Arabic Language

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Arabic Language


language of the Arabs in the countries of Western Asia and North Africa. It belongs to the Semitic branch of the Hamito-Semitic family of languages; approximately 96 million people speak Arabic (1967 estimate).

Arabic originated from the ancient north Arabic language (north and central Arabia and Syrian Desert) known in inscriptions since the fifth century B.C. The dialects of the ancient inscriptions (Thamudene, Lihyanite, Safaitic) are substantially different from the ancient Arabian dialect that is the basis of classical and modern Arabic (known in inscriptions only since the fourth century A.D.). Oral poetry in this dialect was well developed even in the pre-Islamic era and a standard oral and literary koine was in use. The language of the Koran (seventh century) combined the standards of the koine with those of the speech of Mecca (Muhammad’s native language). This combination gave rise to classical literary Arabic, the language of the rich artistic, scientific, and religious literature of the medieval Muslim East. This classical Arabic has remained to this day the literary language of the Arabs, retaining its ancient morphology and undergoing relatively small lexical changes.

Modern colloquial Arabic is broken down into phonetically and lexically different dialects. The dialects usually distinguished are Egyptian, Sudanese, Syrian (spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel), Iraqi, the numerous archaic dialects of the Arabian Peninsula and the Maghreb, Hausa (Mauritania), and Shuwa (Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger). There are also significant differences within these geographic regions between the urban and rural (especially Bedouin) dialects. Maltese is also an Arabic dialect in origin.

Classical Arabic has three short and three long vowels (a, i, and u), two diphthongs, and a rich consonantism, including emphatic (velar and possibly pharyngealized) consonants (ṭ, ḳ, ṣ, and so on), interdental fricatives, laryngeal ’ and h, pharyngeals ’ and , and uvular fricatives gh and kh. Originally there were no affficatives in Arabic, but later g changed into the affricative j in many dialects as well as the classical literary language. Among the most important phonetic changes that took place in the dialects are the loss of the final short vowels, which resulted in a number of morphological changes, and the appearance of new vowels.

Besides affrication, internal inflection (alternation of vowels, doubling of consonants) plays a major role in word change. Three (less commonly four or two) consonantal roots usually carry the lexical meaning while the vowels (and consonant gemination) plus affixes express word formation and some grammatical meanings. The classical Arabic noun has two genders, three numbers (distinguishable by suffixes or internal inflection), three cases, and three states: definite (with a prepositive definite article), indefinite (with a special ending), and construct (form of the noun having a genitive determination). The noun also has personal possessive forms: kitabi (my book), kitabuhu (his book), and so on. The verb can change internally to express different meanings—for example, causative, reflexive, conative, intensive, and so on. The verb has two aspects (imperfect, which expresses a process as it takes place, and perfect, which describes the process as a whole). Suffixes express moods, person, number, and gender of the object. Prefixes express person, number, and gender of the subject.

Modern dialects preserve the morphology of the classical language with some changes; the cases, the ending of the indefinite state, and some moods are lost, and new tense forms (from analytical constructions) have appeared. Words are formed by internal inflection, by combination of an affix (prefix, suffix, infix) with internal inflection, or, much less commonly, by suffixes alone. Word compounding is virtually nonexistent. Since the sixth century A.D., Arabs have been using Arabic script, which is derived from the Nabatean version of Aramaic script.


Grande, B. M. Kurs arabskoi grammatiki ν sravnitel’noistoricheskom osveshchenii. Moscow, 1963.
Zavadovskii, Iu. N. Arabskie dialekty Magriba. Moscow, 1962.
Sharbatov.G. Sh. Sovremennyi arabskii iazyk. Moscow, 1961.
Iushmanov, N. V. Grammatika literaturnogo arabskogo iazyka. Leningrad, 1928.
Brockelmann, C. Arabische Grammatik. Leipzig, 1960.
Cantineau, J. Cours de phonétique arabe. Paris, 1960.
Landberg, C. de. La langue arabe et ses dialectes. Leiden, 1905.
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Lane, E. W. Arabic-English Lexicon, book 1. London, 1863–93. Pages 1–8.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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