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About Arabic (Modern Standard) Language

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA; Arabic: اللغة العربية الفصحى‎ al-luġatu l-ʿarabīyatu l-fuṣḥā "the most eloquent Arabic language"), Standard Arabic, or Literary Arabic is the standard and literary variety of Arabic used in writing and in formal speech. It is part of the Arabic macrolanguage.

Most western scholars distinguish two standard (al-)fuṣ-ḥā (الفصحى) varieties of the Arabic language: the Classical Arabic (CA) (اللغة العربية التراثية) of the Qur'an and early Islamic (7th to 9th centuries) literature, and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) (اللغة العربية المعيارية الحديثة), the standard language in use today. The modern standard language is based on the Classical language. Most Arabs consider the two varieties to be two registers of one language, although the two registers can be described in Arabic as فصحى العصر fuṣḥā al-ʻaṣr (MSA) and فصحى التراث fuṣḥā at-turāth (CA).

Classical Arabic

Classical Arabic, also known as Qur'anic Arabic, is the language used in the Qur'an as well as in numerous literary texts from Umayyad and Abbasid times (7th to 9th centuries).

Classical Arabic is often considered to be the parent language of all the spoken varieties of Arabic, but recent scholarship, such as Clive Holes' (2004), shades this view, showing that other Old North Arabian dialects were extant in the 7th century and may be the origin of current spoken varieties.

Modern Standard Arabic

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the literary standard across the Middle East and North Africa, and one of the official six languages of the United Nations. Most printed matter in the Arab World—including most books, newspapers, magazines, official documents, and reading primers for small children—is written in MSA. "Colloquial" Arabic refers to the many national or regional varieties derived from Arabic spoken daily across the region and learned as a first language. They are not typically written, although a certain amount of literature (particularly plays and poetry) exists in many of them. Literary Arabic is the official language of all Arab countries and is the only form of Arabic taught in schools at all stages.

The sociolinguistic situation of Arabic in modern times provides a prime example of the linguistic phenomenon of diglossia – the use of two distinct varieties of the same language, usually in different social contexts. Educated Arabic-speakers are usually able to communicate in MSA in formal situations across national boundaries – thus, MSA is a classic example of a Dachsprache. This diglossic situation facilitates code-switching in which a speaker switches back and forth between the two varieties of the language, sometimes even within the same sentence. In instances in which highly educated Arabic-speakers of different nationalities engage in conversation but find their dialects mutually unintelligible (e.g. a Moroccan speaking with a Lebanese), they are able to code switch into MSA for the sake of communication.

Although closely based on Classical Arabic (especially from the pre-Islamic to the Abbasid period, including Qur'anic Arabic), literary Arabic continues to evolve. Classical Arabic is considered normative; modern authors attempt (with varying degrees of success) to follow the syntactic and grammatical norms laid down by Classical grammarians (such as Sibawayh), and to use the vocabulary defined in Classical dictionaries (such as the Lisan al-Arab).

Switch from Classical Arabic to MSA

In spite of the romantic and variously successful attempts of modern Arab authors to follow the syntactic and grammatical norms of Classical Arabic, the exigencies of modernity have led to the adoption of numerous terms which would have been mysterious to a Classical author, whether taken from other languages (e.g. فيلم film) or coined from existing lexical resources (e.g. هاتف hātif "telephone" < "caller").

Structural influence from foreign languages or from the vernaculars has also affected Modern Standard Arabic: for example, MSA texts sometimes use the format "X, X, X, and X" when listing things, whereas Classical Arabic prefers "X and X and X and X",[citation needed] and subject-initial sentences may be more common in MSA than in Classical Arabic.

