Arabic Language: Characteristics and Origin

idioma árabe características y curiosidades

The Arabic language is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. It has its origins in the Arabian Peninsula and is currently the official language in over 20 countries.

With over 300 million speakers worldwide, Arabic is considered one of the oldest languages and plays a key role in Islamic faith, given that the first written records appear in the Koran, their holy book.On 18 December 1973the United Nations General Assembly officially included Arabic as the organization’s sixth official language; the others are Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

History of the Arabic language

Initially, Arabic was the language spoken by the nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. It belongs to the South Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family and its alphabet is made up of 28 letters.

The spread and growth of Arabic was precisely the result of the original speakers’ lifestyle who, as nomads, travelled beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Marriages between Arabs and other native speaker groups aided the growth and spread of the language and gave rise to the different dialects and variations present today.

However, the height of the spread of the Arabic language came with the 7th century conquests, when Arabic reached the north of Africa, the Iberian Peninsula and the east of China.

The Arabic alphabet

The Arabic alphabet follows the Abjad system. It dates back to the 2nd century and has its origins in the script used by the Nabataean tribes who lived in the north of the Arabian Peninsula, the south of Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and Jordan. The alphabet we know today still has many similarities with Nabataean script, especially in terms of the long vowels and the consonants.

Interesting facts about Arabic script

1. Originally, the Arabic language did not have as many dots as the current version. These dots were mainly introduced to differentiate the various vowel sounds.

2. Punctuation signs did not form part of the language until the 20th century.

3. Arabic is written from right to left and all the letters of the alphabet are consonants. The vowels are represented by diacritics or marks that are added both above and below the letters.

4. Each letter can be written in four different ways depending on its position:

            a) When it is isolated.

            b) When it is used at the beginning of the word.

            c) When it appears in the middle of the word.

            d) When it appears at the end of the word.

5. Although we have said in point 3 that writing goes from right to left, numbers are written from left to right.

6. Uppercase and lowercase do not exist in Arabic; rather, the letter varies according to its position within the word as we’ve seen in point 4.

Where is Arabic currently spoken?

Currently, Arabic is mainly spoken in the countries in the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East and the north of Africa; this is typically known as the “Arab world”.

Arabic is the official (or co-official) language in the following countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

Other countries such as Iran, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Turkey consider Arabic their national language or recognise it as a minority language.

Spanish words of Arabic origin

Spanish has a large number of Arabisms (words originating from Arabic), namely due to the control that the Arabs held for centuries over a large part of the Iberian Peninsula.

In fact, we could say that present-day Spanish is the evolution of the combination of Old Castilian and Mozarabic languages.

Many of these Arabisms start with “a” or “al-”; this is because both are articles of Arabic origin which were kept when the words were introduced in Spanish. For example, when you say “el azúcar” (the sugar) in Spanish, you are in fact repeating the article and saying “el el azúcar” (the the sugar).

Food and cuisine

Aceite (oil), aceituna (olive), azafrán (saffron), azúcar (sugar), berenjena (aubergine), café (coffee), fideo (noodle), jarabe (syrup), jarra (jug), limón (lemon), lima (lime), naranja (orange), sandía (watermelon), taza (mug) and zanahoria (carrot).

Nature and animals

Algodón (cotton), arrecife (reef), jabalí (wild boar), jirafa (giraffe), marfil (ivory) and tabaco (tobacco).

Grammar and interjections

Hasta (until), ojalá (used to express a wish) and olé (bravo).

Science and hobbies

Ajedrez (chess), alcohol (alcohol), alfil (bishop in chess), álgebra (algebra), algoritmo (algorithm) and dado (die).

Other words

Alcalde (mayor), aldea (village), alfombra (rug), almohada (pillow), alquiler (rent), asesino (killer), barrio(neighbourhood), guitarra (guitar), hazaña (feat), máscara (mask), mazmorra (dungeon), momia (mummy), noria (Ferris wheel) and tarea (task).

Arabic for your business

With a GDP of 2.8 trillion USD and more than 300 million native speakers, it’s important not to rule out Arabic for your projects of internationalization.

The Middle East represents a rapidly growing market of consumers with financial means. Furthermore, internet usage is on the rise and given that much of the population only speaks Arabic, translating all digital content into Arabic is key to gaining a competitive advantage in this market.

The sectors where it is more important to communicate in Arabic are international relations, energy and defence; if your company belongs to one of those sectors, translating into Arabic can open many doors and business opportunities.