Arabic languages, members of the West Semitic group of the Semitic subdivision of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages). The Arabic languages comprise North Arabic (or simply Arabic) and South Arabian (or Himyaritic or South Arabic); South Arabian differs sufficiently from North Arabic to be considered a separate language.
North Arabic, or Arabic, was confined largely to the Arabian Peninsula until the 7th cent. AD Thereafter the spread of Islam took the Arabic language into the Fertile Crescent and across North Africa. Today Arabic is spoken throughout the Arabian Peninsula and also in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Mauritania, and Chad. It is the mother tongue of over 180 million people in Africa and Asia. In addition, Arabic plays an important part in the lives of all Muslims, for it is the sacred language of Islam and its holy book, the Qur'an.
The Arabic of the Qur'an and of subsequent Arabic literature is called classical or literary Arabic. It is uniform and standardized. Classical Arabic is still employed today as the written language, but it is restricted to formal usage as a spoken tongue. It differs considerably from its descendant, the modern colloquial Arabic that is the medium of general conversation. Modern colloquial Arabic has three principal groups of dialects: Eastern, Western, and Southern. A standardized form of modern Arabic is used by the mass media and official communications—it also is one of the languages used officially by the United Nations—but the colloquial dialects, which differ in many respects from Modern Standard Arabic, dominate in daily life.
Grammatically, Arabic has that distinctive feature of Semitic languages, the triconsonantal root consisting of three consonants separated by two vowels. The basic meaning of the root is furnished by the consonants and is altered by changes in, or omission of, the vowels and by the addition of various affixes. Gender is found in the Arabic verb, as well as in the noun, pronoun, and adjective. The modern Arabic dialects have considerably simplified classical Arabic, as by discarding the declension of the noun and other inflections.
Arabic has its own alphabet, which is composed of 28 consonants. Most of the characters have four different forms, one for beginning a word, another for ending a word, still another for a medial position, and a fourth for a letter used by itself. Vowels are shown by symbols above or below the consonants, but they are optional and are often not written. The direction of writing is from right to left. The Arabic alphabet evolved from the Nabataean script, which is a descendant of the Aramaic writing (see Aramaic). There are two major styles of the Arabic script, the angular Kufic (well-suited for decorative uses) and the cursive Naskhi. Arabic writing is also the basis of a number of scripts used by non-Arab peoples following the Muslim religion and has been adapted for the Persian, Pashto, Urdu, Malay, Hausa, and Swahili languages, among others.
Old South Arabian, or Himyaritic, was the language of people living in the S Arabian Peninsula in ancient times. It had several known dialects, and is considered by some linguists to be closely related to the Ethiopic of Ethiopia. Old South Arabian had its own alphabet, the origin of which is still not clear, although it is generally thought to have had the same source as the North Semitic writing. Surviving inscriptions in Old South Arabian date from the 8th cent. BC or earlier. The coming of Islam in the 7th cent. AD brought with it North Arabic, which displaced Old South Arabian. Modern South Arabian, which has several dialects, is spoken by about 50,000 people in the S Arabian Peninsula. Its ancestor is may be Old South Arabian, although not all linguists agree.
For grammars see G. W. Thatcher (4th ed. 1942), F. J. Ziadeh and B. B. Winder (1957), and C. P. Caspari (3d. ed. 1967); A. G. Chejne, The Arabic Language, Its Role in History (1969); D. Justice, The Semantics of Form in Arabic in the Mirror of European Languages (1987).