For all these reasons, Modern Standard Arabic is generally treated as a separate language in non-Arab sources. Arab sources generally tend to regard MSA and Classical Arabic as different registers of one and the same language. Speakers of Modern Standard Arabic do not always observe the intricate rules of Classical Arabic grammar. Modern Standard Arabic principally differs from Classical Arabic in three areas: lexicon, stylistics, and certain innovations on the periphery that are not strictly regulated by the classical authorities. On the whole, Modern Standard Arabic is not homogeneous; there are authors who write in a style very close to the classical models and others who try to create new stylistic patterns. Add to this regional differences in vocabulary depending upon the influence of the local Arabic varieties and the influences of foreign languages, such as French in North Africa or English in Egypt, Jordan, and other countries.

Reading out loud in MSA for various reasons is becoming increasingly simpler, using less strict rules compared to CA, notably the inflection or i`rāb is often omitted making it closer to spoken varieties of Arabic. It depends on the speaker's knowledge and attitude to the grammar of the Classical Arabic, as well as the region and the intended audience.

Pronunciation of foreign names in MSA can be sometimes inconsistent, names can be pronounced or even spelled differently in different regions and by different speakers. Generally, foreign geographical or personal names don't have case endings. There may be sounds used, which are missing in the Classical Arabic but they may exist in colloquial varieties - consonants - "v", "p", "g", "ch" ([t͡ʃ]), "zh" (French "j": [ʒ]), these consonants may or may not be written with special letters; and vowels - "o", "e" (both short and long), there are no special letters in Arabic to distinguish between e/i and o/u pairs but the sounds o and e (short and long) exist in the colloquial varieties of Arabic and some foreign words in MSA.

Regional variants

MSA is used uniformly across the Middle East, but some regional variations exist due to influence from the spoken vernaculars. People who "speak" MSA during interviews often give away their national or ethnic origins by their pronunciation of certain phonemes (e.g. the realization of the Classical jīm ج (/dʒ/) as /g/ by Egyptians, and as /ʒ/ by Lebanese), and by mixing between vernacular and Classical words and forms. Classical/vernacular mixing in formal writing can also be found (e.g. in some Egyptian newspaper editorials).

Formal Spoken Arabic

Formal Spoken Arabic is a new Western term used to describe Arabic spoken by educated native speakers in a formal situation or when communicating with Arabs from other Arab countries. It represents a grammatically simplified version of Modern Standard Arabic with some elements of colloquial dialects.[4] Other similar terms are: Educated Spoken Arabic, Inter-Arabic, Middle Arabic and Spoken MSA. In Arabic this term can be described as عامية المثقفين ʻāmmiyat al-'muthaqqafīn.

More Info

Arabic (العربية al-ʿarabīyah, (Arabic pronunciation) or عربي ʿarabi) is a Central Semitic language, thus related to and classified alongside other Semitic languages such as Hebrew and the Neo-Aramaic languages. Arabic has more speakers than any other language in the Semitic language family. It is spoken by more than 280 million people as a first language, most of whom live in the Middle East and North Africa, and by 250 million more as a second language. Arabic has many different, geographically-distributed spoken varieties, some of which are mutually unintelligible. Modern Standard Arabic is widely taught in schools, universities, and used in workplaces, government and the media.

Modern Standard Arabic derives from Classical Arabic, the only surviving member of the Old North Arabian dialect group, attested in Pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions dating back to the 4th century. Classical Arabic has also been a literary language and the liturgical language of Islam since its inception in the 7th century.

Arabic has lent many words to other languages of the Islamic world. During the Middle Ages, Arabic was a major vehicle of culture in Europe, especially in science, mathematics and philosophy. As a result, many European languages have also borrowed many words from it. Arabic influence is seen in Mediterranean languages, particularly Spanish, Portuguese, and Sicilian, owing to both the proximity of European and Arab civilizations and 700 years of Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula (see Al-Andalus).

Arabic has also borrowed words from many languages, including Hebrew, Persian and Syriac in early centuries, Turkish in medieval times and contemporary European languages in modern times.

Classical, Modern Standard, and colloquial Arabic

Arabic usually designates one of three main variants: Classical Arabic; Modern Standard Arabic; colloquial or dialectal Arabic.

