Learn more about the Semitic language of Arabic, including where it is spoken and the history of the language.
The Arabic language is a central Semitic language and it is the fourth most widely spoken language in the world. Known for its harmonic cadence, Arabic is considered the lingua franca of the Arab world with over 300 million native speakers. In fact, Arabs are defined as a people made up of many different ethnic groups but united by their native language of Arabic. Considered a macrolanguage, Arabic has 30 different varieties and is the official language of 25 countries scattered across the Middle East and Africa. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
However, when we discuss Arabic, it’s essential to identify which kind of Arabic we are talking about. Generally, Arabic is grouped into three main language categories: Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and spoken Arabic. Classical Arabic is considered the “holy language” of 1.8 billion Muslims and is primarily associated with religious texts like the Qu’ran and Arabic poetry and literature. Modern Standard Arabic is the version of the written and spoken language that is taught in schools and used by governments and the media in an official capacity. It has grammatical differences from Classical Arabic but remains mostly the same in terms of vocabulary.
Spoken Arabic, however, is an entirely different face of the language that is sometimes referred to as “colloquial Arabic.” While many native speakers use a version of Modern Standard Arabic, most also speak a regional dialect of Arabic that may differ significantly from the modern standard. For instance, those who speak Moroccan Arabic may be utterly unintelligible to those who speak Egyptian Arabic.
At Rosetta Stone, we understand that the goal of learning Arabic is to feel confident enough to speak the language and to understand it in real-world situations. That’s why our Arabic program focuses on learning both spoken and written Modern Standard Arabic in context, using audio and visual cues to help build a language learning program that gets you speaking Arabic from the very first lesson.
The Origins and History of Arabic
Arabic began as the language of the people of Mesopotamia, Arabia, and the Sinai Peninsula and dates back to the Iron Age. The first known use of Classical Arabic script was in the 4th century AD, and the language is closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic, the language of the people of Ethiopia.
The spread of the Arabic language in the Middle Ages is closely associated with the rise of Islam. Arabic was seen as the language of culture and was widely used in science, maths, and philosophy in the 7th and 9th centuries. Several European languages were influenced significantly by Classical Arabic, including Spanish, Portuguese, and Turkish.
Modern Standard Arabic rose to prominence in the 19th century as a way to standardise and modernise Arabic. Over time, it removed antiquated grammar and crafted a simpler, more consistent version of the language that’s now used by Arab nations across the Middle East and is one of 6 official languages of the United Nations.
Which Countries Speak Arabic?
Because so many different varieties and dialects of Arabic have developed over time, it’s often a hotly debated topic whether Arabic is, in fact, one or many languages. Arabic is often referred to as a pluricentric language where many different forms of the language exist across the region. Egyptian, Levantine, Sudanese, Mesopotamian, Peninsular, and Maghrebi are the most widely spoken versions or dialects of Arabic. Despite differences in spoken or “colloquial” Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic is the official written and spoken language of the following countries:
- Western Sahara
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
Due to Arabic’s wide use across the Middle East, learning to speak the language can be extremely helpful for those who work in government, business, or those who want to travel with comfort and confidence. However, with so many different dialects and varieties of spoken Arabic, it can be difficult to know where to start.
Rosetta Stone focuses on teaching Modern Standard Arabic, used as the official written and spoken language in over 25 countries. Also, because pronunciation can be one of the trickier aspects of learning Arabic for beginners, a patented speech recognition engine called TruAccent is incorporated into every Arabic lesson. It compares your voice to that of native speakers, providing feedback and helping you improve your ability to speak and understand Arabic.
Learn how to say "Excuse me, where could I find the best shawarma?" from a native Arabic speaker.
Arabic's Influence Around the World
As the official language of the Arab world and a vast swathe of the Middle East, both Modern Standard and Classical Arabic have an unprecedented role in shaping culture and influencing politics and religion. And, while Modern Standard Arabic was only developed somewhat recently, Classical Arabic has influenced other languages and cultures for centuries. Let’s take a look at the ways in which Arabic has shaped art, literature, music, religion, and politics across the region and the world.
1. Arabic in literature
Arabic literature emerged in the 5th century with the Qu’ran, which is widely considered the most popular and influential work using classic Arabic script. A significant portion of historic Arabic literature takes the form of poetry, mimicking the rhythm of the sacred text of the Qu’ran. It’s said that works like Don Quixote have a rhythmic cadence that is derived directly from the Qu’ran. One of the most famous works of Arabic literature, Arabian Nights, also highlights the rich history of Arabic folklore that has captured the world’s imagination. Arabic writers also pioneered philosophy and science fiction literature and are known for producing some of the earliest novels in those genres.
2. Arabic’s role in religion
While the Qu’ran is considered the cornerstone of Arabic literature, about 90% of the world’s Muslims don’t actually speak or read Classical Arabic. They can understand the Qu’ran however and do recite passages in Qu’ranic script. For many of the world’s non-Arabic Muslims, translations of the Qu’ran often have pictures of the original text for reference. Arabic is widely considered the language of Islam because of its use in the Qu’ran.
