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Arabic Language

According to the generally accepted division of the Semitic languages, Arabic (also called, more appropriately, North Arabic) belongs to the southwest Semitic branch, although some scholars affiliate it with central Semitic. The affinity between Arabic and Hebrew (which belongs to the northwest Semitic branch) is conspicuous and finds its reflection also in the genealogical tables of the Bible.

Old Arabic (Early Arabic)

Though the Arabs are mentioned in early non-Arabic sources, very little is known of the early Arabic language. While many inscriptions from an earlier period are extant, their limited content conveys only a partial picture of their language. In their epigraphy these inscriptions, mostly graffiti, apparently represent different byforms of the South Arabian alphabet. Their language, however, called Early Arabic, is North Arabic, prima facie differing only slightly from classical Arabic. Yet the method of elucidating them by reference to the Arabic lexicon may make them appear more similar to classical Arabic than they really are. These inscriptions fall into three divisions: the Thamūdic, the Lihyānite, and the Ṣafāitic.

Talmudic literature presents a number of Arabic glosses, viz., statements about the names of various objects in Arabic; most of them written by the Palestinian amora Levi b. Laḥma of the third century C.E. Only a part of them, however, can be explained by Arabic; the others belong to Aramaic, which at this period already influenced the Arabic lexicon, and may represent Aramaic loanwords in Arabic.

Classical Arabic

UP TO THE CREATION OF THE ARAB EMPIRE (632 C.E.). The Arabs of the pre-Islamic period, a thinly scattered population in the wide areas of the Arabian Peninsula, no doubt spoke different dialects, as can be deduced from Arabic sources. There is not sufficient evidence for solving the problem as to whether classical Arabic emerged as the language of a particular tribe or was from the beginning an intertribal tongue. The earliest evidence, from the end of the fifth century C.E., shows that classical Arabic was already a supratribal language. Moreover, the differences between the tribal dialects or even between classical Arabic and the tribal vernaculars must not be overestimated. Typologically, it seems they were closely akin, all of them being languages of the synthetic type, tending to express several concepts in a single word, and possessing similar systems of declension and conjugation, so that it was relatively easy to switch from one dialect to another. Nor, presumably, was the speech of the Jews in pre-Islamic Arabic very different. Jewish pre-Islamic poetry, at any rate, did not differ from that of heathen contemporaries. Some scholars, however, claim that the more analytic Neo-Arabic lingual type, as characteristic of modern dialects, had already arisen in this period. Sources for the investigation of ancient classical Arabic are pre-Islamic poetry; narrative material, notably on war, as well as proverbial phrases; and the Koran.

The Arabs were almost completely isolated from outer influences, living in the Arabian Peninsula under the same primitive conditions as their ancestors. The absence of any upheaval that might have led to rapid changes accounts for the prima facie astonishing fact that Arabic, though appearing on the stage of history hundreds of years after Hebrew, has in some respects a more archaic character. Thus classical Arabic has preserved almost entirely the Old Semitic stock of phonemes, only samekh and shin having merged into s. As a rule, short vowels have been preserved in every position, including the final ones, which denoted the cases and moods, and the synthetic character of the language has been maintained. On the other hand, the morphology of Hebrew is in many respects more archaic than that of classical Arabic since in the latter, analogic rebuilding is in many aspects much more widespread. While in Hebrew many verbal forms seem to have been derived from roots containing two radical consonants, in Arabic, through analogy, most of the verbal forms are rebuilt according to the pattern of three-radical verbs. Nouns, too, frequently are transferred to the pattern of three-radical nouns, especially in the so-called broken plural. On the other hand, Arabic also preserved archaic features: the use of the dual is much wider than in Hebrew. The chief characteristic of Arabic syntax is the restriction of the large choice of Semitic constructions to a few standardized types, often limiting one construction to one special meaning.

