Arabic is usually ranked among the top six of the world’s major languages. As the language of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, it is also widely used throughout the Muslim world. It belongs to the Semitic group of languages which also includes Hebrew and Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia.
There are many Arabic dialects.
Classical Arabic – the language of the Qur’an – was originally the dialect of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia.
An adapted form of this, known as Modern Standard Arabic, is used in books, newspapers, on television and radio, in the mosques, and in conversation between educated Arabs from different countries (for example at international conferences).
Local dialects vary considerably, and a Moroccan might have difficulty understanding an Iraqi, even though they speak the same language.
Arabic is not the only language spoken in Arab countries. The two main minority languages. Several varieties of Amazigh are used by the Berbers of North Africa, while Kurdish is spoken in parts of Iraq and Syria.
Arabic’s exact position in the league table of world languages varies according to the methodology used.
In some ways Arabic is a difficult language for English speakers to learn. For a start, there’s a different alphabet. On the plus side, though, the grammar has few irregularities and is relatively straightforward – far less complicated than Latin and probably simpler than German, too.
If you speak a European language, the root system of Arabic is an unfamiliar concept. Arabic words are constructed from three-letter “roots” which convey a basic idea. For example, k-t-b conveys the idea of writing. Addition of other letters before, between and after the root letters produces many associated words: not only “write” but also “book”, “office”, “library”, and “author”.
Learning the vocabulary may cause problems at first. In most European languages there are plenty of words which resemble those in English. Arabic has very few of these but it becomes easier to memorise vocabulary once you understand the concept behind a particular root. Knowing a root unlocks the door to knowing the various words derived from it.
Arabic has many regional dialects, and if you want to master one of these, the only really effective way is to spend a few years in the place of your choice. For general purposes – such as reading or listening to radio – it is best to concentrate on Modern Standard Arabic (numerous courses and textbooks are available). This would also be useful if you’re interested in Islam, though you would need some additional religious vocabulary.
There are 28 consonants and three vowels – a, i, u – which can be short or long. Some of the sounds are unique to Arabic and difficult for foreigners to pronounce exactly, though you should be able to make yourself understood.
Words are normally written without any short vowels. This can occasionally cause ambiguities of meaning but in practice it’s not much of a problem.
The normal word order of a sentence is verb/subject/object. The function of nouns in a sentence can also be distinguished by case-endings (marks above the last letter of a word) but these are usually found only in the Qur’an or school textbooks.
Feminine nouns add the suffix …aat to form the plural but masculine nouns generally have a “broken” plural which involves changing vowels in the middle of the word: kitaab (“book”); kutub (“books”).
Arabic has very few irregular verbs and does not use “is” or “are” at all in the present tense: “the king good” means “the king is good”. Subtle alterations in the basic meaning of a verb are made by adding to the root. These changes follow regular rules, giving ten possible “verb forms” (though in practice only three or four exist for most verbs. The root k-s-r produces:form I kasara, “he broke”, form II kassara, “he smashed to bits”, form VII inkasara, “it was broken up”.
Sometimes these must be used with care: qaatala (with a long “a”) means “he fought” but qatala (with a short “a”) means “he killed”.