Arabic the Semitic Language of the Arabs

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Arabic—the Semitic Language of the Arabs

At one time, everyone on earth spoke the same language. Genesis 11:1-9 details the event that led God to confound the communication channels between peoples. Thwarted from building their city, groups of people speaking the same language dispersed throughout the land.

The origins of Arabic

Arabic belongs to the Semitic language group, as does Hebrew. Linguists dispute where the Semitic languages originated, but do know the languages flourished in the coastal areas of the Levant and in the Tigris-Euphrates River basin.

Both the north and south Arabian language groups developed their own alphabet and script. The earliest form of North Arabian (Proto-Arabic) texts, dating back to the eighth century B.C., were found in eastern Saudi Arabia. Most of these texts were written in variants of Musnad, an ancient Yemani alphabet.

Semi-cursive Hebrew scriptBut these alphabets and scripts were eventually replaced by the Nabataean version of the Aramaic script. Used by Arab tribes affiliated with Rome and Persia, this script gradually evolved into what would be recognized as Arabic script in the sixth century A.D. The Arabic language, as spoken by nomadic tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, also continued to evolve.

Luke, in the book of Acts, wrote that Arabians were among those who heard words spoken in their own language on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:5-11).

In A.D. 613, Muhammad began to preach publicly in Mecca. His language? Arabic. With the rise of Islam, Arabic gradually became the language of Islamic politics and culture.

One cannot separate the Arabic language from the Muslim faith. The sixth-century A.D. Meccan dialect of Arabic became the standard language of Islam and the Qur’an. The Qur’an became the holy book of the Muslims, and Arabic became the holy language of all Muslims.

Ataturk, founder of modern day Turkey, recognized the symbiotic relationship between Islam and the Arabic language. He banned the speaking and writing of Arabic within the country.

In the Arab world, when the question “Who is an Arab?” is asked, the answer among Arabs is, “One whose mother tongue is Arabic.” Language, not ethnic background, usually becomes the determining factor of who is an Arab. There are approximately 280 million people whose first language is Arabic.

Arabs place a high value on their language

Raphael Patai, who spoke several languages, including Arabic, wrote, “The best Arab minds considered the Arabic language the greatest treasure possessed by the Arabs and devoted enormous ingenuity to the fullest possible utilization of its potential. In this they were greatly helped by the rich vocabulary of Arabic, the great variability of Arabic verb structures, the ease with which the language lent itself to rhythmic cadences and its exceptional suitability to rhetoric and hyperbole” (The Arab Mind, 50).

“Arabs are secure in the knowledge that their language is superior to all others… Most important, when the Qur’an was revealed directly from God, Arabic was the medium chosen for His message; its use was not an accident, Arabic is also extremely difficult to master, and it is complex grammatically; this is viewed as another sign of superiority. Because its structure lends itself to rhythm and rhyme, Arabic is pleasing to listen to when recited aloud. Finally, it has an unusually large vocabulary and its grammar allows for the easy coining of new words, so that borrowing from other languages is less common in Arabic than in many other languages…” (Margaret K. Nydell, Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Westerners, 117).

Arab historian Philip K. Hitti wrote, “No people in the world has such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and is so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs. Hardly any language seems capable of exercising over the minds of its users such irresistible influence as Arabic. Modern audiences in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo can be stirred to the highest degree by the recital of poems only vaguely comprehended, and by the delivery of orations in the classical tongue, though only partially understood” (The Arabs: A Short History, 21).

Arab language deconstructed

There are three forms of Arabic:

  1. Classical. Used from pre-Islamic times in Arabia, this is the Arabic students learn as they memorize the Qur’an. Many of the words are now obsolete. It is not used in conversation nor is it used in non-religious writings.

  2. Modern Standard (MS). Continuing to evolve, this is the written Arabic of books (other than the Qur’an) and newspapers. It is also the Arabic of news broadcasts and formal occasions, but not ordinary conversation. It may be used in conversations between Arabic speakers of different dialects. Most educated Arabs living anywhere Arabic is spoken can read MS.

  3. Colloquial (spoken). This term covers the many dialects of Arabic that can vary from region to region within a country. The lingua franca is Egyptian Arabic—radically different, but popular because of the movies and television programs produced in Cairo.

The Eastern Arabic-English/English-Eastern Arabic book by Rank A. Rice and Majed F. Sa’id is the dictionary and phrasebook for the Arab dialect spoken in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel and Syria. Public, professional and official documents are rarely written in Arabic dialect.

An interesting footnote in history

Sa’adya, an Egyptian Jew who lived in Baghdad and died in A.D. 942, wrote an Arabic commentary on the Bible. But his commentary “soon became largely unintelligible to the majority of the Arabic-speaking Jews, because of the discrepancy between literary and spoken Arabic, which has been in existence for many centuries. Therefore it became necessary to translate the Bible anew, and this time into the various local dialects” (SD Goitein, Jews and Arabs: A Concise History of Their Social and Cultural Relations, 135).

The Arabic script was not finalized until the mid-eighth century A.D. Arabic calligraphy became, and is considered, a major art form in the Islamic world.

This chart shows how Arabic letters are written. All letters are written in cursive script from right to left. Numbers are written from left to right. Most letters have four forms, depending on where the letter is written within the word.

The difficulty in the transliteration of Arabic

To quote Lonely Planet’s guide Syria & Lebanon, “The presence of sounds unknown in European languages and the fact that the script is ‘incomplete’ (most vowels are not written) combine to make it nearly impossible to settle on one universally accepted method of transliteration. A wide variety of spellings are therefore possible for words when they appear in Latin script—and that goes for places and people’s names as well.

“The whole thing is further complicated by the wide variety of dialects and the imaginative ideas Arabs themselves often have on appropriate spelling, in, say, English (words spelt one way in Jordan may look very different again in Lebanon and Syria, with strong French influences); not even the most venerable of western Arabists have been able to come up with a satisfactory solution” (405).

There are times when, reading Middle Eastern English-language newspapers online, I have to double-check to make sure different articles are talking about the same place or person.

The writer has these “encouraging” words on page 360 of my copy of Jordan: The Rough Guide: “Arabic is phenomenally hard for an English speaker to learn. There are virtually no familiar points of contact between the two languages. The script, written in cursive from right to left is unrelated; there’s a host of often guttural sounds which don’t appear in English and which take much vocal contortion to master; and the grammar, founded on utterly different principles from English, is proclaimed as one of the most pedantic in the world. It’s said that, starting from scratch, Arabic can take seven times as long to master as French.”

In Arabic, each and every letter is pronounced and Arabic words can become tongue twisters within themselves.

Learning a new language is valuable

On a personal note, as I was moving forward to step over the high doorsill to exit a small museum in Umm Qais, Jordan, I noticed a small man standing beside the door, holding it open. I glanced at his face and said “شكرأ” (shukran). There was a few seconds silence and as I stepped over the sill, I heard a softly spoken “عفوأ” (afwan).

That simple exchange was well worth the time I took to learn the simple, yet so important, “thank you” in Arabic.

The future of language

God confounded the original language spoken by humankind. But that isn’t the end of the story. His prophet Zephaniah wrote, “For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, that they all may call on the name of the LORD” (Zephaniah 3:9).

God speed that day.

Further reading

To learn more about the prophecies related to the Arab peoples, please request our free booklet The Middle East in Bible Prophecy.