AFTER THE CREATION OF THE ARAB EMPIRE. The creation of the Arab Empire had far-reaching consequences for the development of classical Arabic. In the towns of the new empire, analytic Neo-Arabic dialects soon emerged. Nevertheless, classical Arabic remained the ideal of the Arab society. Since classical Arabic was used in conversation in high society until the beginning of the tenth century, it soon became necessary for the urban population to train themselves in the classical language, and thus an impetus for the beginnings of grammatical studies was given. As a result, the philologists of Basra and Kufa standardized classical Arabic.

Nevertheless, the new Islamic culture with its new scope of ideals changed even classical Arabic. Though the literature, so far as it dealt with pre-Islamic topics, remained unchanged, the language of the classical secular prose writers of the early Abbasid period is different. Its vocabulary avoids the plethora of special Bedouin words, and instead uses general designations, adding the special characteristic by way of circumlocution. In syntax, the new style avoids exclamations and parataxis, instead developing the tendency already found in pre-Islamic Arabic to limit one type of expression to one sense. Through this restriction the Arabic sentence structure becomes admirably accurate and capable of expressing the most complicated range of ideas concisely.

With the lowering of the standard of education and the changes that affected the Bedouin tribes, who were no longer regarded as the best representatives of Arabic speech, classical Arabic ceased to be used in high society conversation after the beginning of the tenth century. From the mid-13th century, after the Mongol invasion and the establishment of Mamluk Egypt, the impact of Middle Arabic, including its Neo-Arabic layer, on literary language increased, and from the 14th century a period of stagnation and decay began, which lasted until the beginning of the 19th century.

NEO-ARABIC, MIDDLE ARABIC AND JUDEO-ARABIC. Neo-Arabic arose as the linguistic consequence of the Arab conquests of the seventh century C.E. As a result of the changes of place and culture and the influence of the indigenous population, this new language type arose in towns as early as 700 C.E.

The language of texts in which classical and post-classical features alternate with Neo-Arabic elements, as well as with pseudocorrections including hypercorrections and hypocorrections, is called Middle Arabic. The study of Neo-Arabic as contained in Middle Arabic texts cannot exclusively be based on documents of Muslim provenance. The tremendous influence which classical Arabic as an ideal exerted, as it still does, on Muslim authors meant that their writings did not, until a relatively late date, reflect decisive changes in the character of the language to any marked degree (with the sole exception of early papyri). Consequently, investigation has to concentrate upon the religious minorities of the Arab Empire, who were less devoted to the ideal of classical Arabic than the Muslims. Accordingly, the sources of Neo-Arabic proper are (a) Judeo-Arabic, mainly from the second millennium C.E., written as a rule in Hebrew characters; texts written in phonetic spelling from the second half of the first millennium have been preserved. Jews often preferred writing Arabic rather than Hebrew, even when dealing with the most sacred matters of Judaism. Only poetry was written in Hebrew almost consistently. (b) Christian Arabic texts, especially from southern Palestine, preserved in the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, including the only dated texts from as far back as the ninth century C.E. (c) Middle Arabic translators: As the most important translators were non-Muslims, their works exhibit Neo-Arabic peculiarities, though to a lesser degree.

The linguistic character of ancient Neo-Arabic clearly exhibits all the structural peculiarities that characterize modern Arabic dialects. Since ancient Neo-Arabic and the modern dialects are structurally closely akin, a very short description of the principal features of Judeo-Arabic as compared with classical Arabic may also serve as a summary of the main differences between classical Arabic and the Neo-Arabic as contained both in the other branches of Middle Arabic and the modern dialects (especially the sedentary vernaculars). These ancient Neo-Arabic features must be carefully deduced from Middle Arabic texts full of classical and pseudocorrect elements, since no texts written in pure Neo-Arabic are extant. Before the exploitation of these Middle Arabic texts, Neo-Arabic was only known from modern dialects. The reconstruction of early Neo-Arabic from Middle Arabic texts bridges the gap of more than one thousand years that separated the emergence of the Neo-Arabic lingual type from modern dialects.

