|Language binds Arabs together. Design by Basel Almisshal; Courtesy baselonline.co.uk|
Spoken by roughly 320 million people in 22 countries from Iraq in the north to Somalia in the south, Bahrain in the east to the western shores of Mauritania, the Arabic language is identified as a unifying force for all these nations.
The Arabic used today was spoken throughout the Arab peninsula in the fourth century, pre-dating Islam by about 200 years.
The Quran was revealed in Arabic and, with the spread of Islam, the language spread rapidly across the Middle East, North Africa and other regions where it is still spoken today. The language spread as far as Senegal, Mali, Chad and the Comoros Islands.
In the approximately 1,400 years since the Islamic empire reached Europe and China, the language has gradually transformed.
Linguists now divide the language into three main categories: classical or Quranic Arabic, formal standard Arabic, and spoken or colloquial Arabic.
Formal Arabic is used as the official language of the Arab world and in the context of non-religious literature. It is closely related to classical Arabic but with slight modifications as per the necessities of a fast-changing world where international trade plays a role.
Colloquial Arabic, on the other hand, is a slang form spoken by the majority of people as their daily dialect. Colloquial Arabic differs from area to area due to geographical differences and the impact of the language of colonial powers including Turkish, Persian, English, French, Spanish and Italian.
Modern standard Arabic (MSA) is written and spoken throughout the contemporary Arab world and known also as fusha. Today, MSA is taught in schools and used for most printed materials, TV news reporting, interviews, sermons and other formal events.
In sociolinguistic terms, Arabic occurs in a diglossic situation, meaning that native speakers learn and use two substantially different forms (classical and formal on the one hand, and colloquial on the other) in different aspects of their lives.
Origins of Arabic
Some Arabic words found in English
– Admiral, from amir al bihar (captain of the seas)
– Alcohol, from al kohol (spirits)
– Arsenal, from dar al sina’a (factory)
– Coffee, from qahwa
– Elixir, from al iksir (potion)
– Ghoul, from al ghoul
– Magazine, from al makhzan (storehouse)
– Tariff, from ta’rifa (notification)
Arabic is rooted in Semitic speech, which linguists agree is derived from the language spoken by Saam (the Hebrew Shem, son of Noah, according to the Bible), and as such is one of the oldest known linguistic groups in the world.
Akkadian, the language of the Babylonians, is the forerunner of Arabic and was first attested in cuneiform writing on clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia in 3,500BC.
Other Semitic languages which developed in unison with Akkadian were Phoenician – and its descendant Punic (the language of Carthage), the classical form of Hebrew, Ammonite and Moabite, and early dialects of Aramaic, the language believed to have been spoken by Jesus.
Modern Semitic languages include Arabic, Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia), Hebrew, Tigrinya (the official language of Eritrea), and Aramaic (the language of the Jewish Talmud) which is spoken by a few thousand people in northern Israel and southern Syria today.
Aramaic was given special prominence by Mel Gibson, the actor and director of The Passion of the Christ, in 2004 when he shot the film in classical Aramaic.
All of the Semitic languages have evolved over the past 3,000 years, but classical Arabic has remained mostly intact because of its prominence in the Quran, which has not been changed.
Modern Arabic, on the other hand, is flexible; it borrows from other languages and subjects those loan words to its own morphophonemic rules and grammar.
But in the past several years, the increased use of satellite reception in the Middle East has allowed the infiltration of European and North American catchphrases and terms which ultimately intermingled with colloquial Arabic.
The challenges of globalisation and western cultural influences on the new generation of Arab youth now threaten to morph the language into a form removed from the original.
The heavy reliance on foreign languages including English and French in the Arab world, keep a number of learners away from the language of their ancestors.
Scholars say this directly threatens the cultural and linguistic unity of the Arab nation; language is seen as the essence of Arab national pride.
Hoping to preserve the language, several countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (where English is widely spoken and taught) and Morocco (where French prevails) have established cultural centres and institutions dedicated to keeping Arabic’s literary wealth alive.