The term classical Arabic refers to the standard form of the language used in all writing and heard on television and radio as well as in mosques. The diverse colloquial dialects of Arabic are interrelated but vary considerably among speakers from different parts of the Middle East. These dialects differ from standard Arabic and from one another in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar and are usually labeled according to major geographic areas, such as North African, Egyptian, and Gulf. Within these broad classifications, the daily speech of urban, rural, and nomadic speakers is distinctively different. Illiterate speakers from widely separated parts of the Arab world may not understand one another, although each is speaking a version of Arabic. The sound system of Arabic has 28 consonants, including all the Semitic guttural sounds produced far back in the mouth and throat. Each of the three vowels in standard Arabic occurs in a long and short form, creating the long and short syllables so important to the meter of Arabic poetry. Although the dialects retain the long vowels, they have lost many of the short-vowel contrasts.
All Arabic word formation is based on an abstraction, namely, the root, usually consisting of three consonants. These root sounds join with various vowel patterns to form simple nouns and verbs to which affixes can be attached for more complicated derivations. For example, the borrowed term "bank" is considered to have the consonantal root b-n-k; film is formed from f-l-m. Arabic has a very regular system of conjugating verbs and altering their stems to indicate variations of the basic meaning. This system is so regular that dictionaries of Arabic can refer to verbs by a number system (I-X). From the root k-s-r, the Form I verb is "kasar"="he broke"; Form II verb is "kassar"="he smashed to bits"; and Form VII is "inkasar"="it was broken up." Nouns and adjectives are less regular in formation, and have many different plural patterns. The so-called broken plurals are formed by altering the internal syllable shape of the singular noun. For example, for the borrowed words bank and film, the plurals are, respectively, "bunuk" for banks, and "aflam" for films.
Normal sentence word order in standard Arabic is verb-subject-object. In poetry and in some prose styles, this word order can be altered; when that happens, subject and object can be distinguished by their case endings, that is, by suffixes which indicate the grammatical function of nouns. These suffixes are only spelled out fully in school textbooks and in the Quran to ensure an absolutely correct reading. In all other Arabic texts, these case endings (usually short vowels) are omitted, as are all internal short-vowel markings.
The Arabic script does not include letters for these vowels; instead, they are small marks set above and below the consonantal script. The Arabic script, which is derived from that of Aramaic, is written from right to left. It is based on shapes that vary according to their connection to preceding or following letters. Using a combination of dots above and below 8 of these shapes, the full complement of 28 consonants and the 3 long vowels can be fully spelled out. The Arabic alphabet has been adopted by non-Semitic languages such as Modern Persian (or Farsi), Urdu, Malay, and some West African languages such as Hausa. The use of verses from the Quran in Arabic script for decoration has led to the development over 1400 years of many different calligraphic styles. Calligraphy is a high art form in the Arab world.
The long history of Arabic includes periods of high development in literature. The Arabic of medieval writing is termed Classical Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is a descendant of Classical Arabic; frequently, however, the stylistic influence of French and English is evident. In the 20th century, in particular, much scientific, medical, and technical vocabulary has been borrowed from French and English.
Arabic belongs to the Semitic branch of AFROASIATIC LANGUAGES and is the national language of about 250 million inhabitants of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Outside these areas, it is spoken by Arabs living in Israel, and in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, North and South America, and Soviet Central Asia. Since it is the language of the QURAN some limited knowledge of it exists throughout the Muslim world.
All Arabs have as their mother tongue some local variety of Arabic. These vernaculars differ markedly so that, for example, Moroccan Arabic is virtually unintelligible in Iraq. The local vernacular is used in everyday commerce, but rarely written. Contrasting to the local vernaculars is standard, or formal, Arabic, which is used for writing and formal speech. Because it must be learned at school, large sectors of the Arab public do not command it sufficiently to use it themselves, although radio and other media are gradually spreading its comprehension. Standard Arabic has remained remarkably stable. In grammar and basic vocabulary the Arabic literature produced from the 8th century to the present is strikingly homogenous; the works of medieval writers differ from the standard Arabic hardly more than Shakespeare's language differs from modern English.
Standard literary Arabic is capable of expressing the finest shades of meaning. The vernaculars in their present form cannot perform the same task. If they were adapted, such a development would fatally split the unity of the Arab world. Today tensions exist between the standard language and the vernaculars, particularly in imaginative literature. In drama the demand for realism favors the vernacular, and many poets are tending toward their mother tongue. In the novel and short story, the trend is toward having the characters speak in the vernacular while the author uses formal language. Some of the most celebrated living novelists and poets, however, write exclusively in the standard language.
The term Middle East refers collectively to Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Yemen, and the states and emirates along the southern and eastern fringes of the Arabian peninsula, namely, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (Cyprus, Iran, Israel, and Turkey are not Arab countries and have different cultures and languages). Other Arab countries which are not geographically part of the Middle East, but are, nevertheless, integral parts of the Arab world are: Sudan and Djibouti in East Africa; and Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and to some extent Chad. Presently more than 200 million Arabs are living mainly in 21 countries. The Arabic language is the main symbol of cultural unity among these people.