Perhaps the most important event in the field of phonetics, an event which determined the very nature of Middle as contrasted with classical Arabic, was the change in the nature of the vowels, caused at least partly by the accent becoming strongly centralized: the vowels were weakened, thus becoming liable to change and elimination. Final short vowels disappeared (this being one, though not the sole, reason for the disappearance of cases and moods), and even in the interior of the word short vowels in open unstressed syllables have been elided. The phonemic structure of the vowels changed, at least in some dialects. Further, the quality of the short vowels has become variable. Diphthongs, it seems, have become simple vowels. In the sphere of the consonants the most important change is the weakening and disappearance of the glottal stop. A great number of assimilations occur and whole words are pronounced in tafkhīm (velarized) or tarqīq (non-velarized).

As to the linguistic structure of Judeo-Arabic, so far as such different and intricate features may be reduced to a common denominator, the most conspicuous deviation from classical Arabic was that Neo-Arabic detached itself from the synthetic type and approached the analytic type, which generally indicates one concept by one word. The most striking outward sign of this phenomenon is the disappearance of the mood and case endings. The place of the lost flexion is taken by new features: as is general in analytic languages, the subject tends to precede the verb, the direct object to follow it. The verb agrees even with its following subject, thus making distinction between subject and direct object possible (if they are of different gender or number). Apparently under the influence of Aramaic, the direct object is often indicated by li and sometimes also referred to by an anticipative pronominal suffix. A further analytic feature is the partial discarding of status constructus, while in order to indicate a similar relation not only prepositions, but sometimes also mataʿ, bataʿ are used. Status constructus has greatly changed: two nouns in status constructus may govern one noun, the nomen regens in the dual or sound masculine plural preserves its nūn, thus becoming identical with the status absolutus, and words which in classical Arabic as a rule occur in status constructus are to be met with in status absolutus. The differences between an, anna ("that"), and inna ("behold") have been blurred, and each may occur in syntactical positions proper, according to classical usage, to the others. The b-imperfect is rather rare, although it may be found in some early texts. The dual is often replaced by the plural, and the relative pronoun alladhī has become invariable (in many cases apparently being a "classical" spelling for vernacular illī, which, however, is very rare in Middle Arabic texts). The differences between relative clauses after determinate and indeterminate antecedents, strictly maintained in classical Arabic, are sometimes blurred. Asyndetic clauses occur in every syntactic environment, both in coordination, especially after verbs indicating movement, and in subordination, particularly in object clauses. Indirect questions often take the form of conditional clauses (as in Hebrew and English). The most frequent negation is , occurring much more often than in classical Arabic. The feminine plural is widely replaced by the masculine, and the passive, formed in classical Arabic by internal vowel change, by reflexive verbal forms. The most far-reaching changes have affected the numerals. Moreover, the fixed and accurate style of classical Arabic is largely replaced by an inconstant and careless language.

Despite the basic linguistic similarity of Judeo-Arabic and other branches of Middle Arabic, there were important differences between them, though mostly not linguistic distinctions proper: Jews, as a rule, wrote Arabic in Hebrew characters, dealt almost exclusively with Jewish topics, and made use of Hebrew (and Aramaic) phrases, thus making their literature virtually unintelligible to Gentiles. One has the feeling that Jews themselves regarded Judeo-Arabic as distinct from other forms of Middle Arabic, as one may infer from special literary traditions in Judeo-Arabic literature.

