Arabic Grammar – 1

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►I. VARIETIES OF ARABIC

►I.1. PRE-CLASSICAL ARABIC

The Arabic language of the pre-Islamic era is poorly known, primarily due to the dearth of evidence. Inscriptions from pre-Islamic times are abundant, but they mostly consist of personal names, thus, they provide meager linguistic evidence. Besides, the writing system of these inscriptions does not indicate the vowels or geminate consonants, which makes the evidence even less.

There is no universal name for the Arabic material that predates Islam. M. C. A. Macdonald suggested that this material is in two closely-related languages, one he called “Old Arabic” (the ancestor of Classical Arabic), and another he called “Ancient North Arabian.” However, this was not accepted by others. For example, Ernst A. Knauf still considered all the pre-Islamic material to be a single language which he called “Ancient Arabic.”

►I.2. CLASSICAL ARABIC

Classical Arabic (CA) is the name given to the Arabic language known from the earliest Islamic sources; that is, the Qurʔȃn and other literature from the early Islamic Caliphate. Although the Classical literature contained much material ascribed to the pre-Islamic era (like poetry, tribal dialects, etc.), all of this material is still considered Classical Arabic.

Most scholars believe that Classical Arabic was a standardized literary, poetic, or religious language that in the early Islamic period was spoken only by a few Arabian tribes, if any. Arabic-speakers in the early Islamic period spoke in different divergent dialects, as they do today.

Classical Arabic remained in use as a literary language until the 19th century when it began to be superseded by Modern Standard Arabic.

►I.3. MIDDLE ARABIC

Middle Arabic is a name given by scholars to literary texts from the Islamic era that deviate from Classical grammar as laid out by the Classical grammarians. Those texts are considered to represent the influence of spoken dialects.

►I.4. MODERN STANDARD ARABIC

In principle, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is just a continuation of Classical Arabic. There should be no grammatical differences between MSA and CA as the Classical grammar references are considered grammar references for MSA too.

MSA arose in the 19th century under European influence. The only significant difference between MSA and CA is that the former has been heavily influenced by European languages (particularly French and English). Many of the expressions and literary styles that distinguish MSA are direct translations from European languages.

MSA and CA are both called Standard Arabic. This is the language I am covering in this grammar reference.

►I.5. THE MODERN SPOKEN VARIETIES OF ARABIC

Standard Arabic is a mere literary language. It is like Latin in medieval Europe. Nobody speaks Standard Arabic as a native language.

Modern Arabic-speakers learn Standard Arabic at schools and from the media. Many of them have only limited understanding of the grammar, because it is significantly different from the grammars of the modern spoken varieties. For this reason it is never a good idea to blindly trust what a “native” Arabic-speaker says about Standard Arabic grammar. Standard Arabic is not a native language to anybody. The only good reference for Standard Arabic grammar are the books.

The modern spoken varieties of Arabic are (in my opinion) inadequately studied. The main reason for this is a cultural reason. Modern Arabic-speakers (like their ancestors) have no respect for the spoken dialects. They believe that Standard Arabic is Arabic, whereas the spoken dialects are just corruptions of Arabic. This mentality is the reason why, for example, Syrian linguists have not studied Syrian dialects or attempted to compile dictionaries for them. Most of the literature on the spoken dialects of Arabic is not written in Arabic but in European languages.

This map shows a rough approximation of the modern spoken dialects of Arabic. I have no doubt that this map is inaccurate, because it includes my own dialect of Aleppo, Syria within the range of “North Mesopotamian Arabic.” This is certainly incorrect. The dialect of Aleppo shows certain similarities to North Mesopotamian Arabic, but it is obviously much closer to the so-called Levantine Arabic. I saw this same mistake in the website ethnologue.com.

In order to read and write Arabic, you need to know Standard Arabic, because the spoken dialects are not used in any serious writing, and it would not be a good idea to use them for serious writing, because that will eventually produce hundreds of different literary languages, as the spoken dialects show huge variation even within as small geographic region as Syria.

In order to speak and converse in Arabic you need, of course, to know the spoken dialects. If you speak Standard Arabic, people will understand you perfectly, but Arabic-speakers usually do not speak in Standard Arabic unless they are on TV.

Many Arabic courses will tell you to learn the Egyptian dialect of Cairo because this dialect is easily understood everywhere in the Arabic-speaking world. This was probably a good advice in the 1950’s, but nowadays there are several spoken varieties that are commonly understood in the Arabic-speaking world. For example, I doubt that there are modern Arabic-speakers who would not understand Syrian Arabic or the so-called Levantine Arabic. If you learn Syrian or Lebanese Arabic, everybody will understand you easily.

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