5 Fascinating Facts About The Arabic Language
BY Vinu Renish / Arab America Contributing Writer
Arabic is an interesting language with deep historical roots! The history of the Arabic language spans centuries from well before the advent of the Christian era.
This fascinating language gave humanity the Qur’an, the sacred book of Muslims, the word ‘zero’ and of course, the much loved 1,001 nights (also known as Arabian Nights). It’s the liturgical language for millions of Muslims and Arab Christians across the world.
This ancient language is enticing for linguists and lovers of literature. Arabic poetry, especially the well-known Ghazals (love poems) and thousands of philosophy books are revered by literature lovers from diverse nationalities.
For fans of Science and Maths, the language is a treasure trove of knowledge! Mathematical studies (Algebra, Trigonometry, etc.), Physics, Chemistry and Engineering texts, and you’re still only scratching the surface of the treasures written in Arabic.
Check these five fascinating facts about the Arabic language to find out more about a language spoken for more than 1,500 years!
1. Arabic Is A Consonant Language
The system is called “abjad” or consonantal alphabet. You can, theoretically, omit vowels while writing words.
For the English language speakers, reading and writing without using vowels seem impracticable. However, it’s not uncommon among Semitic languages – such as Arabic, Hebrew, Maltese or Aramaic.
How does it work? When writing in Arabic, you only sign the consonants and the long vowels (like “ee” in the word “exceed”) – making it an impure abjad, since it has three symbols for vowels among the consonants.
Short vowels are considered less important, and you need not illustrate them. However, some Arabic writers do, through diacritic symbols, such as curves, dashes, and dots. For instance, Canada becomes “Cnda”, where the “a” at the end is signed because it’s considered a long vowel.
Such a writing system is possible in Arabic because it’s easy to identify words without short vowels. Well, it’s easy at least for those familiar with the language. For those who are just beginning to learn Arabic, it’s quite a complex task to read or write without vowels.
It could be confusing for readers to comprehend similar words. To give clear clues about the meaning of words, authors usually indicate short vowels using specific symbols. Otherwise, everything rests in the context.
And if that isn’t complex enough, there’s more about vowels to fascinate you! Long vowels can also be considered consonants. However, they’re marked with proper diacritic signs, avoiding further confusion.
2. More Than 30 Languages Use Arabic Characters
Arabic Alphabets are the second most widely used in writing; there are more than 30 languages where Arabic alphabet is used in different parts of the world. This happened because the Arabic language spread together with the spread of Islam.
Persian (spoken in Afghanistan and Iran), Urdu and Punjabi (spoken in Pakistan), and Malay (used in Brunei) are some examples of languages using Arabic characters to write.
Even Chinese has a writing style inspired by Arabic calligraphy. It is rarely used today, but not entirely lost.
In the early years of the 20th century, even Europe used the Arabic alphabet, mainly Turkish and Tatars living in Belarus, Georgia, Finland, Russia, and Lithuania. Ottoman Turkish is now an extinct language, while Tatars passed to the Cyrillic alphabet (sometime around 1930).
3. Reading Arabic Challenges The Human Brain
When reading words without vowels, the brain works differently to recognize the Arabic words. This is because it takes time and different brain parts to identify dots and symbols, and make the distinction between letters.
A study conducted in Israel, at the University of Haifa, shows that reading English involves both the left and the right sides of our brains. Reading Arabic is so very complicated for the right side of the brain and, therefore, it leaves all the job to the left side. A similar study at the University of Leicester confirms this theory.
It’s believed that the left hemisphere of the brain is in charge of maths, logic, speaking, and processing what we hear. The right hemisphere mainly processes what we see, spatial abilities, music and face recognition. However, both hemispheres work together in most processes, including when you are learning languages.
It’s a fascinating fact that reading the Arabic language doesn’t involve the right side of our brains!
When learning a foreign language, we use the left hemisphere of our brain for rules and structures, while the right side is in charge of remembering words and sounds. This could explain why most people find Arabic challenging to read.
4. Arabic Calligraphy Is Nothing Short Of Visual Art
Arabic letters are always connected in words, even when typed, leaving the impact that all scripts are handwritten.
Actually, unlike English, there are no separate handwritten and typed letters. There’s only one set of symbols for all occasions.
Another fascinating fact is that the Arabic language doesn’t have capital letters, either. A letter takes different forms depending on its place in the word – in the beginning, in the middle, in the end, or isolated.
It’s not easy to deal with a single set of symbols. Scribes and calligraphers have developed various types of the script over the years.
The major types of script are:
- Kufic – the oldest script, used for writing the Qur’an. After the 12th century, it was used less for the Holy book and mostly for decoration purposes.
- Naskh – it substituted the Kufic style around the 11th century. It’s easier to read and faster to write. It’s being used widely today in newspapers, magazines, and books.
- Thuluth – its main characteristic is the presence of vowel signs and ornaments. It’s mostly used to write holy names and decorate mosques.
5. 420 Million People Speak It
Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world, after Mandarin, English, Hindustani, and Spanish.
Countries that speak Arabic are very different from each other when it comes to their dialects, culture, and history. However, despite this regional diversity, most speakers manage to understand each other because of the Classical way of speaking and writing it.
Arabic is an official language for 27 countries. Among them are Egypt, Iraq, Palestine/Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. In the European Union, Malta is the only country to recognize Arabic as its official language.
Arabic is also an official minority language in six states: Cyprus, Iran, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Turkey. The Cypriot Arabic language is considered an endangered language by UNESCO.
The UN recognizes Arabic as one of its six official languages. Since 2010, the UN has been celebrating Arabic Language on the 18th of December to increase awareness of the rich heritage and culture surrounding the Arabic language.
Today, there are three major forms of Arabic – Modern Standard, Classic and Colloquial Arabic. The Modern Standard Arabic is the official language of the Arab world and is primarily taught in schools. It’s also used widely in workplaces, media, and government communication.
It’s hard to say what makes this language so unique! Is it the writing from right to left or it being consonant? Is it because it challenges your brain more than most other languages?
There’s so much about Arabic that seduces linguists from across the globe. The alphabet alone, written with a well-defined calligraphy that conserves ancient traditions, can make any language lover fall for Arabic.
Vinu Renish is an Arab America contributing writer and an associate at Day Translations, a translation agency offering Arabic certified translation services.