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Modern Standard Arabic

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Number of Speakers: No estimate available on Ethnologue.

Key Dialects: Modern Standard Arabic (Modern Literary Arabic), Classical Arabic (Koranic Arabic, Quranic Arabic).

Geographical Center: Middle east, north Africa, other Muslim countries.

Standard Arabic, often called Modern Standard Arabic (or MSA), is the variety of Arabic most widely used in print media, official documents, correspondence, education, and as a liturgical language. It is essentially a modern variant of Classical Arabic, the language of the Quran. Standard Arabic is not acquired as a mother tongue, but rather it is learned as a second language at school and through exposure to formal broadcast programs (such as the daily news), religious practice, and print media. Because it is not acquired as a native language, the number of speakers of the language is difficult to determine, and degrees of proficiency ranges widely, from the ability to follow news broadcasts but no reading, writing, or speaking skills, to the ability to speak and write the language with a minimum of grammatical errors. The geographical center of the language can be said to encompass the northernmost part of Africa from Mauritania to Egypt, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and Iraq. It is estimated that some 165,000,000 people throughout the Islamic world have some knowledge of Standard Arabic.

As used by its most skilled writers and speakers, Standard Arabic varies little across the many countries where it is used. However, there are different registers of Arabic. The highest register approximates Classical Arabic in its vocabulary and style, unlike the register of Arabic used in newspapers, social sciences, and technical literature, which uses a more restricted vocabulary and a distinct style. In these higher registers, dialectal variation is limited largely to minor matters of pronunciation (such as stress and the pronunciation of the letter giim/jiim) and to the choice of vocabulary for certain concepts which Classical Arabic offers no way to express, such as tilifoon or haatif for "telephone", and tiknulujya or tiqniyya for "technology." Another factor which differentiates registers at this level is the degree to which certain grammatical endings such as case and mood suffixes are pronounced. These suffixes are absent in all of the modern Arabic dialects and their use is mastered only by the most competent speakers of Standard Arabic. The suffixes are thus not pronounced in the lower registers of what can otherwise be considered pure Standard Arabic. (Most of these suffixes are not usually written.) Below these high registers are the Arabic dialects and registers which mix a modern dialect and Standard Arabic. It is in such lower registers, where there is influence and borrowing from a local Arabic dialect, in which there is true dialectal variation in Standard Arabic.

Modern Standard Arabic is written in Arabic script, which is described in the Orthography section of the Arabic Overview page.

Standard Arabic has 27 simple consonants, the 3 short vowels /a,i,u/, and the 3 long vowels /aa,ii,uu/. (Additional vowels and consonants are sometimes used in borrowings.) The consonants /t,d,s,dh/ have two variants, one normal and one "emphatic" (glottalized or pharyngealized). Emphatic consonants are usually transliterated with a dot underneath. Arabic also has a number of velar and post-velar consonants, including two pharyngeal fricatives (one voiced and one voiceless) and a voiceless uvular stop. Standard Arabic does not allow clusters of more than two consonants.

Stress is predictable. If the final syllable is superheavy (ending in a long vowel and a consonant, or a vowel and two consonants) the stress falls on the final syllable, as in katábt "I wrote" and banáat "girls" (in truncated form, as used before a pause). Otherwise, if either the penultimate or antepenultimate syllable is long, in which case the stress falls on the penultimate syllable, as in darrásat "she taught" and taraasáluu "they corresponded". Otherwise, stress falls on the antepenultimate syllable, as in kátabat "she wrote".

The noun is marked for gender (masculine and feminine), number (singular, dual, and plural), case (nominative, accusative, and genitive), and definiteness. Masculine gender is unmarked, while feminine singular nouns are usually marked with the suffix '-a(t)'. (The t is not pronounced in phrase-final position.) Arabic nouns are divided into those that have a "sound plural" (regular plural), and those with "broken plural" (irregular plural). Nouns that have a sound plural, form it with a special suffix, whereas the broken plurals are formed according to several different patterns or templates, e.g. kalb "dog" > kilaab "dogs", kitaab "book" > kutub "books", baab "door" > 'abwaab "doors". Definiteness is indicated by the article 'al- while indefiniteness is usually indicated by the suffix -n, which follows any case suffixes. Hence, al-kitaabu "the book (nom.)", kitaabun "a book (nom.)", al-kitaaba "the book (accus.)", kitaaban "a book (accus.)". The modern Arabic dialects all lack case endings and the indefinite suffix, and typically only the most competent speakers master the rules governing their use in Standard Arabic.

The verb is marked for perfective or imperfective aspect. The perfective aspect is used to denote completed events, while the imperfective aspect denotes uncompleted actions. In addition to aspect, the Arabic verb is marked for person, number, mood (indicative, subjunctive, jussive, and imperative) and voice (active and passive). The choice of indicative, subjunctive, and jussive mood is regulated largely by grammatical particles and complementizers. For example, the present tense negative particle laa is followed by an imperfect indicative verb, as in laa yaktubu "he writes", while the future negative particle lan is followed by a subjunctive, as in lan yaktuba "he won't write", and the past negative particle lam is followed by a jussive, as in lam yaktub "he didn't write".

