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A short history of the Arabic language

With Arabic Language Day coming up tomorrow, it is worth exploring the long history of this beautiful language, which is spoken today by over 300 million people, including myself. It is the official language of over 22 countries that encompass the Middle East and North Africa. With regional dialects, Modern Standard Arabic, and Quran Arabic, many wonder about the origins of the various forms of Arabic that exist today. Let us unpack the history of the Arabic language and how constant refinements throughout history have birthed the 25 different dialects spoken today.

The Arabic language is one of the oldest Semitic languages still spoken today. While its true origin remains a mystery, it is believed to have originated more than 2500 years ago. Having its roots in the Arabian Peninsula, it was spoken by nomadic tribes along the Northwestern frontier. It is a part of the Semitic language family, specifically a north Semitic language. Arabs or “Nomads”, the word from which “Arabic” is derived, lived in the area between Mesopotamia in the East and the mountains in modern-day Lebanon in the West. The Arabic language spread beyond its cradle as a result of nomadic tribes traveling out of the Peninsula. It was also spread along the Silk Roads.

My history teacher used to say […]: “The Arabic language moved with the spices”, which perfectly summarizes the movement of Arabic along trade routes 

Connecting the Eastern and Western worlds, the Silk Road allowed for the exchange of luxury goods, spices, and other riches – and facilitated language exchange. As my history teacher used to say:

مشيت اللغة العربية مع البهارات

or “The Arabic language moved with the spices”, which perfectly summarizes the movement of Arabic along trade routes. The language soon made its way into non-Arabic speaking cultures that embraced it. The Islamic religion was also a part of this cultural and economic exchange. As cultures exchanged goods and interacted with one another, many receiving societies in Asia, Persia, and East Africa converted to Islam, consequently adopting the Arabic language, which is the language of the Quran.

Peaceful routes and cultural exchange have not been the only reason for the spreading of the language. Islamic conquests in the 7th century C.E. were a prevalent factor. Throughout these conquests, the language made its way to North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, and even East China. The expansion of the Arabic language almost directly led to the death of other Semitic languages. For example, the original local language, Phoenician, is no longer spoken in Lebanon. Similarly, Coptic is now only spoken in Coptic churches in Egypt.

Arabic notably borrowed terms and phrases relating to crafts, fine arts, and administration from Greek and Persian

In its early stages of development, contacts with the languages of societies with a flourishing cultural life, such as Persian or Greek, left traces in the Arabic language. Arabic notably borrowed terms and phrases relating to crafts, fine arts, and administration from Greek and Persian. This process went both ways, as Arabic has influenced many languages like Turkish, Hindi, Urdu, and even Spanish. For instance, the Spanish word for sugar, azúcar, comes from the Arabic السكر (as-sukar). Similarities between languages allow us to catch a glimpse at history taking place. Therefore, Arabic truly encapsulates influences of other languages, but the same is true for the languages it has influenced.

Why are there many different dialects in Arabic despite it being “one language”? This is a question a lot of people have asked me. Despite being a speaker of Arabic (specifically the Shami dialect, which is spoken in the Levant) myself, I never really had an educated answer to this. So of course, I did some research (which may or may not have been for this article), and found out that since Arabic was first spoken by nomadic tribes, the Arabic language was constantly on the move.

As nomads branched out of the Arabian Peninsula and along the Silk Roads, receiving communities like North Africans merged their indigenous languages with the Arabic language existing at the time. This birthed the Darija dialect, which is spoken in parts of North Africa, such as Morocco and Algeria. It is famous among Arabic speakers for being hard to understand (if you know, you know). This is also why the Somali language has a lot of Arabic expressions and phrases. The intermarriage between Arabs and native people during the time of the Silk Roads further spread the language and birthed new dialects. This might also explain why many Arab-identifying communities are very ethnically diverse – yep, it’s the Silk Road.

If you want to learn Arabic, learning Modern Standard Arabic is a great start

This explains the emergence of different dialects, but what about Standard Arabic? Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or Fusha is written in Arabic and has its origins in the Quran. It is used in media, school, and even government documents, acting as an official language for the countries that have adopted Arabic. If you want to learn Arabic, learning Modern Standard Arabic is a great start. You might also notice that many non-Arabic speakers, typically Muslims, strive to learn some form of Arabic. This is because events involving the last prophet Mohamed (PBUH) that are said to have occurred during the 7th century  led to the writing of the Islamic teachings in the Quran, which has served as a reference for the Arabic language.

Today, Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. It has transformed throughout history from a nomadic language to one that is now spoken by over 300 million people worldwide. For me, Arabic is more than just a language. It is a uniting factor amongst its speakers. The Middle Eastern region’s music and poetry prove just how poetic and beautiful Arabic is. Seeing the worldwide appreciation for the language is both comforting and empowering. Thus, Arabic language day will be all about celebrating this beautiful language, uniting its speakers and its admirers.


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