About Arabic

What is Arabic and what will we study in this class?

As you may already know, Arabic is a Semitic language spoken by over 250 million people in over 20 countries. Knowing and understanding some Arabic can be a gateway to interacting with people in a large swath of the world.

Source: http://pocketcultures.com/topicsoftheworld/files/2009/12/map-of-the-arabic-speaking-world.png

One aspect of Arabic that is distinctive, but not unique, is that it is considered a “diglossic” language: it has two different registers or varieties, one formal and another informal. The language taught in this course is Modern Standard Arabic—the formal variety.  MSA is the language that educated Arabs use to communicate in the media and in formal situations; it is also the language of most literature, poetry, and newspapers.

Another distinctive aspect of Arabic is the number and variability of the dialects it comprises. These dialects compose Arabic’s informal register, and they’re spoken in the home and in everyday situations. An Arab’s mother tongue is her or his dialect, not MSA.

In this class, we will learn a little bit of the Syrian dialect and a lot of MSA.

Look at the map on the next page to learn a little bit about the geographic distribution of Arabic dialects:

Geographic distribution of Arabic dialects


Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/16/Arab_World-Large.PNG

You may wonder: why study MSA, if there are so many different dialects to be learned?

MSA is understood all over the Arab world. All educated Arabs understand MSA, even if they are not able to produce it perfectly themselves. Arabic dialects, on the other hand, are not necessarily mutually intelligible. Someone who only studied Moroccan Arabic, for example, would have a hard time making her or himself understood in Cairo, Damascus, or Baghdad.

MSA is the literary language of Arabic. In order to be functionally literate in Arabic, one must not only know the Arabic alphabet but also understand MSA, because this is what the vast majority of texts are written in.

Understanding MSA will make it easier for you to learn any Arabic dialect. In my experience, students with a background in MSA pick up a variety of Arabic dialects much more quickly.

With MSA, you’ll find that centuries-old texts can become only a little more difficult than the daily newspaper. MSA  is the modern permutation of a language that has been used to compose Arabic literary, scholarly, and religious works for centuries.  Written Arabic has certainly changed over time, but to a much lesser degree than a language like English, so understanding an older text is simply a matter of absorbing vocabulary that has since become obsolete. For example, Muslim Arabs read the original text of the Qur’an as it was first recorded in the 7th century CE.

By contrast, I personally find English texts written much later than the 7th century completely incomprehensible. Let’s try the opening lines of Beowulf, which is of more recent provenance than the Qur’an:

“Hwæt!  We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum.”[1]

Yep. Pretty hard.


[1] “So! The Spear-Danes in days gone by” / “and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.” / “We have heard of these princes’ heroic campaigns.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesura)

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