The language the world is familiar with
Mir Jamid Afzal
Arabic is one of the World’s major languages with roughly 300 million speakers in twenty two Arab countries. In 1974, Arabic was attested as one of the sixth United Nation’s official languages alongside Chinese, Russian, English, French and Spanish.
As a Semitic language, Arabic possesses many unique linguistic characteristics such as writing from the right to the left, the dual number of the nouns which is not found in English, the two genders, feminine and masculine, beside the root, the most salient feature of Semitic languages.
Extensively, Arabic philologists have studied the Arabic language in relation to the other Semitic languages in a bid to show the uniqueness of Arabic as compared to the other Semitic languages.
Versteegh (1997) mentions that within the group of Semitic languages, Arabic and Hebrew have always been the most-studied languages. He shows that the reason is not only the familiarity of Scholars of Semitic languages with the Arabic language and the relative wealth of data about its history, but also its apparent conservatism, in particular its retention of a declensional system.
It stands to reason that language is a living entity that always undergoes the different circumstances of life: change, development, modernization, disappearance and sometimes death. However, Arabic could have retained its unique features throughout the centuries despite some slight changes which happened due to the Arab contacts with non-Arabs causing emergence of new varieties along with Classical Arabic.
Turning to the position of Arabic, Arabic has a prestigious status not only in Arabic-speaking countries, but in all Muslim communities. Prestigious position as such goes back to the very early period of Islam where Arabic throughout that period remained the language of prestige that was used for all religious, cultural, administrative and scholarly purposes.
Undoubtedly, Arabic has an abundance of colloquial forms across the Arab World. All such varieties are originally derived from Classical Arabic. Consequently, a wide range of similarities has been noted between classical Arabic and these different varieties in all linguistic levels.
Arabic has been regarded as a member of Semitic languages which include a number of languages in the Middle East and North Africa. It is originally generated from Afro-Asiatic languages which includes besides Arabic different languages such as Hebrew, Ethiopian and other languages. The first emergence of Arabic as a world language goes back to the seventh century CE.
The century of Islam diffusion that followed the death of Prophet Mohammed (S.A.W.) brought both Islam as a religion and Arabic language to the attention of a world that had possessed only the vaguest notion of what went on in the interior of the Arabian peninsula. In his argument about the Arabic emergence, Farghaly (2010) shows that Arabic language evolved from an obscure and non-prestigious language to a major world language after the Islamic conquests, the period after Prophet Mohammed (S.A.W.) death.
Among Semitic languages, Arabic has been described as the most widely spoken with a number of over 330 million speakers. According to the CIA report for 2008 besides being the sacred language of more than a billion Muslims around the world, it is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world and one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
Of the 330 million native speakers of Arabic, millions are Christians and few are Jews. However, the great majority of Arabic speakers are Muslims. Arabic is spoken not only in one variety but rather in different varieties across the Arab World. During the second half of the seventh century, the world witnessed the foundation of the Islamic Arab Empire which by the beginning of the eighth century, it stretched from Spain to Persia. Such massive dominance contributed to the spread of Arabic as a sacred language being the language of the Holy Quran.
In addition, several factors laid the ground for Arabic to spread out of the Arabian Peninsula. Internationally, Arabs have been known as traders and migrants. These two factors, trading and migration, created a big size of opportunities of contact between Arabs and non-Arabic speakers in areas such as Iraq, Nile Delta in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. It could be said that such a kind of contact established a strong base of familiarity with Arabic in such areas.
Moreover, the spread of Islam in different parts of the world had far-reaching consequences for the development of Classical Arabic. In the wake of the spread of Islam, Arabic turned from being exclusive only to the Arabian peninsula to be a dominant language of the Middle East and north Africa.
History and Development of Arabic
Arabic belongs to the Afro-Asiatic (or Hamito-Semitic) family of languages that consists of over three hundred languages, some of which are extinct and some used marginally as liturgical languages. Arabic and Hebrew are the two prime examples of living Semitic languages while Hausa and various dialects of Berber are examples of surviving Hamitic languages.
