Literary Arabic, spoken Arabic dialects, Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic…just how many different versions of Arabic are there? Isn’t there just one version of the Arabic language?
Unfortunately, not quite.
Arabic is a language that has deep links with Islam, and one that can trace its history back into antiquity. Similar to the Latin alphabet, the Arabic language has evolved a lot over time.
If you’ve signed up for private lessons to learn Arabic, you’re almost certainly studying literary Arabic.
Literary Arabic is essentially one version of all of the different Arabic dialects, which can be used for people from various Arab countries to communicate with one another. This is in contrast to the spoken dialects, which are generally unique to each country.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the things you should know if you want to really learn how to read, write, and speak Classical Arabic.
Understanding and Learning Literary Arabic
Before you dive headfirst into learning Arabic, here’s some basic information and guidelines.
What is Literary Arabic?
Since we’re talking about how to learn Classical Arabic, let’s start by defining a classical language as a language that holds a prestigious place in a specific culture, as the media for classic pieces of literature, which themselves are either ancient, foundational, widely imitated, and regularly studied.
A classical language generally stands in contrast to a vernacular language which is used for day to day life.
By this measure, Classical Arabic - and Persian - is a wide reaching language, used by more than 270 million individuals across the Arab and Muslim world.
You’ve almost certainly already seen the terms literary Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic. They’re the same thing, and describe a version of Arabic that is used by the elites, intellectuals, media, and government administration, as well as a lingua franca.
It’s the language that’s understood by many people in countries where Arabic is an official language.
Arabic is the 5th most spoken language on the planet, and literary Arabic generally refers to both Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic. Linguists would call it an umbrella language to all the spoken dialects.
Literary Arabic is not the same as vernacular Arabic. Vernacular Arabic refers to all the dialects that are spoken throughout the region, like Egyptian Arabic, Moroccan, Bedouin, Algerian, Tunisian, Syrian, Iraqi, etc.
According to INALCO “learning literary Arabic allows the learner to access firsthand documents which are older than a millennium and a half.”
So literary Arabic includes both written Arabic with all of its ancient and modern texts, as well as sacred texts, like the Quran.
Obviously, Arabic is a popular language to learn for English speakers. Many English words can trace their roots back to Arabic, and with over 1.2 million Arabic speakers in the USA, there are many different places you can go to learn literary Arabic:
- learn at home with a private tutor - find an Arabic teacher on Superprof
- sign up for an Arabic course online, like Madinah Arabic or arabic.speak7.com
- Learn the language of Allah and the Quran at your local mosque
The Origins of the Arabic Alphabet
In order to understand Arabic’s wide presence around the world today, it is important to understand the language’s history.
Arabic has 420 million speakers worldwide when you include all the active users of Arabic as a second language. And Arabic is also a sacred language for the 1.3 billion Muslims.
Therefore, Arabic has a considerable global presence, and the benefits of learning Arabic are obvious in the ever globalizing and modernizing world in which we live where communicating with people from around the world has become of paramount importance.
All the Arabic countries of the Middle East use Arabic as their official language.
The Phoenician and Aramaic Origins of the Arabic Alphabet
The Arabic alphabet and its script have had a multi-secular evolution.
It seems that the Arabic alphabet is based on Aramaic, which is itself based on Phoenician. The Phoenician alphabet, which originated with the people of ancient Lebanon, went on to give birth to the Hebrew, Greek, Cyrillic, and Latin alphabets.
Did you know that Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic all originated in Lebanon and ancient Syria?
Historians all agree that the Arabic alphabet is based on Aramaic, but they disagree on whether it also has links to Nabatean or Syriac. There’s an ongoing debate on the origins of the Arabic script.
The Slow Progression of the Arabic Language
The hypothesis is that in the 5th or 6th century BC, the Northern Semitic tribe known as the Nabateans (living at that time in modern day Jordan, near Petra), used their version of the Arabic alphabet, a form of Aramaic with new Arab variations.
Little by little the Aramaic letters began to link together as they were written down on papyrus. By the 4th century, Arabic had replaced Aramaic. Then, in the 6th century (in 512) the Arabic alphabet was well established and began to spread.
The Arabic alphabet had slowly grown from 22 to 28 letters. Dots were also added above and below the letters.
Today, learning the Arabic alphabet often seems like it requires an incredibly talented multi-tasker who can handle the Arabic calligraphy to write out the vowels, manage the sounds of all of the consonants, and work on their pronunciation.
One major difficulty people often encounter when trying to learn Arabic is that there are four versions of each letter, depending on whether it falls:
- on its own
- at the beginning
- in the middle
- or at the end
Pronunciation and Arabic Script
Now that you’ve managed to learn all of the Arabic letters you need to learn how to play with them.
Let’s start with speaking and reproducing different sounds.
What are the phonics of the Arabic language?
How do you improve your Arabic pronunciation?
Just like a music lesson, learning a new language is expensive, in terms of your time and energy. In order to learn Arabic, you’ll need to really deepen your concept of different consonants, which are complicated.
