Wow, it seems like a lifetime ago since I left Azeri! I blame my gap in the blog to a long weekend of moving, packing and unpacking and exhaustion.
But alas, we now reach Arabic. As you probably know, Arabic is one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, used throughout the Middle East and North Africa and as a liturgical language for all followers of Islam, who make up roughly 1 billion.
I bet you didn’t know Arabic is part of the Semitic family of languages, like Hebrew, Aramaic (a dead language that Jesus spoke), Amharic (mostly spoken in Ethiopia), Maltese and many other languages that are now dead. I also bet you didn’t know that there there are actually three forms of Arabic: Classical (Qu’ranic) Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic and Colloquial Arabic, all differing radically? Classical Arabic is mostly used to recite the Qu’ran and has a lot of older words, while MSA is used for print and news programs. Colloquial Arabic appears to be a much more informal version of MSA, but varies according to region.
HISTORY: Long story short, Arabic’s history is tied directly to the rise of Islam, which occurred during the 7th century, after the Advent of Islam. Before that, Arabic was merely a language spoken by relatively few people. Sabaic, another closely related language that was spoken mostly in Yemen, mixed with Arabic before the spread of Islam. The actual discovery of the early form of Arabic, Mudari Arabic, can be traced to the finding of an epitaph in Damascus in 1902 by two French Archeologists, R. Dussaud and F. Macler. The epitaph, which traces events back to the 4th century, is written in Aramaic, but its form was extremely similar to Classical Arabic. By the mid-18th century, there was a movable type Arabic printing press, which is credited to monks living in Mount Lebanon who made books.
WRITING SYSTEM: Arabic is read right to left. The alphabet is made up of 28 consonants and three vowels, although the vowels are mostly written in Classical Arabic or for primary usage. In Modern Standard Arabic, diacritics are used for the vowels. A line above the consonant represents an “a” sound, a line below signifies an “e” and a comma-like symbol above represents an “o” sound.
Because the letters are connected, there are four forms of each letter: initial, medial, final and isolated. The forms of each appear respectively as provided by Wikipedia:
a: أ, ـأ, ـأ, أ – a as in father
b: بـ, ـبـ, ـب, ﺏ – b as in boy
t: تـ, ـتـ, ـت, ﺕ – t as in tarp
th: ثـ, ـثـ, ث, ﺙ – th as in width
g: ج, جـ, جـ, ﺝ – g as in go; also j as in jungle
h: حـ, حـ, ح, ﺡ – a coughing “huh” sound
kh: خـ, خـ, خ, ﺥ – ch as in loch
d: د, ـد, ـد, ﺩ – d as in do
dh: ذ, ـذ, ـذ, ﺫ – the as in th
r: ر, ـر, ـر, ﺭ – r as in rum, but a little rolled/trilled
z: ز, ـز, ـز, ﺯ – z as in zebra
s: سـ, ـسـ, ـس, ﺱ – s as in saw
sh: شـ, ـشـ, ـش, ﺵ – sh as in she
special s: صـ, ـصـ, ـص, ﺹ – no similarities in English; like cz as in czar
special d: ضـ, ـضـ, ـض, ﺽ – no similarities in English; constrict throat while saying “d”
special t: طـ, ـطـ, ـط, ﻁ – no similarities in English; constrict throat while saying \”t\”
special z: ظـ, ـظـ, ـظ, ﻅ – no similarities in English; constrict throat while saying “z”
*: عـ, ـعـ, ـع, ﻉ – a light sound deep in the throat
gh: غـ, ـغـ, ـغ, ﻍ – no similarities in English; like ch in loch but voiced
f: فـ, ـفـ, ـف, ف – f as in fine
q: قـ, ـقـ, ـق, ﻕ – q as in quick
k: كـ, ـكـ, ـك, ﻙ – k as in kite
l: لـ, ـلـ, ـل, ﻝ – l as in live
m: مـ, ـمـ, ـم, ﻡ – m as in mom
n: نـ, ـنـ, ـن, ن – n as in nun
h: هـ, ـهـ, ـه, ﻩ – h as in hay
w/u: و, ـو, ـو, ﻭ – w as in wind; oo as in boot
y/i/e: يـ, ـيـ, ـي, ﻱ – y as in lye; can also be i as in high and e as in bet
The “special” letters really just have dots underneath them. They don’t really occur in English, either. The glottal stop is also unique because it’s actually included in the alphabet (as I couldn’t find a letter to represent it, so I used an asterisk).
YouTube is definitely valuable in learning the alphabet. pbneurogirl gives some great examples on how to write the letters, which are an excellent resource.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: I am excited about learning how to read Arabic! I remember I tried doing it in middle school and eventually gave up. But now it seems much more practical and actually simpler than I thought. As far as the language itself, there aren’t very many cognates because Arabic retains its originality to a huge degree (its speakers believe its the language of God), but if I were learning it, I wouldn’t be intimidated. The words tend to have a three-consonant base, so this may or may not make vocabulary easier to remember for beginners. I wonder how much I will actually learn about Islam by default because of this.
Arabic also has about 20 widely spoken dialects, with the Egyptian dialect spoken by over 70 million, Gulf Arabic, spoken by half that number, Iraqi Arabic, Maghrebi Arabic spoken all over North Africa and so on. These dialects differ quite a bit, so it makes me wonder if learning MSA would really be enough.