Arabic is a living language, spoken and written by more than 400 million people, in countries stretching from the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula, to North Africa, and across Asia. What’s more, Arabic is considered a sacred language for more than a billion Muslims, and a language which has contributed massively to our society.
Arabic is currently an official language in 22 countries, and has spread both orally and through literature thanks to its long history.
Previously used by the pre-Islamic Arabic tribes for their poetry, the development of the Muslim religion saw the Arabic language transformed from one of Arab culture, into the sacred language of Islam as well.
But what does Arabic mean?
It is difficult to identify the origin of the word Arab, but researchers have suggested several hypothesis:
- In Greek mythology, ‘Arab’ comes from the God Arabos, son of the god Hermes, and born in the country of Arabia
- Arabic etymology maintains that ‘Arab’ comes from the verb for ‘to explain.’ But the word could equally mean ‘the place where the sun sets.’
In either case, there are a few areas where all the scholars agree:
- Arabic is one of the major languages in the world, and can trace its heritage through some of history's great civilisations.
- This has allowed Arabic to transfer large volumes of scientific, religious, and literary knowledge throughout history.
- In order to learn Arabic yourself, you must learn the Arabic alphabet, Arabic grammar, and vocabulary. To master all of that, it’s probably best to sign up for some Arabic courses.
In this article we’ll be talking about literary Arabic, a language with a rich history stretching across centuries.
The History and Evolution of the Arabic Language
Arabic belongs to the Afro-Asian language family, which includes more than 300 languages which all have their own writing, vocabulary, and dialects.
The first written trace of the Arabic language is an inscription from the 4th century AD which was found in the Syrian desert.
Arabic is a poetic language, and includes many different dialects. Its literary style reflects the cultural heritage of the different tribes.
Today however, the Arabic language (especially Classical Arabic) is especially associated with the Muslim religion.
The Quran tells us that from 610-632 AD the Prophet Mohammed received messages from God via the archangel Gabriel, in what is now Saudi Arabia.
The Quran, which is written in Arabic, was initially passed down orally, memorized by professional ‘callers,’ which are known as hufaz and qura in Arabic.
Little by little, Islam’s sacred text has come to be a common ground that brings Muslims together, whether they’re Arabic or not. Most Muslims hold a certain amount of awe for the Quran, (written in Arabic) for its stories and the beauty of its language.
It’s this close knit relationship between the Quran and the Arabic language which has now made Arabic such an important language for believers around the world.
How the Arabic Language Spread
Arabic is a rich language, with a complex history, vocabulary, and lexicon. Taking Arabic lessons will broaden your horizons to a new way of thinking about the world, even if it is only an Arabic for beginners class, such is the diverse and influential history that the language has.
It's grammar is complex but precise, and the Arabic alphabet is challenging but truly artistic to write the script. Arabic students quickly find that it is a challenging language and they will have to study hard if they want to speak Arabic fluently one day.
Arabs often boast of the following plethora of synonyms:
- 80 Arabic words for honey
- 200 expressions for snakes
- 500 words in Arabic for lion
Altogether, Arabic has over 60,000 words in its vocabulary!
The nouns, ideas, and concepts described by the Arabic language also give its speakers a bevy of words to choose from, and a corresponding ability to say exactly what they mean.
The rich literary framework of the Arabic language is best showcased by Arabic poetry, well known for a certain level of finesse and rich word choice.
Pre-Islamic poetry cast a long shadow on the literary history of the Arabic language, and heavily influenced the style of Arabic literature up until the beginning of the 19th century,
This heritage is still visible today in the genres, norms and models of the Arabic language, whether ethical, poetical, linguistic, or rhetorical.
Even if Arabic literature played a founding role in the development and style of the Arabic language, religion was the most important factor in its wide spread.
In most Muslim countries today, Arabic is a liturgical language. Arabic classes are found in schools and at mosques in countries where Islam is the predominant religion.
The Muslim religion has spread far and wide, finding adherents in almost every corner of the planet. It also infiltrated several Empires and countries which had previously been Christian. And so, the Arabic language spread at the same time as Islam.
You can also find out how to master Arabic numbers…
Learn Arabic to Learn About the Spread of the Arab Language
At the beginning of the 8th century, the Islamic empire reached from Persia all the way to Spain, introducing the Arabic language and people to a wide range of other cultures.
In Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine where the majority of the population spoke an Aramaic dialect, and the languages of many of the neighboring Arabic tribes were slowly replaced by the language of Ishmael.
In Egypt, the growth in the Arabic language was a slow process, as Coptic and Greek were already dominant in the country. In Spain and Persia, Arabic never quite managed to rival the native languages.
As Arabic reached each new country, the language was also enriched. In each place, words from the local language were introduced into Arabic, giving it new words and vocabulary for areas like government, administration, and science.
In addition to all its inherent diversity and strength, all these external influences helped develop Arabic into an appropriate language with which to govern an empire.
Numerous researchers - Arabs and non Arabs, Muslims or not - all collaborated in a rich intellectual culture that used Arabic as a lingua franca.
However a period of decline began in the 11th century AD as the Crusades, political rumblings in Spain, Turkish and Mongol invasions in the east, and internal divisions began to weaken the Arabic empire.
