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Although the Arabic language existed long before the inception of Islam, it has been closely associated with this religion ever since the Qur’an, its holy scripture, was revealed in Arabic to the prophet Muhammad ibn `Abd Allah in seventh-century Arabia. As a cosmopolitan religion, Islam carried Arabic to all peoples who became Muslims. Those in the regions nearest to Arabia whose languages were originally Semitic-Mesopotamia and Syria-eventually became Arabic speaking, as did those whose languages were originally Hamitic in Egypt and North Africa. Together with Arabia itself, these regions constitute the Arab world today, which also includes non-Muslim religious minorities who speak Arabic (e.g., Christian Arabs) and nonArab Muslim minorities who have retained their original languages but use Arabic as a second language (e.g., Kurds and Berbers). Peoples who adopted Islam in other regions of the world have kept their ethnic or national languages but have borrowed many words from Arabic and often also the Arabic writing system (e.g., Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and Urdu). During the heyday of Islamic civilization, Arabic was the lingua franca of a vast Islamic empire and its universal language of learning. Muslim scholars of non-Arab origin, like the historian and theologian al-Tabari (d. 923), the philosopher and physician Ibn Sina (d. 1037), the astronomer and encyclopedic scientist al-Biruni (d. 1048), and many others wrote their works in Arabic. Arabic today is not so widespread a language of scholarship as it was earlier, but it continues to be the common language of worship for Muslims all over the world and, of course, the living language of the Arab people themselves.

Despite its long history and great geographical spread, Arabic has retained its identity and distinctive characteristics. Its flexible structural system has continuously

absorbed the cultural differences it encountered, and it has adapted itself in order to serve the needs of its new speakers. Perhaps in no period of its history has Arabic faced a greater challenge than in the modern age with its dizzying advances in science and technology and its seemingly endless cultural flux; yet Arabic continues to adapt to modernity and to retain its flexibility and adaptability despite claims that it cannot cope with the pace of change, particularly in specialized scientific and technological disciplines and in areas of complex societal organization.

Translators of Western works into Arabic and Arab journalists in the burgeoning Arabic press of the nineteenth century were perhaps the first to feel the necessity of adapting the language creatively to modern needs. Their success in updating Arabic depended on their grasp of the intricacies of Arabic morphology and grammar, as well as on their knowledge of the history of the language, its adaptability, and its wealth. Efforts to modernize Arabic remained more or less individual, and the process was not organized, but as new knowledge kept pouring in from the West, the necessity of organizing academic institutions for language development and of adopting planning principles was increasingly felt. In 1892 a circle of scholars was founded in Cairo to discuss linguistic matters, and in 1907 scholars at Dar al-`Ulum in Cairo established a similar circle; but these efforts remained limited and did not achieve continuity. Lughat al-‘Arab (The Language of the Arabs), a journal founded in 1911 in Baghdad by Anastase-Marie al-Karmili (1866-1947), was devoted to issues related to the Arabic language and was an effective inter-Arab forum on the subject.

In 1919 the first academy for the Arabic language was founded in Damascus, thanks to the organizing efforts of Muhammad Kurd ‘Ali (1876-1953) and the support of King Faysal and his government. Called al-Majma’ al-`Ilmi al-`Arabi (The Scientific Arabic Academy), it concerned itself with linguistic and literary matters as well as with problems in the arts and sciences related to Arabic. In 1921 it founded a journal that is still published. In 1932 scholars in Egypt succeeded in founding another academy with government support. Originally called Majma` al-Lughah al `Arabiyah al-Malaki (The Royal Academy of the Arabic Language) and, since the abolition of the monarchy in 1952, renamed Majma` alLughah al-`Arablyah (The Academy of the Arabic Language), it publishes a journal and the minutes of its meetings; the academy concerns itself with preserving the purity of Arabic and with rendering Arabic a capable vehicle of modern communication. In 1947 an Iraqi academy was established in Baghdad with government support and called al-Majma` al -`Ilmi al `Iraqi (The Scientific Iraqi Academy). Since 1950 it has published a journal reflecting its concerns and contributing to keeping the Arabic language abreast of cultural and civilizational developments. The Arab League has worked to unify the academies of Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad so that they can coordinate their work, and a conference of academies of the Arabic language was held in Damascus in 1956, attended by representatives from all over the Arab world. Pan-Arab efforts still continue, but the formation of a united Arabic academy is still an unfulfilled hope.