Classical Arabic (فصحى fuṣḥā) is the language found in the Qur'an and used from the period of Pre-Islamic Arabia to that of the Abbasid Caliphate. Classical Arabic is considered normative; modern authors attempt to follow the syntactic and grammatical norms laid down by classical grammarians (such as Sibawayh), and use the vocabulary defined in classical dictionaries (such as the Lisān al-Arab).

Based on Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (فصحى fuṣḥā) is the literary language used in most current, printed Arabic publications, spoken by the Arabic media across North Africa and the Middle East, and understood by most educated Arabic speakers. "Literary Arabic" and "Standard Arabic" are less strictly defined terms that may refer to Modern Standard Arabic and/or Classical Arabic.

Colloquial or dialectal Arabic refers to the many national or regional varieties which constitute the everyday spoken language. Colloquial Arabic has many different regional variants; these sometimes differ enough to be mutually unintelligible and some linguists consider them distinct languages. The varieties are typically unwritten. They are often used in informal spoken media, such as soap operas and talk shows, as well as occasionally in certain forms of written media, such as poetry and printed advertising. The only variety of modern Arabic to have acquired official language status is Maltese, spoken in (predominately Roman Catholic) Malta and written with the Latin alphabet. It is descended from Classical Arabic through Siculo-Arabic and is not mutually intelligible with other varieties of Arabic. Most linguists list it as a separate language rather than as a dialect of Arabic.

The sociolinguistic situation of Arabic in modern times provides a prime example of the linguistic phenomenon of diglossia, which is the normal use of two separate varieties of the same language, usually in different social situations. In the case of Arabic, educated Arabs of any nationality can be assumed to speak both their local dialect and their school-taught Standard Arabic. When educated Arabs of different dialects engage in conversation (for example, a Moroccan speaking with a Lebanese), many speakers code-switch back and forth between the dialectal and standard varieties of the language, sometimes even within the same sentence. Arabic speakers often improve their familiarity with other dialects via music or film.

Like other languages, Modern Standard Arabic continues to evolve. Many modern terms have entered into common usage, in some cases taken from other languages (for example, فيلم film) or coined from existing lexical resources (for example, هاتف hātif "telephone" < "caller"). Structural influence from foreign languages or from the colloquial varieties has also affected Modern Standard Arabic. For example, texts in Modern Standard Arabic sometimes use the format "A, B, C, and D" when listing things, whereas Classical Arabic prefers "A and B and C and D",[citation needed] and subject-initial sentences may be more common in Modern Standard Arabic than in Classical Arabic.[8] For these reasons, Modern Standard Arabic is generally treated separately in non-Arab sources.

Influence of Arabic on other languages

The influence of Arabic has been most important in Islamic countries. Arabic is a major source of vocabulary for languages such as Amharic, Baluchi, Bengali, Berber, Catalan, Cypriot Greek, Gujarati, Hindustani , Indonesian, Kurdish, Malay, Marathi, Pashto, Persian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Rohingya, Sindhi, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Turkish and Urdu as well as other languages in countries where these languages are spoken. For example, the Arabic word for book (/kitāb/) has been borrowed in all the languages listed, with the exception of Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese which use the Latin-derived words "libro","llibre" and "livro", respectively, and Tagalog which uses "aklat". In addition, English has quite a few Arabic loan words, some directly but most through the medium of other Mediterranean languages. Other languages such as Maltese[9] and Kinubi derive from Arabic, rather than merely borrowing vocabulary or grammar rules.

The terms borrowed range from religious terminology (like Berber taẓallit "prayer" < salat), academic terms (like Uyghur mentiq "logic"), economic items (like English sugar) to placeholders (like Spanish fulano "so-and-so") and everyday conjunctions (like Hindustani lekin "but", or Spanish hasta "until"). Most Berber varieties (such as Kabyle), along with Swahili, borrow some numbers from Arabic. Most Islamic religious terms are direct borrowings from Arabic, such as salat 'prayer' and imam 'prayer leader.' In languages not directly in contact with the Arab world, Arabic loanwords are often transferred indirectly via other languages rather than being transferred directly from Arabic. For example, most Arabic loanwords in Hindustani entered through Persian, and many older Arabic loanwords in Hausa were borrowed from Kanuri. Some words in English and other European languages are derived from Arabic, often through other European languages, especially Spanish and Italian. Among them are commonly-used words like "sugar" (sukkar), "cotton" (quṭn) and "magazine" (maḫāzin). English words more recognizably of Arabic origin include "algebra", "alcohol", "alchemy", "alkali", "zenith" and "nadir". Some words in common use, such as "intention" and "information", were originally calques of Arabic philosophical terms.