3. Arabic’s influence on politics
Arabic is spoken across a large part of the Middle East so understanding the language is vitally important to making sense of the geopolitical situation in the region. Many in the Arab world see Classical Arabic as the sacred language in which Mohammed, the prophet, chose to hand down his teachings, and as such, Arabic becomes wrapped up in national and ethnic identities. There are some areas of the Middle East like Israel where Arabic and Hebrew clash and the dominance of an official language becomes an important political statement.
The Arabic Alphabet
The Arabic alphabet is one of the first things language learners will attempt to tackle in their quest to learn to speak and write Arabic. While they may be unfamiliar, there are only 28 letters or characters in the Arabic alphabet. One of the trickier parts of learning the alphabet, however, is that these letters may change form depending upon their placement in the word. Generally, each letter in Arabic has four forms depending on the position of the letter in the word: final form, medial form, initial form, and detached form.
THE ARABIC WRITING SYSTEM
Before beginning to write in Arabic, you’ll need to learn some of the nuances of Classical Arabic like the abjad, a system where the different letters, specifically consonants, represent numbers. Before the numerals of the modern standard version of Arabic were developed in the 19th century, abjad was used to represent numerals. Today, it’s much more likely to be used as part of an outline or list as a kind of shorthand.
Arabic is a stressed language and, while there are a few diacritic marks to guide pronunciation, they aren’t used consistently. While Arabic does share similar sounds with English, there are also a few sounds in Arabic that don’t exist at all in other languages. Some hard consonants sound decidedly throatier or raspier than their English counterparts and vowel sounds may be held twice as long depending on their placement in the word being pronounced. There are also voiced and voiceless consonants, which may be tricky to get the hang of at first. The difference is achieved by either holding the sound in your throat or making it primarily in your mouth.
Arabic grammar has a couple of perplexing quirks, like the dropping of vowels entirely from words, that may leave you puzzled. Word order also isn’t as essential in Arabic as it is in other languages, but it’s important to note that it’s a VSO language in which often the verb (or a nominal element) proceeds the subject or object in a sentence. That’s why it’s crucial to learn phrases in context rather than relying on strict rules to decipher sentence order.
Is Learning Arabic Difficult?
Often languages that are perceived as being difficult are just misunderstood by westerners and Arabic is no exception. Modern Standard Arabic is in high demand, but you may have hesitated to learn it because it has a reputation for being inaccessible to foreigners. We’re here to dispel that myth and reassure language learners that with the right approach and a quality language learning program from Rosetta Stone, you can build your confidence and begin speaking Arabic.
Here are just a few reasons Arabic, the language of Islam, shouldn’t intimidate you.
ARABIC SHARES MANY SOUNDS WITH ENGLISH
While we’ve said there are some quirks of pronunciation, to be fair there are really just two or three unique Arabic sounds that you’ll have to learn. Everything else is just a variation on sounds from the English language you already know and make in your everyday conversations. Arabic has both voiced and voiceless consonants which means that in some consonants, the pronunciation of the sound uses vibration from the voice box while others, which are voiceless, do not.
ARABIC VERB CONJUGATION IS EASY TO LEARN
There aren’t many irregular verbs in Arabic which makes them easy to learn and conjugate. In general, Arabic verbs are conjugated into different tenses related to the person taking action, the number of people, when the action occurred, gender, mood, and voice. Because the rules are so consistent, some websites have even developed engines to make conjugating Modern Standard Arabic verbs easier.
BEING A SEMITIC LANGUAGE HAS ADVANTAGES
Semitic languages are a group of 77 different languages that share a similar origin. Because Arabic is a Semitic language, once you learn the roots and radicals, you can expand your vocabulary quickly with related words and may even find similarities between Arabic words and those in Hebrew and Amharic, the language of Ethiopia.
WORD ORDER ISN’T AS CRUCIAL IN ARABIC
Similar to languages like Russian, you can switch around Arabic words in the sentence and still trust you are getting your meaning across. Arabic is considered a VSO language (verb, subject, object) in which the verb typically comes first in the sentence structure. For instance, instead of saying “He ate bread,” in Arabic one would say كان يأكل الخبز (Ate he bread).
ARABIC PAYS OFF
Less than 1% of US college students study Arabic, despite it being considered a high demand language by both the government, business, and other non-profits doing work in the region. Because Modern Standard Arabic has extensive usage as the official language in 25 countries, you’ll get plenty of mileage out of your language learning and gain critical cultural insights.
Try Our Award-Winning App
Surround yourself with Arabic whenever, wherever with the Rosetta Stone app.
Download a unit and knock it out on the train or a flight. Select a 5-10 minute lesson and sneak it in while you wait in line or for your ride to show up. And explore dynamic features, like Seek and Speak, where you can point at an object in the real world and get a translation.
The best part? You don’t have to choose between app or desktop. Both come with your subscription and sync, so you can switch between devices seamlessly.