What is the Arabic language?
Arabic is one of the world’s great languages. Its graceful script, magnificent style and rich vocabulary give the language a unique character and flavour.
Arabic is the largest member of the Semitic language family, which also includes languages like Hebrew and Aramaic. Like most other Semitic languages, Arabic is written from right to left.
Where did the Arabic language begin?
Arabic text above mosque entrance.
Calligraphy with text from the Quran, at a mosque entrance.
The origins of the Arabic language go back to pre-islamic Arabia, where the tribes spoke local Arabic dialects.
Poetry played an important role in the culture of pre-Islamic Arabia. The poet represented the prestige and importance of an individual tribe. Okaz, a market town a short distance from the city of Makkah (Mecca) in western Arabia, used to play host to a regular poetry festival where the craft of the poets would be exhibited.
Makkah was an urban centre of trade, culture and religion. The powerful Quraish clan was the most influential in Makkah, and their language became the dominant dialect.
When the Quran (the holy scripture of Islam) was revealed, its unique, elaborate style and challenging message came to change Arabian society for ever. The revelation of the Quran signifies the very beginning of Arabic as a world language. The language of the Quran is still the “benchmark” on which Arabic linguists and grammarians still rely. Read more about the central role of Arabic in Islam (requires your browser to allow pop-ups).
As Islam spread to lands beyond the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabic language eventually came to develop a literature spanning numerous forms of expression, styles and genres.
This classical language later developed into what we call “Modern Standard Arabic”. The page called, “What is Modern Standard Arabic?“, tells you more about this modern form of Arabic.
Arabic loan words
Modern Standard Arabic is the language of the media.
With the spread of Islam, Arabic began its journey from being a regional language, to becoming an international language of major importance. As the Arabic language spread in Spain in the 8th century, its influence on European languages began.
During the Muslim era in Spain, the Spanish language acquired a large number of words from Arabic. Many place names in Spain bear witness to their Arabic past, such as the famous “Alhambra” palace in Granada. Its name originates from the Arabic word “al-hamraa’“, meaning “the Red“.
Arabic loan words have also found their way into many other European languages. To name a few, the English words “Admiral“, “Algebra“, “Coffee” and “Giraffe“, are of Arabic origin.
Many languages in the Muslim world have, to varying degrees, been influenced by Arabic. Persian is strongly Arabized in both vocabulary and grammar. Urdu – the official language of Pakistan and one of the major languages in India – also contains a great many words of Arabic origin.
Where is Arabic spoken today?
Cairo is the largest city in the Arab world.
Arabic is today spoken by more than 200 million people in the Arab World, and it is an official language in 22 countries.
Arabic is also an important language in many countries bordering on the Arab World, like Mali, Niger, Chad, Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia. There are also Arabic-speaking populations in parts of southern Turkey and southwestern Iran.
With the migration of Arab nationals to countries outside of the Arab World, the Arabic language has spread to practically all corners of the Earth.
Arabic has held the status of official language at the United Nations since 1974.
Being the language of the Quran, Arabic is highly respected across the Muslim world. Many non-Arab Muslim children begin learning Arabic at early age, to enable them to read and understand the Quran.