Arabic words also made their way into several West African languages as Islam spread across the Sahara. Variants of Arabic words such as kitaab (book) have spread to the languages of African groups who had no direct contact with Arab traders.

Arabic was influenced by other languages as well. The most important sources of borrowings into (pre-Islamic) Arabic are Aramaic, which used to be the principal, international language of communication throughout the ancient Near and Middle East, Ethiopic, and to a lesser degree Hebrew (mainly religious concepts).

As Arabic occupied a position similar to Latin (in Europe) throughout the Islamic world many of the Arabic concepts in the field of science, philosophy, commerce etc., were often coined by non-native Arabic speakers, notably by Aramaic and Persian translators. This process of using Arabic roots in notably Turkish and Persian, to translate foreign concepts continued right until the 18th and 19th century, when large swaths of Arab-inhabited lands were under Ottoman rule.

Arabic and Islam

Arabic is the language of the Qur'an. Arabic is often associated with Islam, but it is also spoken by Arab Christians, Mizrahi Jews and Iraqi Mandaeans.

Most of the world's Muslims do not speak Arabic as their native language but many can read the script and recite the words of religious texts. Some Muslims consider the Arabic language to be "the language chosen by God to speak to mankind" and the original revealed language spoken by man from which all other languages were derived having been corrupted. It is most notably understood by Muslims as being the lingua franca of the afterlife.


The earliest surviving texts in Proto-Arabic, or Ancient North Arabian, are the Hasaean inscriptions of eastern Saudi Arabia, from the 8th century BC, written not in the modern Arabic alphabet, nor in its Nabataean ancestor, but in variants of the epigraphic South Arabian musnad. These are followed by 6th-century BC Lihyanite texts from southeastern Saudi Arabia and the Thamudic texts found throughout Arabia and the Sinai, and not actually connected with Thamud. Later come the Safaitic inscriptions beginning in the 1st century BC, and the many Arabic personal names attested in Nabataean inscriptions (which are, however, written in Aramaic). From about the 2nd century BC, a few inscriptions from Qaryat al-Faw (near Sulayyil) reveal a dialect which is no longer considered "Proto-Arabic", but Pre-Classical Arabic. By the fourth century AD, the Arab kingdoms of the Lakhmids in southern Iraq, the Ghassanids in southern Syria the Kindite Kingdom emerged in Central Arabia. Their courts were responsible for some notable examples of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, and for some of the few surviving pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions in the Arabic alphabet.

Dialects and descendants

Colloquial Arabic is a collective term for the spoken varieties of Arabic used throughout the Arab world, which differ radically from the literary language. The main dialectal division is between the North African dialects and those of the Middle East, followed by that between sedentary dialects and the much more conservative Bedouin dialects. Speakers of some of these dialects are unable to converse with speakers of another dialect of Arabic. In particular, while Middle Easterners can generally understand one another, they often have trouble understanding North Africans (although the converse is not true, in part due to the popularity of Middle Eastern—especially Egyptian—films and other media).

One factor in the differentiation of the dialects is influence from the languages previously spoken in the areas, which have typically provided a significant number of new words, and have sometimes also influenced pronunciation or word order; however, a much more significant factor for most dialects is, as among Romance languages, retention (or change of meaning) of different classical forms. Thus Iraqi aku, Levantine fīh, and North African kayən all mean "there is", and all come from Classical Arabic forms (yakūn, fīhi, kā'in respectively), but now sound very different.

