Arabic: … لا أعرف

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.

10 thoughts on “Arabic: … لا أعرف

    1. Hi Dana! I believe Morocco has its own dialect, but regionally I think it would be Maghrebi Arabic.

      Another thing to note is that Arabic spoken in the Middle East can be understood by Moroccans, but not the other way around. That’s how much they diverge, apparently. 😉

  1. yeeeeeeeeeeeeeee al-lughat al-arabiyya!! Greetings from Beirut!!! First of all, in re first movable type Arabic printing press WOOT WOOT Mount Lebanon REPRESENT!!!!!!!!!!!

    “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)…”

    The Muslim speakers of Arabic believe its the language of God and that the Quran was told to Mohamad in Arabic. Therefore, it can only be fully understood and interpreted in Arabic.

    But what about Christian speakers of Arabic? I have spoken with some Christians in Lebanon and Syria about this and they regard this belief as specific to Muslims because they believe that God can speak to his children in any language, hence the many translations and versions of the Bible.

    In Re wondering if learning MSA would really be enough, that would depend on how one wants to use Arabic. If you want to only read newspapers, academic articles, the Quran, Arabic books, and be able to speak (like a robot) to people in the Arab world, then MSA is your thing.

    However, if you want to do all of the above but also really communicate with people on a casual conversational level so that both speakers are comfortable (very important for interviews, heart to heart talks etc.), understand Arabic songs, read Arabic poetry, understand what people are saying at the dinner table or just in general, then MSA just ain’t gonna cut it. (You will be stuck in the bubble and everyone will sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher..wawawawawa) You must get a solid foundation in MSA and then study Amiyya (dialect).

    About the Moroccans ha ha those silly Maghrabiyyins! Their nutty Berber-influenced dialect makes it necessary for them to switch to MSA (or French) when talking to the rest of the Arab world. It would be interesting to hear a convo between a Lebanese and Moroccan. Would they use French or MSA? My guess is that the Moroccan would choose French so that the Lebanese wouldn’t laugh at him. lol!

    wow, I think I wrote an essay. One more thing. What is this???? لا أعرف. ya shatr, inta bt3ref kteeeeer!!! (You smart person, you know a lot) I learned many new things from this. Keep up the good work!

    -Sarah (cheesy Lebanesy) Weatherbee

    1. Hi Sarah! Thank you SO much for your comments and for extra tidbits about Islam! This was really interesting to read!

      I like what you mentioned about Christian speakers of Arabic. I think you are right, perhaps that belief is specific to Muslims only. Do you think it would be more difficult for Christians in that region to learn Arabic?

      Also, LOL at Arabic spoken between a Moroccan and a Lebanese person. That would be really interesting to see (especially if the Moroccan would use MSA or French … or maybe even Berber or English, haha!).

      As for لا أعرف, I think the transliteration is La a’ref which translates to “I don’t know.”

      I really admire what you are doing and learning over in the Middle East! Keep up the success and good luck!

      -Keith

  2. Hey Keith! Here are some neat factoids I learned about Arabic when I studied it in college many many years ago.

    In additional to having many other names, Arabic is also called “al lughat ul dAd”, the language of [the letter] dAd, which is a very heavy “d” sound that is peculiar to Arabic. You’d have to hear a native speaker pronounce it to know what it should actually sound like.

    Also, because of the fact that it’s based on triliteral roots that follow a regular pattern of the “ten forms”, poetry can be written such that each syllable in each line rhymes. Apparently, there exists poetry in Arabic of a thousand lines where every single syllable rhymes with that in the line above it.

    Salamat,
    Patricia

  3. i live in egypt and i’ve been studying the egyptian dialect for two years. it is much different from msa and has many cognates from european languages. however, the locals don’t really understand studying regional dialects. they believe that only qur’anic or msa should be studied. they don’t believe that the regional dialects are even languages with syntax; they almost consider them as slang. it’s a very interesting cultural perspective. it would be similar to all the english speaking countries (england, jamaica, canada, usa, south africa, australia, etc) speaking their dialects in the modern form, but, for religious/cultural reasons, all printed material and most inter-country communication was done through beowulf english. and only that form of english was regarded as the correct english.

  4. long story short– arabic is an afro-semitic language, belonging to the same branch as (gasp) hebrew. interesting that you left that tidbit out.

    1. Hello,

      I think I mentioned this in the third paragraph on my first post about Arabic?

      “I bet you didn’t Arabic is part of the Semitic family of languages, like Hebrew, Aramaic …”

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