacore

al bakara ‘the young camels’

alcove

al-qobbah ‘the vaulted chamber’

alfalfa

al-fisfisa ‘the fresh fodder’

algebra

al jebr ‘reunion of broken parts’ (as in computation)

arsenal

dar as-sina’ah ‘house of manufacture, workshop’

artichoke

al-kharshof ‘the artichoke’

ayatollah

ayatu-llah ‘miraculous sign of God’

carob

kharrub ‘locust bean pod’

coffee

qahwah ‘coffee’

cipher

sifr ‘zero, empty, nothing

cotton

qutn ‘cotton

emir

amir ‘commander’

fedayeen

plural of fedai, ‘devotee, zealot, one who risks life for a cause’

ghoul

ghul ‘evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses’

harem

haram ‘women’s quarters’

hashish

hashish ‘powdered hemp,’ literally ‘dry herb’

imam

imam ‘leader, one who precedes’

Islam

islam ‘submission’ (to the will of God)

jihad

jahada ‘he waged war’

kismet

qismah, qismat ‘portion, lot, fate’

Koran (Qur’an)

qur’a ‘a reading, recitation, book’

lime

limah ‘citrus fruit’

mask

maskhara ‘buffoon’

mosque

masjid ‘temple, place of worship’

mullah

mawla ‘master’

mummy

mumiyah ‘embalmed body’

Muslim

muslim ‘one who submits’ (to the faith)

safari

safar ‘journey’

Sahara

çahra ‘desert’

sheikh

shaykh ‘chief,’ literally, ‘old man’

Shiite

shi’ah ‘ followers,’ members of the Shia sect of Islam who recognize Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, as the lawful successor of the Prophet

sofa

suffah ‘bench’

sugar

sukkar

Sunni

sunna ‘traditional teachings of Muhammad, i.e., those who accept the orthodox tradition as well as the Qu’ran’

tariff

taarif ‘inventory of fees to be paid’

Arabic numerals?
The so-called “Arabic numerals” were not invented by the Arabs, as is popularly believed. They were actually developed in India circa 400 BC. The numerals eventually found their way into Persia where they were picked up by Arab traders who referred to them as ‘Indian numerals’. The Arabic numeral system uses several different sets of symbols that can be divided into two main groups. West Arabic (European) numerals were developed in the Maghreb. East Arabic (Arabic-Indic) numerals were developed in what is now Iraq. The third set of symbols is used in Indo-Aryan languages. All three sets are shown below (Wikipedia).

ArabicNumerals

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Arabic?
Arabic is considered to be a Category III language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.

4 Responses to Arabic (Modern Standard)

  1. David

    Your own site lists Arabic as a category IV language, but in the last paragraph of this page (http://aboutworldlanguages.com/Arabic-Modern-Standard) you say it is category III.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      It is a mistake. Arabic is considered to be a category IV language.

       
  2. Aleksandr

    A couple of points:
    - The transliteration of two and three should be ithnaneen and thalaatha.

    - Also the preffered word order of MSA is generally Verb – Subject – Object, rather than Subject – Verb – Object (although the later is still correct).

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Thank you for the corrections. We will make the changes.

       

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