Arabic is one of the world's most widely-spoken languages, as well as one of the official languages of the United Nations. It is the primary language for most of the Middle East, all of North Africa, and strangely, the Comoros Islands off Madagascar. As the language of the Qur'an (Koran), it is also widely learned as a foreign language in large parts of West Africa, Central and South Asia, and Indonesia, and is certainly not unknown in the West. It is a Semitic language, closely related to Hebrew, Aramaic, Babylonian (Akkadian), Ethiopic (Geez), and many others, although it is more conservative grammatically than most.
Arabic is divided into disparate dialects to a much greater extent than, for example, English. The literary language, used in books or on the media, is the same everywhere, and has not changed substantially for 1500 years. However, the spoken language has been simplified considerably, and differs vastly across the Arab world (to the extent that non-Arabs often consider the dialects as separate languages, and Moroccans can scarcely understand Kuwaitis without switching to the literary language). The main dialects are North African, Egyptian, Sudanese, Levantine, Iraqi, Gulf, and Yemeni, but there are plenty more refinements. Egyptian and Levantine Arabic are the most widely spoken dialects, mainly due to the film and music industries.
Stem and Vowel Interaction in Arabic
The most interesting difference of the language from English is that it often marks changes of a word - plurals or participles, for instance - by changing the vowels inside a word, as well as adding prefixes or suffixes. So for instance, we have, from the stem k-t-b, 'to write':
kataba - 'he wrote'
kutiba - 'it was written' (imposing the vowel pattern -u-i-)
yaktubu - 'he writes' (adding ya- and imposing the vowel pattern --u--u)
kaataba - 'he exchanged correspondence' (imposing -aa-a-a)
maktuub - 'written'
kitaab - 'book'=> kutub - 'books'
maktab - 'office'=> makaatib - 'offices'
kaatib - 'writer'
Most root words contain three consonants, and as a result, a variety of new words can be formed from a single root. But if this sounds challenging, there are some compensations: the language has only two tenses, for instance, and the changes, though initially baffling to an English speaker, are largely rule-governed.
The Arabic Alphabet
The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters - all consonants, except for three long vowels - and another seven optional marks that go above or below letters to mark short vowels or doubled consonants. It is written from right to left. Letters change shape depending on which other letters are before or after them, much like American or Continental handwriting. The big dots are part of the letters. It can be modified in many remarkable ways: calligraphy is a major Arabic art!
A Rich Literary History
There is a huge amount of literature in Arabic - 15 centuries worth - so any kind of summary will be extremely brief. However, as an overview:
Some of the most famous poets are the pre-Islamic writers of the Mu'allaqat1 including Imru' ul-Qays and Antar ibn Shaddad; the medieval poet al-Mutanabbi, considered probably the greatest Arab poet of all time; and modern poets like Nizar Qabbani, Khalil Gibran or Mahmoud Darwish. Arabic poetry rarely translates well into English, since (as with any poetry) its sound as well as its meaning plays an essential role in its beauty, and the sonority of Arabic is very hard to imitate in a language as different-sounding as English. There are a variety of well-known meters for Arabic poems (and nowadays, of course, blank verse as well). Usually, they also rhyme, if only in the final short vowels.
The commonest themes of Arab poetry are love, praise, and insults. Arab poets - the so-called Udhari school especially, as seen in early medieval romances such as Kalilah wa Dimnah - are said to have been the first to make romance in the strict sense (ie, courtly love, chivalry, lots of sighs and pure devotion to unattainable beloveds) into a standard literary device. From there it eventually reached Europe, via Arab Spain and the troubadours of Provence. As for praise and insults, while poems of praise (to patrons or kings) were common in the West at one time, poems of insult seem to have become a very much debased form2 resurfacing now in little besides rap lyrics; in the early medieval Arab world, however, they were refined to a high art form, which could affect the prestige of entire families.
The Qur'an is traditionally considered to be a form of writing unto itself, neither prose nor poetry but combining the best elements of both. While in Arabic it derives much of its effect from its poetic elements - the rhyme scheme, the rhythm, the alliteration - this very rarely comes through in translations; the best attempt (from a literary standpoint) is probably Arberry's3 1955 translation. In many ways, the Qur'an plays much the same pivotal role in the development of Arabic literature as the King James Bible in English.
Great medieval prose writers include the essayist al-Jahiz, the founder of sociology Ibn Khaldun, and Ibn Battuta, who travelled more than three times as far as Marco Polo; modern ones include the Nobel Prize-winning Naguib Mahfouz, who chronicles three generations of life in Cairo with a remarkably perceptive gaze that makes clear the way 'public' history affected private stories, there as so often in the Arab world. The Arabian Nights, while famous in the West, is regarded as little more than a series of popular fables in the Arab world, along with a variety of other mainly oral epics, such as the exploits of Amir Hamza, or Antar ibn Shaddad.