All these tensions led to a period of stagnation for the Arabic language too, even if its importance to the Muslim religion was never in question.
The 19th century saw a bit of an intellectual renaissance, first beginning in Egypt and Syria before spreading throughout the rest of the Arab world, and beginning with the Napoleonic expeditions to Egypt in 1798.
The expedition introduced the first Arabic printers to Egypt, and the translation of many pieces of Western literature into Arabic.
Throughout the course of history, the spread of Arabic across the world has also helped to spread and protect knowledge.
Arabic Influences Around the World
The Arabic language is spoken by more than 400 million people worldwide.
Arabic first became an official language in the 8th century AD, during the Omayad Caliphate of Abd Malik Ibn Warwan. Previously, Greek had been used as the administrative language. Abd Malik made the decision that all official texts and documents should be translated into Arabic.
Therefore, during this period, Arabic was not just a religious language but an administrative one as well.
Islam had spread rapidly through Persia, as well as much of orthodox Christianity, where Christians and Jews were given the status of dhimmi (protegés).
The new rulers demanded that their subjects contribute intellectually to the budding civilisation they were creating, building on their own intellectual heritages. Syria was the principal center of Greek philosophy.
Greek works were translated into Syriac, a newly developed form of Aramaic, and this practice of translating ancient texts was further encouraged by the expanding Muslim empire.
Arabic was both a religious language and a language of culture and learning for more than 5 centuries, a role that brought it into contact with many different languages and cultures.
Many African and Asian languages, including Turkish, Urdu, Hausa, and Farsi also use many imported Arabic words, especially ones used for culture or related to the Muslim religion.
Different encounters between Europeans and Arabs led to the incorporation of Arabic words related to food, clothing, and other aspects of everyday life into the different European languages.
For Europe, the work of Arabic scholars was also crucial, and helped them rediscover classic Greek and Latin texts as well as scientific principles after the Dark ages. Even Shakespeare’s language, which had relatively few direct links with Arab countries, managed to borrow several words from Arabic, although generally via Portuguese, Italian, or Spanish.
Many linguistic scholars have catalogued the more than 2000 English words with an Arabic origin - some were borrowed directly from Arabic, and others were passed on indirectly via other languages.
Why Learn Arabic: The Language in Practice
The Arabic language has left its mark in many areas, including poetry and the sciences.
Arabic Language and the Sciences
In scientific history, you’ll often hear about Arabic school of science, the scholars who were concentrated in the Islamic empire during the 8th to 15th centuries.
The descriptor ‘Arabic’, because during this period Arabic was the language of choice for scientists, and was used to spread scientific discoveries throughout the Arabic empire and beyond.
Do you know who first discovered coffee? According to a recent Huffington Post article we can thank a Muslim scholar for first discovering the power of coffee!
Arabic Culture and Maths
A series of translation projects helped Arab scholars discover the works of Greek mathematicians like Euclide, Diophante, Menelaüs and Archimedes.
Before further expanding on mathematic theory, Arabic scholars eagerly consumed and discussed the works of Greek, Indian, and Mesopotamian mathematicians.
These works also helped to support the studies of Arabic scholars in other areas like astronomy, construction, and geometry.
The Persian mathematician al-Khwarismi produced two major texts which fundamentally contributed to our understanding of math. One was a description of the Indian decimal system, and the other was a system of algebra, including first and second degree equations.
Arabic Contributions to Medicine
Much of the Arabic understanding of medicine in the Middle Ages can be attributed to the work of Avicenna, who wrote the medical encyclopedia Qanûn.
Ibn Nafis, was the first to describe circulation of the blood, and the Persian scholar al-Razi, developed the use of alcohol in health care. The two of them can be credited with some of the largest Arab contributions to medicine.
Anaesthesia was historically conducted by digesting opium, mandrake, or other drugs which put the consumer to sleep. The technique was perfected by the Arabs, with the use of a sponge soaked in a cocktail of different drugs.
This spongia somnifera, as it was known, permitted a surgeon to put a patient to sleep by giving them the sponge before surgery.
The sponge would send patients into a state similar to general anesthesia, but which was closer to a painkiller accompanied by a loss of conscience.
The Benefits of Learning Arabic
As you can see, the benefits of learning Arabic are vast and numerous. Arabic learning is not an easy process. It is one that is made difficult by the differences between Egyptian Arabic and Iraqi Arabic, Palestinian Arabic and that of Tunisia.
But as we have seen in this article, regardless of these different Arabic dialects, taking an Arabic course can allow you to tap into a language that has had a massive hand in shaping the modern world that we live in today.
And the Arabic speaking countries continue to shape our world. The shear number of Arabic speakers from the United Arab Emirates to Algeria, via Yemen and all of the countries in between, means that speaking Arabic, even if it is just a sentence, or a few phrases or verbs, can allow you to communicate with nearly 300 million speakers.
Any native speaker will be delighted that you are trying to speak to them in their native language. Whether it is in a business meeting in Beirut or Qatar, or on a Moroccan beach, studying Arabic will widely endear you to the locals and allow you to be understood a lot better.