There are many consonants in Arabic which will require you to learn new verbal gymnastics. A letter that is pronounced in the wrong way can completely change the meaning of a sentence.
It is important to make sure that you are pronouncing the guttural consonants of the Arabic language properly.
You’ll need to learn how to move your tongue back and forth to create some of the Arabic sounds.
Working on Your Arabic Pronunciation
In order to get to a good level of spoken Arabic, it’s a good idea to work with a private teacher on the sounds of the different syllables during your beginners Arabic classes.
Once you understand all the different shapes of the Arabic letters, you can begin to read and write the language.
Repeating each letter out loud with your Arabic teacher - for whom, hopefully, Arabic will be a native language - will help you memorize the different sounds.
Ask your teacher to give you some small writing samples to read out loud and try to recognize the Arabic letters.
In order to pronounce Arabic well, one of the best ways is to go and study abroad in an Arabic country.
Spending a few months in North Africa, taking an intensive Arabic class, and trying to read the Classical Arabic of books are all great ways to improve your Arabic.
Learn to Write Arabic in Private Lessons
You probably already know this, but Arabic is read the opposite direction from English - from right to left.
In order to learn to write Arabic letters and perfect your vocabulary, here are a few good strategies:
- take Arabic classes at home
- sign up for Arabic lessons at your local language school
- Study Arabic online
- Watch YouTube videos and tutorials.
- Visit different websites meant to help with Arabic for beginners.
- Download smartphone apps
- Be dedicated and work hard
In order to introduce you to written Arabic, your teacher will repeat the same phrase several times, and encourage you to write it down on paper.
It can be a bit boring, but it helps your brain memorize and begin to visualise the letters. Writing out the Arabic letters of alif, ba, ta, fa, lam, mim, la hamza, etc., will make it easier for you to recall them later.
You can also work on simple dialogues - writing out dialogues in the Arabic language can be a great study aid.
Learn Arabic Numbers
Learning the Arabic numbers is one of the basics you’ll cover in your first Arabic class. You probably already know the numbers for 1-10 in western languages like French, German, Spanish, or Italian - so why not Arabic?
If you study abroad in an Arabic speaking country, learning the numbers will really help you in day to day life, especially to:
- ask what time it is
- run errands
- speak at work
- remember a time
Mathematics and Arabic culture have both had a large influence on Western cultures. For example, we would say that the Latin alphabet uses Arabic numerals.
Although they were already present in Syria in the 7th century, Arabic numbers had not been invented by Arabs, and were borrowed by Arab mathematicians from India in the 9th century.
The numbers quickly spread in Europe after the Arab invasion of Spain.
However, their use was forbidden in Florentine Italy, right up to the scientific discoveries of the Renaissance period. It wasn’t until the 15th century that what we know as Arabic numerals, and what the Arabs called Hindi numerals, finally replaced roman numerals.
You’ll definitely need to learn Arabic numbers. Here’s a short list of numbers 1 to 10:
- Zero: Sifr
- One: Wahid
- Two: Isnan
- Three: salasah
- Four: Arba’ah
- Five: hamsah
- Six: Sittah
- Seven: Saba’ah
- Eight: samani’ah
- Nine: Tis’ah
- Ten: Asharah
In Arabic, you read the smaller number in the ones column first for numbers over ten. It’s another way that reading from right to left manifests itself.
In order to know the Arabic numbers (in their tens, hundreds, thousands, millions, and billions), the root numbers are generally the same and use 1 to 9, with just a few exceptions.
There are online courses like Tengu Go Arabic App or Cute Arabic Alphabet that will help you learn your Arabic numbers and numerals.
The apps will also help you to master an Arabic keyboard, Arabic grammar, conjugations of verbs, vocabulary and new words, idiomatic expressions, pronunciation and Arabic script.
In short, they’ll give you at least an introduction into everything you need to know to learn Arabic!
The History of the Arabic Language
There are almost 300 million people around the world who speak Arabic! This huge number makes the language of Ismaël the 8th one of the most spoken languages on the planet (and it’s the official language in 22 countries!).
- But with so many Arabic speakers around the world, who’s really born Arab?
- What’s the history of the Arabic language?
Books tell us that the Arabic language left its first mark on history more than a millennium ago. Our first trace comes from an inscription in the Syrian desert dating from the 4th century BC. We think that the Arabic language evolved from other languages in the Arab-Asian language family.
In the 4th century BC, Arabic was primarily the language of poetry for the tribes living on the Arabic peninsula. Which is the reason that we don’t have much written history of Arabic until the 8th century AD - coming from an oral tradition doesn’t do much for records left behind, but does strengthen the beauty of a language!
Islam tells us that the Prophet received messages from God in Classical Arabic via the archangel Gabriel, between 610-632 AD.
It’s thanks to the written poems and scared texts of the Quran that Islam began to spread, especially via the Islamic Empire between 632 and 1258 AD, which reached far from the Arab peninsula (where countries like Saudi Arabi, Iraq, and Yemen are today) to Spain, and also Palestine, Egypt, and Persia.
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