Modern Literary Arabic

The history of modern literary Arabic, like the modern history of the Arabs, begins with the expedition of Napoleon to Egypt in 1798. The problems confronting Arabic were even greater than those of ordinary living languages facing Westernization. In some respects, classical Arabic had a status comparable to that of Hebrew before its revival in Israel (see *Hebrew Language ): both were artificial languages of time-honored civilizations, in which religion occupied a central position. The difficulties which Hebrew had to overcome, were, it is true, even greater than those facing Arabic. Classical Arabic was the language of a coherent population, speaking dialects which, though differing from each other, and all exhibiting a structure different from that of classical Arabic, were nevertheless related to each other and with classical Arabic, and felt as such. By contrast, Hebrew was used by Jews scattered all over the world. On the other hand, since the revival of Hebrew in Ereẓ Israel, the status of Hebrew has become almost "normal" and the Jewish population of Israel is becoming increasingly unilingual. The only important trait distinguishing it from "normal" languages is that it is "open" to a certain degree to classical Hebrew. With the adaptation of classical Arabic to the demands of Western culture, the position of modern literary Arabic has been much less normalized. Its relation to its classical predecessor is, to be sure, similar to that of modern Hebrew to classical Hebrew: modern literary Arabic is open to classical Arabic. The language situation of Arabic, however, is complicated by the existence of the dialects. Whereas the Hebrew linguistic situation is characterized by dichotomy, modern Hebrew versus classical Hebrew, the Arabic linguistic structure is tripartitive at least, consisting of classical Arabic, modern literary Arabic, and the dialects.

The guiding idea of the whole Arabic language movement was the dogma of classical Arabic being the highest authority for linguistic correctness. Later, the emergence of Arabic nationalism conveyed to it additional significance: it was no longer merely a monument of the glorious past, but also the tie binding the Arabs in their various countries into one unit.

The Arabic Dialects

Arabic dialects are spoken by approximately 100 million people. The basic structure of the Arabic dialects, especially of the sedentary vernaculars, is identical with that of ancient Neo-Arabic. The main difficulty of classifying the dialects arises from the necessity of basing classification on both sociological and geographical criteria, though these overlap. According to sociological criteria, the Arabic dialects fall into Bedouin and sedentary vernaculars. According to geographical criteria, the following divisions emerge:

  1. Saudi Arabia, the Syro-Iraqi-Jordanian Gulf;
  2. South Arabic: Yemen, Oman, and Zanzibar;
  3. Iraq;
  4. Syria-Lebanon-Israel-Jordan;
  5. Egypt (excluding Alexandria and certain parts of the population of the Delta, which belong to the Maghrebine dialects);
  6. Sudan and Central Africa; and
  7. Maghrebine Dialects, including Malta. The characteristic of this dialect group is the use of nqtl and nqtlu for the first person singular and plural respectively of the imperfect.


EARLY ARABIC: Brockelmann, in: B. Spuler (ed.), Handbuch der Orientalistik, 3 (1954), 208–14; Rabin, in: EIS2, 1 (19602), 652–3. TALMUDIC "ARABIC" glosses: A. Cohen, in: JQR, 3 (1912/13), 221–33. CLASSICAL ARABIC: Brockelmann, in: B. Spuler (ed.), Handbuch der Orientalistik, 3 (1954), 214–19; J. Fueck, in: Arabiya, 1 (1950); H. Fleisch, Traité de philologie arabe, 1 (1961–79). MODERN LITERARY ARABIC: V. Monteil, L'arabe moderne (1960). ARABIC DIALECTS: Brockelmann, in: B. Spuler (ed.), Handbuchder Orientalistik, 3 (1954), 219–45; Cantineau, in: Orbis, 4 (1955), 149–69 (reprinted in J. Cantineau, Etudes de linguistique arabe (1960), 257–78); H. Sobelmann, Arabic Dialect Studies (1962); Kampffmeyer, in: EIS, 1 (1913), 394–402; Fleisch, in: EIS2, 1 (19602), 574–8; Marçais, ibid., 578–83. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: GENERAL: W. Fischer, Grundriss der arabischen Philologie, I, Sprachwissenschaft (1982). MIDDLE ARABIC AND JUDEO-ARABIC: J. Blau, Studies in Middle Arabic and Its Judeo-Arabic Variety (1982); idem, A Grammar of Christian Arabic (1966–67); S. Hopkins, Studies in the Grammar of Early Arabic (1984). MODERN LITERARY ARABIC: J. Blau, The Renaissance of Modern Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic (1981).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.