The earliest known example of Arabic is an inscription found in the Syrian desert dating back to the fourth century AD. The pre-Islamic Arab tribes who lived in the Arabian Peninsula and neighboring regions had a thriving oral poetic tradition. But it was not systematically collected and recorded in written form until the eighth century AD. This poetic language, probably the result of the fusion of various dialects, came to be regarded as a literary or elevated style which represented a cultural bond among different tribes.
Prophet Muhammad (SAW) received his messages from God in Arabic through the Angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-three years, 610-632 A.D. The Holy Quran, containing these messages, was originally committed to memory by professional reciters (hufaz and qura’).
With the spread of Islam, different accents for the pronunciation of the Quran came into use until a standardized version (with notations for different accents) was completed under the third Caliph, Uthman Ibn ‘Affan, R.A. in the mid-seventh century AD. As more and more non-Arabic speakers were drawn to Islam, the Quran became the most important bond among Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, revered for its content and admired for the beauty of its language.
Arabs, regardless of their religion, and Muslims, regardless of their ethnic origin, hold the Arabic language in the highest esteem and value it as the medium of a rich cultural heritage. It is this intimate connection between the Quran and Arabic which gave the language its special status and contributed to the Arabization of diverse populations.
The Spread of Arabic
By the beginning of the eighth century, the Islamic Arab Empire had spread from Persia to Spain, resulting in the interaction between Arabs and local populations who spoke different languages. In Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, where the majority of the population spoke some dialect of Aramaic and where Arab tribes had been present in the vicinity, the local languages were for the most part replaced by Arabic.
In Iraq, Arabic became the dominant language among a population who spoke Aramaic and Persian. A more gradual process of Arabization occurred in Egypt where Coptic and Greek were the two dominant languages. In North Africa, where Berber dialects were spoken and still are used in some parts, the process of Arabization was less complete. Persia and Spain, however, retained their respective languages.
In the early days of the Empire, the majority of the population would not have been Arabic monolinguals. The interaction of Arabic with other languages led to the borrowing of new vocabulary which enriched the language in areas such as government, administration, and science. This, in addition to the rich internal resources of Arabic, enabled the language to become a suitable medium for governing a vast empire.
Under the Umayyad dynasty (661-750 A.D.), with Damascus as the center of power, Arabic continued its tradition of excellence as the language of poetry, enriched its literature with translations from Persian and other languages, and acquired new terminology in various fields of study which included linguistics, philosophy, and theology. Under the Abbasid rule from Baghdad (750-1258 A.D.), Arabic literature reached its golden age as linguistic studies reached a new level of sophistication.
Many scholars, Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Jews, participated in the development of intellectual life using Arabic as their preferred language. A systematic effort at translation from various sources had made Arabic the most suitable scholarly medium of the day in disciplines such as philosophy, mathematics, medicine, geography and various branches of science. Many of the words readily borrowed during this period were easily assimilated into Arabic and later transmitted to other languages.
A period of decline began in the eleventh century as the result of several factors including the start of the Crusades, the political unrest in Spain, Mongol and Turkish invasions from the East, and internal divisions within the Empire. This marked a period of relative stagnation for Arabic although its status as the language of Islam was never threatened.
The nineteenth century saw a period of intellectual revival which began in Egypt and Syria and spread to the rest of the Arab world, beginning with the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt in 1798. The expedition provided for the introduction of the first Arabic printing press to Egypt and the translation of numerous Western literary works into Arabic. This initial contact was continued by Muhammad Ali, an enlightened Egyptian ruler, who sent students to France and other countries to study various disciplines; they returned to Egypt as teachers and writers. Lebanon had been in contact with the West as early as the seventeenth century, maintaining a strong religious connection with some European groups. Other Western influences came from Arab immigrants to the Americas and from missionaries who contributed to the establishment of foreign languages, mainly English and French, as important components of the educational system in parts of the Arab world.
The initial enthusiastic thrust towards westernization clashed with nationalistic independence movements that were a natural response to European colonialism in the region. These movements were usually linked to the two major pillars of Arab nationalism: the Muslim religion and the Arabic language.
Thus, Arab intellectuals found themselves torn between the rich and glorious heritage of the past and a future which became increasingly associated with Western technology and modernity. The nineteenth century saw the beginning of the development of Arabic as a viable modern language.
(The author is a student of Arabic. He can be reached at email@example.com)