These Arabic academies have been implemental in updating Arabic and enriching it with new words, although at times they have been the butt of popular jokes for their pedantry and snail-like pace. With their help and the continuing creative efforts of individual Arab translators, journalists, linguists, scientists, poets, novelists, essayists, and other Arab literati, the Arabic language today has become adequately modernized. Cutting across the boundaries of the Arab countries, each with its own spoken dialect or dialects, an overarching modern standard Arabic is now used, mainly in written communications but also in formal oral presentations and in radio and television broadcasts. It is understood by the general Arab public and is a functional vehicle of communication in any field of knowledge. It has been declared one of the official languages of the United Nations. Based on classical Arabic (al-`Arabiyah al -fush d), it has retained the latter’s syntax and morphology to a large degree but has acquired a renewed phraseology and many additional lexical elements.

In modern standard Arabic one may find words like barlaman (parliament), tilifun (telephone), and tilifizyun (television), directly borrowed from Western languages and assimilated into Arabic. This arabicization is not usually the Arab academicians’ preferred method of updating the language, although it is a practice of scholars of the ‛Abbāsid period and earlier: witness, for example, old Arabic words like falsafah (philosophy) and iqlim (climatic region), arabicized from Greek. With common usage, verbs have been derived from some of the recently arabicized words, for example, talfana (to telephone) and talfaza (to televise); one further finds participles like mutalfaz (televised) and substantives like tilfdz (television set)-very much as past scholars treated Greek loanwords in tafalsafa (to philosophize) and faylasuf (philosopher). Such arabicized words have been usually made to agree with the rules of Arabic morphology and phonology.

Modern Arabs, however, prefer to form new words by deriving them from existing Arabic roots whenever possible. Thus the word sayydrah (automobile) is derived from the verb sdra (to walk); thalldjah (refrigerator) from the noun thalj (snow, ice); mis’ad (elevator) from the verb sa’ada (to ascend); and matar (airport) from the verb tdra (to fly). These neologisms follow Arabic morphological rules and have been smoothly assimilated into the language. Modern Arabs also derive new meanings from old Arabic vocabulary by figurative extension or semantic approximation; thus qitar (train) in old Arabic meant a string of camels, and jaridah (newspaper) meant a stripped palm-branch once used for writing. They do not mind translating Western expressions-for example, majlis al-nuwwdb (chamber of deputies), markaz al-thiqal (center of gravity), and mukayyif al-hawd’ (airconditioning)–but with due respect to heaven, they have translated “skyscraper” as natihat al-sahab (“cloudscraper”). Some Western idiomatic expressions have been literally translated in modern Arabic usage, like la’iba dawran (“he played a role”), talaba yadaha (“he asked for her hand”), or qatala al-waqt (“he killed time”). In the manner of European languages, prefixes have been used in some words-successfully in lasilki (wireless), lanihdya (infinity), lashu’uri (unconscious), and lamuba-lah (indifference), which are now common words, and not so successfully in ghibjalidi (postglacial), qabtarikh (prehistory), and tahshu`uri (subconscious), which have been suggested by Sati` al-Husri (1880-1968).

On the whole, modern standard Arabic has retained the basic characteristics of classical Arabic. Reformers who wanted to modify its writing system or adopt Latin characters for it have been vehemently resisted; so were those who called for replacing it with vernacular dialects. This continuing resistance is based in part on the political need of Arab nationalists to preserve Arab cultural unity and historical continuity, for they consider the use of dialects to be divisive, and they fear that the adoption of Latin characters will alienate Arabs from their heritage. Islamic religious fervor strengthens this resistance, considering it a duty to preserve the language of the Qur’an and all the Islamic culture that has flowed from it.


Beeston, A. F. L. The Arabic Language Today. London, 1970. Good general survey.

Blau, Joshua. The Renaissance of Modern Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic: Parallels and Differences in the Revival of Two Semitic Languages. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1981. Good comparative study of modern developments in Hebrew and Arabic.

Chejne, Anwar G. The Arabic Language: Its Role in History. Minneapolis, 1969. Comprehensive survey of Arabic and of scholarly studies in the language from earliest times to the present.

Said, M. F. Lexical Innovation through Borrowing in Modern Standard Arabic. Princeton, 1967. Focuses on one method of language extension.

Stetkevych, Jaroslav. The Modern Arabic Literary Language: Lexical and Stylistic Developments. Chicago, 1970. Thorough examination of modern developments in Arabic, treated analytically and historically.

Wehr, Hans. ” `Arabiyya.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 1, pp. 561-603. Leiden, 196o-. See section entitled “Modern Written Arabic.”


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/arabic/

  • writerPosted On: October 11, 2012
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