Standard Arabic is a VSO language, that is, a language in which the usual word order is Verb Subject Object. This characteristic distinguishes it from the modern dialects, which are SVO. However, there are many contexts in which the SVO order is used. For example, the neutral word order for a sentence such as "Muhammad read a book" is VSO: qara'a (V) muHammadun (S) kitaaban (O), but when embedded in the clause qaalat 'inna "she said that", the SVO order is used: qaalat 'inna muHammadan (S) qara'a (V) kitaaban (O).

Like other Semitic languages, the bulk of its vocabulary consists of words formed by the application of templates (vowel patterns and affixes) to triliteral (3-consonant) roots. For example, from the triliteral root k-t-b are formed a variety of words related to the concept of writing: kitaab "book", maktaba(t) "library", maktab "desk, office", kaatib "writer", kataba "he wrote". Compounding is rare, and if a word cannot be created by means of derivation, the Arabic language prefers periphrastic description, e.g. maa fawqa l-banafsajii "ultraviolet" (lit. "what-is-beyond-violet").

Being closely associated with Classical Arabic, Standard Arabic resists heavy borrowing from other languages. Thus novel words are often coined using Arabic roots. These words often compete with borrowings for acceptance. For example, while tilivizyoon has become almost universally accepted as the word for "television set", "radio set" is expressed variously as radyu (a borrowing) or midhyaa' (a word coined from a root meaning "broadcast").

There are many words of Arabic origin in English, such as algebra (< Arabic al-jabr), alcohol (< al-kuHl), and coffee (< qahwa(t)). Due to the importance of Arabic in the Islamic world, many languages have borrowed much of their literary and specialized vocabulary from Arabic, in much the same way that English borrowed from French and Latin. For example, the Arabic word jumhuuriyya has been borrowed as the word for "republic" into Swahili as jamhuri, into Urdu as jumhuuriah, into Turkish as cumhuriyet, and into Person as jomhuri.

Standard Arabic is the language of literature and education in most Arabic countries. Educated people throughout North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have good to excellent command of Standard Arabic besides their native Arabic dialect. As the language of Quran, Classical Arabic is used as the language of prayer and recitation throughout the Islamic world. Virtually all Arabic newspapers, magazines, and books are written in Standard Arabic, as well. In the broadcast media, Standard Arabic is also the usual language for news and other scripted informational and educational programming. The media in which Standard Arabic is not as requently used as the spoken Arabic dialects are in song, film, and the theater.

The social status of Standard Arabic in relation to other languages and to other varieties of Arabic varies from country to country. In the countries of the Maghrib, many speakers of Arabic have been schooled in French and are more likely to use French than Standard Arabic for reading and for written communication. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, there is a tendency to use Standard Arabic in all situations in the broadcast media, while in other countries, such as Egypt and Lebanon, Standard Arabic is used in more formal programming while the local dialect is used in informal contexts.

The earliest Arabic inscriptions date back to the 4th century AD, but the basis for Standard Arabic was laid down with the writing down of the Quran (probably 7th–8th centuries AD). In the course of the 8th and the 9th centuries Quranic Arabic underwent standardization as a result of extensive work by medieval Arabic grammarians. During that period, grammarians compiled a number of detailed grammatical descriptions of literary Arabic, as well as of Arabic lexicons and other linguistic treatises. The Standard Arabic has not changed much over the centuries, for the most part because it is mostly used as a written language. (For additional information see Bakalla 1994, Belova 1998a and 1998b, Holes 1994, Suleiman 1994.)

Bakalla, M. H. 1994. “Arab and Persian Phonetics”. In: Asher, R. E., editor-in-chief. The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics. Vol. 1, pp. 187-191. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Bateson, M. C. 1967. Arabic Language Handbook. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Belova, A. G. 1998a. “Arabskij jazyk”. In: Jarceva, V. N., editor-in-chief. Jazyko-znanije: bol'shoj enciklopedicheskij slovar'. P. 41. Moscow.

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Campbell, G. L. 2000. Compendium of the World's Languages. Vol. 1. Second edition. London: Routledge.

Carter, Michael, G. 2001. “Arabic”. In: Facts about the World's Languages: An Encyclopaedia of the World's Major Languages, Past and Present. Jane Garry and Carl Rubino, editors. Pp. 23-27. New York: H. N. Wilson Company.

Djakonov, M. I. 1998. “Semitskije jazyki”. In: Jarceva, V. N., editor-in-chief. Jazyko-znanije. Bol'shoj enciklopedicheskij slovar'. Pp. 442-443. Moscow.

Fischer, Wolfdietrich. 1992. “Arabic”. In: Bright, William, editor-in-chief. International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics. Vol. 2, pp. 91-98. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.

______2002. A Grammar of Classical Arabic. Third revised edition. Translated from the German by Jonathan Rodgers. Yale Language Series. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Holes, C. 1994. “Arabic”. In: Asher, R. E. (Editor-in-Chief). “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 1, pp. 191–194. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. London: Edward Arnold.

Suleiman, M. Y. I. H. 1994. “Arabic Linguistic Tradition”. In: Asher, R. E., editor-in-chief. “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 1, pp. 194–202. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Xelimskij, E. A. 1998. “Afrazijskije jazyki”. In: Jarceva, V. N., editor-in-chief. Jazykoznanije: bol'šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar'. Pp. 55–57. Moscow.

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