A Guide to Arabic - 10 facts about the Arabic language

Useful facts about the Arabic language

Translation in Arabic

Check the Arabic-only version

1. Where is Arabic spoken?

Arabic is the official language of the 22 countries which form the Arab League: It’s the native language of over 200m people residing in this geographical region, which stretches from Southwest Asia to Northwest Africa and is also known as the Arab World. Arabic is also the liturgical language of over a billion Muslims around the world, as it’s the language in which the القرآن, Qur'an, the Holy Book of Islam, was revealed.

The "formal" Arabic language, known as Classical Arabic or الفصحى, Fus-ha, is the language in which the Qur’an is written and is considered to be the base of the syntactic and grammatical norms of the Arabic language. This Classical form of Arabic remains widely used by religious scholars and is taught in schools around the world. However, it is considered today more of a written language than a spoken one.

Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA, is similar but easier than Classical Arabic. It's understood across the Arab world and used by television presenters and politicians, for example, as well as to teach Arabic as a foreign language. You'll also find it in newspapers and works of modern Arabic literature.

In terms of "spoken" Arabic, there are many different dialects. An Arabic speaker from Iraq, for example, can find it almost impossible to understand a local Algerian, and vice versa - even though both individuals are speaking a particular form of Arabic dialect. However, both will be able to communicate in Modern Standard Arabic.

2. What you already know about Arabic

Arabic has contributed numerous words to the English language like  قطن [koton], cotton,  سكر [succar], sugar,
 غزال [ghazal], gazelle,  قيثارة [qithara], guitar,
 الكحول [alcoo’hool], alcohol,  صحراء [sahra’a], sahara,
 قيراط [qeerat], carat, and  ليمون [laymoon], lemon.

The Arabic language uses the same punctuation marks as English, as well as the same Western rules of punctuation, but watch out as some of the symbols are inverted, such as the comma (،), or reversed, for instance, the question mark (؟). This has no impact on the intonation, though.

3. How hard is it to learn?

The pronounciation of some Arabic letters, like the
 خ [kh] as  خوخ [khawkh], prune,
 ع [a’a] as in  عنوان [a’anwan], address,
 ح [ha’e] as in  حائط [ha’et], wall,
 ق [qa] as in  قانون [qanoun], law, and
 غ [gh] as in  غيمة [ghayma], cloud, may take some time to master as they are produced right at the very back of the throat.

In Arabic word order, the verb comes first, so to say "the boy eats the apple" you actually say "eat the boy the apple":
 اكل الولد التفاحة [akala al walado attofaha]. Adjectives come after the noun, rather than before as in English:
 السيارة الحمراء [assayara alhamra’a], literally the car red.

The Arabic language is written right to left and the front of an Arabic book is what would be considered the back by speakers of most western languages.

4. The most difficult words and tongue twisters

  خيط حرير على حيط خالتي ام خليل
[Kheit hareer a'alaa heet khalti imm khalil.]
A silk thread runs through my Aunt Imm Khalil’s Wall.

  مشمشنا مش مشمشكم ومشمشكم مش مشمشنا، لما مشمش مشمشكم، ما كان مشمش مشمشنا
[Mishmishna mish mishmishkom w mishmishkom mish mishmishna, lamma mashmash mishmishkon, ma kan mashmash mishmishna.]
Our apricots are not the same as your apricots, and your apricots are not the same as our apricots. When your apricots were ripe, our apricots were not ripe yet

5. Know any good Arabic jokes?

Arabic jokes usually revolve around social issues, such as nagging wives, nosy in-laws, stingy neighbours, etc. Political jokes are also very common following big political events, such as elections. A famous target of jokes throughout the Middle East is the President, King, Prince or Sheikh of the country who doesn’t want to leave office, even though he’s becoming too old to rule. One of the jokes goes:
  قالوا للريّس: من حتودّع الشعب؟
ردّ الريّس: الله! هو الشعب رايح فين؟
[Aaloo lel rayyes: mosh hatwadda’a esha’ab?
Radd el rayess: Allah! Howwa el sha’ab rayeh feen?]
They asked the President: aren’t you going to bid farewell to the people?
The President replied: God! I didn’t know the people were going away!

6. If I learn Arabic, will it help me with any other languages?

Arabic is a Semitic language and therefore shares similarities with other Semitic languages, such as Aramaic and Hebrew.

