Current Forms of Arabic
Generally speaking, the language as it is known today may be divided into three categories: Classical Arabic, colloquial or dialectic Arabic, and Modern Standard Arabic. Classical Arabic is the form of Arabic found in the Qur’an. The usage of Classical Arabic is only in connection with studying the Qur’an, such as for reading or reciting. In fact, it is against the religious conventions to translate the Qur’an into any other language. It is because of the desire to maintain proper pronunciation and reading of the Qur’an that there have been great attempts to preserve Classical Arabic. However, today is not found in spoken or in literary usage outside of religious writings.
Classical Arabic is the liturgical language of Islam, also known as al-Arabiyya, and has been since the religion’s origins in the 7th Century. Arabiyya is, in simple terms, the Arab name referring to the form of Classical Arabic. Arabiyya is the same language that the prophet Mohammad spoke, and therefore are the same words spoken by the angel Gabriel and by default, God. Due to this fact, many Muslims consider the Arabic language as sacred. This has resulted in a deliberate decision by most speakers to maintain the originality of the language and there have been very few changes made to the Classical form in the past several centuries.
Many attribute the status of Arabic as a major world language today to this influence of Islam. With its rise beginning in the 7th Century, Arabic was able to spread rather quickly throughout the conquered world as a language of both scholarship and religious devotion. However, Arab identity is not specifically tied to religious affiliation. In fact, Arabic is also spoken by people of a number of other faiths including Mizrahi Jews and Arab Christians.
Colloquial or dialectic Arabic is the version of Arabic consisting of the many varieties of dialects spoken for everyday language use. There are estimated to be thousands of varieties of colloquial Arabic. These are variants found in the language that typically are related to certain regions. Many of the forms of colloquial Arabic are so different from one another that they are mutually unintelligible. For example, Maltese, while derived from Classical Arabic, differs so much from other forms of Modern Standard Arabic, that linguists have begun classifying it as its own separate language.
The largest difference in the forms of colloquial Arabic may be found between those of Middle Eastern Arabic and North African. The variations between the two could be due to the influence of other languages in the surrounding areas relative to each group. Some of the main dialects of the two groups include: Levantine Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Maghrebi Arabic, and Gulf Arabic.
Modern Standard Arabic is the form of the language most widely used by media in Arabic speaking countries and is understood by most Arabic speakers. Modern Standard is based on Classical Arabic, although there is much debate among scholars of the language as to specifically why this newer version, which actually developed in the late 18th century. One of the most popular theories is that Modern Standard was created as a “common language” influenced by many different dialects for use in everyday life. Another theory points to the introduction of Western thought to the Arab world in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. When Napoleon Bonaparte entered Arabic Cairo beginning in 1798, the French brought with them the ideas of the Enlightenment. New words may have begun to be introduced into the classical form of Arabic in order to better convey some of the notions associated with the concepts of the age.
In order to adjust to the growing demands for modernity in the Arabic language, beginning in the mid 18th Century scholars began to change certain aspects. “Arabization” was one approach towards this solution. Basically “Arabization” is a term that refers to the adoption of foreign words into the Arabic language, with changes to these words in the form of phonetic adjustments, allowing for easier pronunciation for the Arabic speaker. Another approach to modernization was through compounding, or joining two or more words together in order to form a new word.
In regards to Modern Standard, most educated Arabic speakers actually use two forms of the language. This known as a linguistic characteristic that has come be termed as diglossia. Most Arabs are fluent in both the Modern Standard version and their own specific dialect. As there are so many Arabic speakers that are familiar with Modern Standard Arabic, it is used by the media in many countries to appeal to a larger audience of viewers. It is the version of Arabic that standardizes the many dialects present in the language. Modern Standard Arabic has also been accepted as one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
There are even still trends of modernization developing in Modern Standard Arabic today. This is mainly due to the trends of global expansion, the technological age, and the increased spreading of information that began late in the last century. Several foreign words have been introduced into everyday use, especially words that relate to technology.