Learning & Understanding Classical Arabic
Before you dive headfirst into learning Arabic, here’s some basic information and guidelines.
What is Literary Arabic?
Since we’re talking about how to learn Classical Arabic, let’s start by defining a classical language as a language that holds a prestigious place in a specific culture, as the media for classic pieces of literature, which themselves are either ancient, foundational, widely imitated, and regularly studied.
A classical language generally stands in contrast to a vernacular language which is used for day to day life.
By this measure, Classical Arabic is a wide reaching language, used by more than 270 million individuals across the Arab and Muslim world.
You’ve almost certainly already seen the terms literary Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic. They’re the same thing, and describe a version of Arabic that is used by the elites, intellectuals, media, and government administration, as well as a lingua franca.
It’s the language that’s understood by many people in countries where Arabic is an official language.
Arabic is the 5th most spoken language on the planet, and literary Arabic generally refers to both Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic. Linguists would call it an umbrella language to all the spoken dialects.
Literary Arabic is not the same as vernacular Arabic. Vernacular Arabic refers to all the dialects that are spoken throughout the region, like Egyptian Arabic, Moroccan, Bedouin, Algerian, Tunisian, Syrian, Iraqi, etc.
According to INALCO “learning literary Arabic allows the learner to access firsthand documents which are older than a millennium and a half.”
So literary Arabic includes both written Arabic with all of its ancient and modern texts, as well as sacred texts, like the Quran.
Obviously, Arabic is a popular language to learn for English speakers. Many English words can trace their roots back to Arabic, and with over 1.2 million Arabic speakers in the USA, there are many different places you can go to learn literary Arabic:
- learn at home with a private tutor or join a group class by ArabicExpert
- Learn the language of Allah and the Quran at your local mosque
Find Arabic course in India here.
The Phoenician and Aramaic Origins of the Arabic Alphabet
The Arabic alphabet and its script have had a multi-secular evolution.
It seems that the Arabic alphabet is based on Aramaic, which is itself based on Phoenician. The Phoenician alphabet, which originated with the people of ancient Lebanon, went on to give birth to the Hebrew, Greek, Cyrillic, and Latin alphabets.
Did you know that Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic all originated in Lebanon and ancient Syria?
Historians all agree that the Arabic alphabet is based on Aramaic, but they disagree on whether it also has links to Nabatean or Syriac. There’s an ongoing debate on the origins of the Arabic script.
The Slow Progression of the Arabic Language
The hypothesis is that in the 5th or 6th century BC, the Northern Semitic tribe known as the Nabateans (living at that time in modern day Jordan, near Petra), used their version of the Arabic alphabet, a form of Aramaic with new Arab variations.
Little by little the Aramaic letters began to link together as they were written down on papyrus. By the 4th century, Arabic had replaced Aramaic. Then, in the 6th century (in 512) the Arabic alphabet was well established and began to spread.
The Arabic alphabet had slowly grown from 22 to 28 letters. Dots were also added above and below the letters.
Today, learning the Arabic alphabet often seems like it requires an incredibly talented multi-tasker who can handle the Arabic calligraphy to write out the vowels, manage the sounds of all of the consonants, and work on their pronunciation.