In terms of writing, several languages use the Arabic alphabet, such as Persian/Farsi, Urdu, Pashto and Kurdish. Arabic learners would be able to read words or sentences written in any of those languages, but not necessarily understand what they’re reading!

7. What not to say and do

Despite the many differences in pronunciation between English and Arabic words, be wary of some false friends, i.e. terms that are pronounced practically the same in both languages, but refer to totally different things.

If you were to enquire about when an event’s taking place, for example, don’t be shocked if you’re given information about the location of the event rather than its timing: the English word when sounds exactly like the Arabic word  وين [wein] which means where.

If your name is Anna,  أنا [ana], this means I in Arabic, so, if you introduce yourself by saying I’m Anna,  أنا آنا [ana Anna], this would translate as I am I in Arabic.

Regarding social etiquette, especially if you’re a woman, you may find yourself in a place where the local dress code is very conservative (headscarves and  عباءة [abaya] a robe-like dress).
You should also avoid any public display of affection towards your partner, as this is also considered impolite or even illegal in some very conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Arabs are renowned for their hospitality and eagerness to honour their guests, which can sometimes put westerners in awkward situations. If you admire an item, your host may feel obligated to give it to you and you’re obliged to accept his offer, since it’s considered impolite to refuse a gift. Be aware that your host might think of you as impolite and ill-mannered if he thought that you’ve used his sense of hospitality against him and “cornered” him into giving you that cherished item! So express your admiration, but in a moderate way.

8. Famous quotations

 إن شاء الله [Insha'Allah]
This very famous term, meaning God willing is the equivalent of the word hopefully in English. e.g. Insha’Allah I will get a promotion. Although the saying has a religious connotation and appears often in the verses of the Qur’an, it’s also used by Arabic speakers in non-religious contexts.

 ما شاء الله [Masha’Allah]
Another form of God willing. This expression is usually said after giving a compliment, in the same way that you say bless or knock on wood in English. It shows that someone is not envious of someone else’s fortune, and that God is the reason for that good fortune, e.g. Your eyes are beautiful, Masha’Allah.

Some famous and common Arabic words of wisdom.

  من عاشر القوم اربعين يوما، إما صار منهم أو رحل عنهم
[Man a’asharal qawna arba’eena yawman, imma sara minhum aw rahala a’anhum.]
Dwell among people for 40 days. You will either become one of them or flee them.

  يد واحدة لا تصفـّق
[Yadon waheeda la tusaffek.]
You cannot clap with one hand. Meaning: people should cooperate to get things done.

  الكتاب يقرأ من عنوانه
[Al kitabu yuqra’a min inwanihi.]
The meaning of a book can be judged from its title. Meaning: what you see is what you get (and not "you can’t judge a book by its cover", which is the opposite metaphor in English).

9. First publication

The Arabic language is believed to have started among nomadic tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, long before the birth of Islam. However, this ancient Semitic language remained predominantly spoken and had no major written records until the 7th century AD, when it started to develop into a written form.

However, some historians consider the texts known as the Hasaean inscriptions, which date back to the 8th century BC, to be the first Arabic scripts ever recorded. Those texts were written in what is known as the Epigraphic South Arabian Musnad. It was used for writing the Yemeni Old South Arabic languages and eventually developed into a pre-classical form of Arabic alphabet, the Nabataean.

10. How to be polite and show respect

When meeting someone for the first time, use the greeting
 السلام عليكم [assalamu a’alaikum], peace be upon you.

When asking for something, you start or end your request with the expression  من فضلك [min Fadlak], which is a polite form of saying please.

When introducing someone, you say  السيـّد [assayed], Mr.,
or  السيـّدة [assayida], Ms., before their name.

Kissing is a ‘no-no’, unless the person draws you towards them and kisses you first. Play it safe, when greeting someone, by offering to shake the other person’s hand.

Finally, your new acquaintance may put their hand on their chest instead of shaking your hand, as some religious people don’t like any physical contact, especially with the opposite sex.

Arabic key phrases

Arabic key phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

The Arabic alphabet

The Arabic alphabet

All the sounds, from alif to ya and lots of consonants

Videos about the Arabic language

Arabic videos

Basic words, traditional dishes and 2 cartoons

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