By Tom Thompson
One of the world's major languages, Arabic has an unbroken literary tradition going back thirteen centuries, and it is the language of one of the world's major religions, Islam. An official language of the United Nations, Arabic is widely used every day all over the world, to worship, to tell stories, to sing songs, to discuss personal lives, even to discuss fashion choices. Some 350 million or so use it as a mother tongue, and another 800 million as a religious language.
Modern Standard Arabic, derived from the language of the Quran, is the only official form of Arabic. There are many spoken Arabic dialects, so much so that educated Arabs of any nationality can be assumed to speak both their school-taught Standard Arabic, as well as their native, often mutually unintelligible, spoken versions. In any event, Arabic is rich in rhythm and melody, synonyms, harmonious patterns, concision, clarity, and eloquence.
For the native English speaker, Arabic is not the easiest undertaking. But it is organized and efficient, a big help to a new learner. The alphabet has 28 letters, all consonants, with the exception of three used for long vowels. The other vowels are supplied by 14 diacritical marks, which also serve as noun and verb modifiers. But in Arabic, as in Hebrew, people don't include most vowels in their writing. Every letter that represents a consonant can be written four different ways depending on its position in a word –whether it's in the initial, medial, or final position.
The grammar and the sounds of Arabic are fascinating. A three letter root system is used for word building, known to linguists as a “consonantal root system.” What this means is that almost every word in the language is ultimately derived from one or another ‘root' (usually a verb) that represents a general concept of an action or state of being. These changes refine and alter the original root, each change (additional letters, or vowels changed or appended syllables) creating a new meaning so that meanings seem to grow out of the root “like branches of a tree,” says Nicholas Awde and Putros Samano in The Arabic Alphabet.
The most famous of this kind of construction is the consonants slm, which generally means “peace.” Salam (السلام) is the noun for peace. Islam is “surrender” (الإسلام) and a Muslim is “one who surrenders” (مسلم). Another example is the combination of three consonants k, t, and b, which combined can connote many versions of “to write.” The ramifications of this kind of meaning system are endless, and of course they can be filled with subtleties.
My Arabic tutor smiles optimistically when he reminds me often that the Arabic alphabet is completely phonetic of all the sounds native to the language. The harder truth is that some of those sounds are familiar, for example –alif (أ) and -ba (ب) at the beginning of the alphabet. But there are many letters that I have never heard before: A whispery h (ح), a throaty kh (خ), and the qaf (ق), which sounds like an English q with a u after it, a delicate cough from the back of the throat. The letter –ayn (ع) uniformly gives English speakers some trouble, more or less the sound of gargling!
Many students of Arabic are hesitant learners because of the view that the script isn't relatable to the traditional Roman alphabet used in English and in the other Romance languages. We should remember that Arabic and Roman scripts share a common history. In many parts of Spain, the Arabic script was used alongside Roman script for centuries. And, in fact, Arabic script is the second most widely used in the world after the Roman script that you're reading. Arabic cursive script is written right to left. There is no distinction between upper and lower case, and rules for punctuation are much looser than in English.
As with any language, a concentrated effort produces results, the ability to recognize and produce the letters of the alphabet, to pronounce them more or less correctly, and to combine them into words. The U.S. State Department estimates that a year in the classroom full-time and a year “in country” will get a student to a level 3 on a 5-point fluency scale.
Even for language enthusiasts with only a passing interest in Arabic, evolution of the cursive script is , well, fascinating. An illustrative example is the insights of The Cosmic Script by Ahmed Moustafa and Stephen Sperl. The authors of this monumental work provide a detailed, fully illustrated analysis of the evolution of written Arabic's geometric grid. I've studied many languages. One truth about Arabic is that even a little effort with it goes a long way. An example in the greeting: As-Salaam-Alaikum (“Peace be with you”) السلام عليكم).
Tom Thompson often writes on foreign languages. He lives in Washington, D.C.