December 18th is the United Nations Arabic Language Day, so we are here to tell you a little about the language.
Arabic is the fifth top spoken language in the world (some sources vary), with 206 million native speakers and 24 million second-language speakers. Arabic is the official language of 27 countries (See the full list here), and it is also one of the six United Nations’ official languages.
There are 28 letter total, which are created by adding various shapes above and below 18 distinct characters (Al-Bab). The language is written from right to left. Fun fact, there are no capital letters in Arabic!
According to Behind the Names, Arabic names are long and can consist of a given name (called the ism), nicknames (laqab), and patronyms (nasab) and/or a family name (nisba).
Apparently, most Arabic names come from every day words (similar to the use of “Faith” or “Penny” as a name in the U.S.) and from the ninety-nine attributes of Allah from the Quran (like Matthew, Luke, John from the Bible).
The Spread of Arabic
With 27 different Arabic-speaking countries from the west end of North Africa all the way to west Asia, you can imagine that the language has several variations. These variations or informal versions of Arabic called aammiyya, which is basically the dialect that each country uses to communicate on an every day basis. The official or formal version of Arabic is called fusHa. This is used across all official mediums, including newspapers and political speeches (check out this interesting article for more info) and is taught in schools. This reminds me of my Peace Corps language training in a city just south of Kiev: Boguslav. The official language I learned was Russian, but the local population spoke Surzhyk, a local dialect originating from Russian and Ukrainian. Speaking a dialect version of a main languages is common in isolated areas.
The continued use of fusHa or formal Arabic is a way of maintaining the language and keeping its originality. Many Muslims believe that, “God chose the Arabic language as the medium with which to reveal his message to the Prophet Mohammad, which makes Arabic a sacred language, and the word of God must not be altered” (Source: Lingua Franca).
One way of enforcing this is by requiring Muslims to pray or recite the Quran only in Arabic. There is also a political motivation behind making prayer and recitations only in Arabic, as this maintains the “official language of the political elites” and “Arab Muslim Empire consolidated its dominance” by forcing Muslims from all over the world to learn Arabic (Source: Lingua Franca). This might make you feel affronted, but don’t forget that colonization forced English upon the world, and now it has achieved the goal of being the dominate world language.
Interestingly, while formerly working at an interpretation agency, we would often experienced the difference between aammiyya and fusHa versions of Arabic that came in the form of “Sudanese only” or “Iraqi only” requests. We would hear from our interpreters that this request was political and less related to actual understanding. They explained that Arabic speakers from some countries considered themselves speakers of the “purest” form of Arabic and refused to speak with an interpreter from a “lesser” Arabic-speaking country. In fact, there was an instance where we sent an individual with Sudanese origin who had lived in Iraq to an “Iraq only” appointment. The client repeated over and over that they couldn’t understand the interpreter, but interpreter claimed that this was due to his Sudanese heritage. Unfortunately, this often occurred that a client would refuse an interpreter from a specific country, especially in the case of the client and interpreter being from oppressor<>oppressed countries of a conflict.
As you can imagine, these politics can make translating Arabic quite an experience requiring finesse from a seasoned translator. There is often censorship of translations that appear to be blasphemous against Islam or criticism against Arabic governments. From my own experience, I have experienced translators who refuse to translate any content they believe is disrespectful of Islam. There is also huge distaste for any translations to and from Hebrew, especially if they put Israel in a good light. In fact, publishers of Hebrew<>Arabic (<>=to &from) often feel their lives are threatened, and they opt to remain anonymous.
In closing, it is interesting to watch the expansion of the Arabic language from my privileged place of speaking English, one of the most spoken languages in the world. As Salah Saleh says, “Not long ago, when the West embarked on its renaissance, the majority of Arabic works and, by extension all pre-Arab cultures, were translated into European national languages. This is because translation was and remains a vital basis for national revival and, as in the past, it has the potential, if properly organized and supported, to assist in the Arab dream of development.”