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Modern Standard Arabic belongs to the Semitic language family. Semitic languages have a recorded history going back thousands of years, one of the most extensive continuous archives of documents belonging to any human language group. While the origins of the Semitic language family are currently in dispute among scholars, there is agreement that they flourished in the Mediterranean Basin area, especially in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin and in the coastal areas of the Levant.
The Semitic language family is a descendant of proto-Semitic, an ancient language that was exclusively spoken and has no written record. This relationship places Arabic firmly in the Afro-Asiatic group of world languages. Specifically, Arabic is part of the Semitic subgroup of Afro-Asiatic languages. Going further into the relationship between Arabic and the other Semitic languages, Modern Arabic is considered to be part of the Arab-Canaanite sub-branch the central group of the Western Semitic languages. Thus, to review, while Arabic is not the oldest of the Semitic languages, its roots are clearly founded in a Semitic predecessor.
Aside from Arabic, the Semitic language family includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Maltese, Amharic, Tigrinya, Tigre, Gurage, Geez, Syrica, Akkadian, Phonoecian, Punic, Ugaritic, Nabatean, Amorite and Moabite. While a majority of these are now considered “dead” languages, either entirely obsolete or used only in religious practice, Arabic has flourished. The reason for this is inextricably linked with the rise of Islam and, more specifically, Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an.
There are three distinct forms of Arabic. Classical or Qur’anical Arabic, Formal or Modern Standard Arabic and Spoken or Colloquial Arabic. Classical Arabic is the form of Arabic literally found in the Qur’an. It is used neither in conversation, nor in non-religious writing. As such, Classical Arabic is primarily learned for reading and reciting Islamic religious texts.
In order to understand the relationship between Modern Standard Arabic and Spoken Arabic it is important to understand the concept of “diglossia”. As defined by the term’s founder, Charles Ferguson, diglossia (literally meaning “two tongues”) conveys a situation where, in addition to the primary dialects of a language, there is a highly codified form which is the vehicle of a large and respected body of literature. In addition to Arabic, an example of diglossia can be found in the co-existence of written Latin with the spoken Romance languages of French, Italian, and Spanish. While Modern Standard Arabic is the definitive form of written Arabic there are many spoken Arabic dialects. Modern Standard Arabic provides a universal form of the language that can be understood by all and is commonly used in radio and TV news broadcasts, films, plays, poetry, and conversation between Arabic-speaking people of different dialects.
Arab colloquial dialects are generally only spoken languages. Arabs use the colloquial language in all their daily interactions, but when they encounter a language situation calling for greater formality, Modern Standard Arabic is the medium of choice. In every area of the world where Arabic is spoken, this language situation prevails: there is a colloquial language, meaning the language which is spoken regularly and which Arabic speakers learn as their L1, and then there is Modern Standard Arabic, based on Classical or Quranic Arabic. Standard Arabic is more or less the same throughout the Arab World, while there are wide differences between the various colloquial dialects. In fact, some of the differences are so large that many dialects are mutually unintelligible. My Palestinian roommate, for example, has told me several times that he can’t understand the Moroccan dialect of colloquial Arabic.
Modern Arabic, both Standard and colloquial, is not static. The colloquialisms have undergone and will likely continue to undergo great change. Unfortunately, until recently they have not been closely studied, and therefore it is difficult to document any changes they may have undergone. It is easier, however, to document changes in Modern Standard Arabic.
One on-going trend in Modern Standard Arabic is modernization. Modernization involves the creation of new terms for concepts which didn’t exist in earlier times. Like many other speakers around the world, Arabic speakers are sensitive to the wholesale borrowing of words. In fact, they are perhaps more sensitive to language change because most Arabs recognize Arabic as the language of God. Such a concept does not accommodate language change well. As a result, normative language academies have been established in several areas throughout the Arab world including Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Amman.
While the first documented record of written Arabic dates from the early 4th century AD, its use in the early 7th century as the language of the Qur’an led Arabic to become the major world language that it is today. As Islam spread throughout the world, its chosen language did as well. Coupled with the rise of Islam, Arabic became the language of government as well as religion. Within 100 years after the introduction of the Qur’an, Arabic became the official language of a world empire whose boundaries stretched from the Oxus River in Central Asia to the Atlantic Ocean, and even northward into the Iberian Peninsula of Europe. As Islam continued to spread through the world, Arabic inherently followed.