The major dialect groups are:

  • Egyptian Arabic, spoken by around 76 million in Egypt. It is one of the most understood varieties of Arabic, due in large part to the widespread distribution of Egyptian films and television shows throughout the Arabic speaking world. Closely related varieties are also spoken in Sudan.
  • Gulf Arabic, spoken by around 34 million people in Arab states of the Persian Gulf and eastern Saudi Arabia. Iraqi Arabic, spoken by about 29 million people in Iraq. With significant differences between the Arabian-like dialects of the south and the more conservative dialects of the north. Closely related varieties are also spoken in Iran, Syria, and Turkey.
  • North Mesopotamian Arabic, spoken by around 7 million people in northern Iraq, northern Syria and southern Turkey.
  • Levantine Arabic includes North Levantine Arabic, South Levantine Arabic, and Cypriot Arabic. It is spoken by almost 35 million people in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, and Turkey. It is also called Mediterranean Arabic.
  • Maghrebi Arabic includes Moroccan Arabic, Algerian Arabic, Algerian Saharan Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, and Libyan Arabic, and is spoken by around 45 million North Africans in Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Niger, and western Egypt; it is often difficult for speakers of Middle Eastern Arabic varieties to understand. The Berber influence in these dialects varies in degree.

Other varieties include:

  • Andalusi Arabic, spoken in Spain until 15th century, now extinct.
  • Bahrani Arabic, spoken by Bahrani Shia in Bahrain, where it exhibits some differences from Bahraini Arabic. It is also spoken to a lesser extent in Oman.
  • Central Asian Arabic, spoken in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, is highly endangered.
  • Hassaniya Arabic, spoken in Mauritania, some parts of Mali and Western Sahara.
  • Hejazi Arabic, spoken in Hejaz, western Saudi Arabia.
  • Judeo-Arabic dialects.
  • Maltese, spoken on the Mediterranean island of Malta, is the only one to have established itself as a fully separate language, with independent literary norms. In the course of its history the language has adopted numerous loanwords, phonetic and phonological features, and even some grammatical patterns, from Italian, Sicilian, and English. It is also the only Semitic tongue written in the Latin alphabet.
  • Najdi Arabic, spoken in Nejd, central Saudi Arabia.
  • Shuwa Arabic, spoken in Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, and Sudan.
  • Siculo Arabic, spoken on Sicily, South Italy until 14th century, developed into Maltese.
  • Sudanese Arabic, spoken in Sudan
  • Yemeni Arabic, spoken in Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, and Somalia.

Writing system

An example of a text written in Arabic calligraphy. The Arabic alphabet derives from the Aramaic script through Nabatean, to which it bears a loose resemblance like that of Coptic or Cyrillic script to Greek script. Traditionally, there were several differences between the Western (North African) and Middle Eastern version of the alphabet—in particular, the fa and qaf had a dot underneath and a single dot above respectively in the Maghreb, and the order of the letters was slightly different (at least when they were used as numerals). However, the old Maghrebi variant has been abandoned except for calligraphic purposes in the Maghreb itself, and remains in use mainly in the Quranic schools (zaouias) of West Africa. Arabic, like all other Semitic languages (except for the Latin-written Maltese, and the languages with the Ge'ez script), is written from right to left. There are several styles of script, notably Naskh which is used in print and by computers, and Ruq'ah which is commonly used in handwriting.


In most of present-day North Africa, the Western Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) are used. However in Egypt and Arabic-speaking countries to the east of it, the Eastern Arabic numerals (٠.١.٢.٣.٤.٥.٦.٧.٨.٩) are in use. When representing a number in Arabic, the lowest-valued position is placed on the right, so the order of positions is the same as in left-to-right scripts. Sequences of digits such as telephone numbers are read from left to right, but numbers are spoken in the traditional Arabic fashion, with units and tens reversed from the modern English usage. For example, 24 is said "four and twenty", and 1975 is said "one thousand and nine hundred and five and seventy."


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