The Arabic alphabet goes from right to left and it is easy to learn in just a few days – there are just 26 letters! However, pronunciation can be difficult for native English speakers — e.g. letters like ع ,ح, and غ.
One thing that does and will make reading words/sentences difficult is the fact that short vowels are almost never written in any media form outside of the Qur’an and some elementary children’s books. This makes things pretty difficult when you’re just starting out and have no way of knowing, just from unvoweled text, the correct pronunciation for words you’re unfamiliar with. For example, looking at the word فلفل, you would see “f-l-f-l” and not know what vowels come in between those letters. The good news is, this gets easier with time and practice. And if you memorize the verb forms (more on them below), that really helps in figuring out the correct pronunciations for lots of words.
A lot of people have trouble with Arabic grammar, especially at the beginning of their studies — it’s systematic but complex, and the case endings can be difficult to handle, particularly if you’re not already used to a language like Latin. Also, one irritating thing is the broken plurals; while some nouns take regular plurals, many have completely irregular plurals. However, there are patterns of broken plurals, and if you memorize enough words with their plurals, you can eventually internalize the patterns just through the practice, and be able to guess plurals intuitively.
As far as vocabulary goes, there are only a tiny number of cognates, which does make it harder to pick up a newspaper and immediately recognize words (as you could with, say, French). Also, the vocabulary is very rich; there are many synonyms and words with similar general meanings but different usages/connotations. As I’ve gotten further on in my Arabic studies, I’ve found that after you develop a good base of grammar knowledge, it’s the endless vocabulary that continues to pose a challenge.
Stylistically Arabic is also complicated; it’s quite common for sentences to go on for a paragraph, so that by the time you reach the end you have to remind yourself what the original subject of the sentence was! The Arabic writing style is also a lot more “flowery” than the way English is usually written. So writing in Arabic is quite different from writing in English, and it takes a lot of practice to write in a smooth, natural style.
And then there’s the diglossia issue: the divide between the standard Arabic that’s written and the Arabic people actually speak, which varies from place to place. You can think of the different dialects in terms of American, British, and Australian English, albeit with more differences. You can read more on the dialects below.
What’s the root system?
Most Arabic words are derived from a three-letter root that connotes a general meaning. (There are some four-letter roots, but they’re quite rare.) The usual example given is d-r-s, which has to do with studying. So the form 1 verb درس darasa means “to study,” while the form 2 verb درّس darrasa means “to teach”; درس dars means “lesson,” مدرسة madrasa means “school,” and مدرّس mudarris means “teacher.” And so forth; you can derive tons of words with related meanings from a single root. It’s really quite helpful; if you come across an unfamiliar word but recognize the root, you can use that knowledge to make a good guess at the meaning.
What are the verb forms?
Every trilateral Arabic root can (theoretically) be transformed into one of fifteen possible verb forms (أوزان awzaan). Each root has a general meaning (like “leaving,” for example), and when you add a specific combination of letters to transform the root into one of the verb forms, that alters the meaning (like “making someone leave”). More details on each verb form here.
Are broken plurals completely unpredictable? Do they have any patterns?
First of all, an explanation of broken plurals for those who don’t know: the majority of masculine nouns in Arabic have irregular (i.e. “broken”) plurals. Although there are some regular plurals, most nouns don’t fall under this category. So many nouns have plurals that seem completely random at first (the plural of كتاب kitaab is كتب kutub; the plural of ولد walad is أولاد awlaad).
But broken plurals do indeed have patterns; you can see a list here. I don’t really recommend memorizing the list, though; just memorize every plural for every noun, and you’ll learn them intuitively and eventually be able to guess at the plurals of new nouns you learn.
If the short vowels aren’t written, how do I know how to pronounce words?
First, an explanation: in Arabic, only long vowels are written out. Short vowels are left out, except in the Qur’an, Bible, and children’s books. Therefore, a beginning student would see كتب as k-t-b, and not know which vowels to insert between letters. This word could be “kataba” (he wrote), “kutiba” (it was written), or “kutub” (books). How do you know which one it is? Well, if you’re an absolute beginner, you won’t know all the possible pronunciations, and you simply won’t know how to pronounce it without checking a dictionary or asking a native speaker. This is frustrating, but as you learn more vocabulary and grammar, things will get easier. Once you gain more knowledge of Arabic, you’ll know that كتب could be a verb in the regular past tense (kataba) or the passive voice (kutiba), or a noun (kutub). Then you’ll figure out the correct pronunciation from context.
Learning the verb forms as soon as you can will also help with this. You’ll know all the patterns for conjugating the different verb types and deriving certain words (like active/passive participles) from verbs. For example, you’ll know that form 3 verbs are pronounced يُفاعِلُ in the present tense. Then when you see يغادر, you’ll know the pronunciation without having to look it up. Still, when you see a form 1 verb you don’t know, you will have to look it up in the dictionary to know the pronunciation of the present-tense conjugation. But basically, reading Arabic will get easier with time and knowledge.
There are two basic varieties of Arabic: standard Arabic (الفصحى al-fuSHa) and colloquial Arabic (العامية al-3ammiyya). Standard Arabic is the formal variety of the language. It’s used in the news media, literature and formal writing in general, and official occasions. It’s also the kind of Arabic that is usually taught in Western universities. If you mainly want to do research in Arabic, or understand Al-Jazeera, Al-Ahram, and Naguib Mahfouz books, standard Arabic is what you need to learn. But Arabs don’t speak standard Arabic in their daily lives, nor is it anyone’s native language. Arabs grow up speaking their own dialects and start to learn fuSHa only once they enter school, although they develop a passive understanding of it prior to that time via the media. Later, after finishing their education, many Arabs lose a great deal of their active knowledge of fuSHa, particularly the details of grammar rules. They may still be able to feel out the correct grammar by intuition, but they won’t be able to give an explanation of why it’s correct.
Outside of formal contexts in general, Arabs use their own dialects, which all diverge from standard Arabic in different ways. Colloquial Arabic is used in songs, TV shows (musalsalaat) and talk shows, movies, political cartoons, and some literature (plays, a small amount of poetry, and some novels which include dialogue in 3ammiyya). Many Arabs don’t consider 3ammiyya to be “real” Arabic, and view it as a low kind of slang, not a valid form of Arabic. Others, like Egyptian and Lebanese nationalists who reject an Arab identity, have tried to promote their local dialects while denigrating standard Arabic as outdated. There are many interesting socio-political aspects to the Arabic diglossia issue (diglossia refers to the divide between different forms of a language, like standard and colloquial Arabic).
The Arabic dialects can be classified into four categories:
- Maghrebi – spoken in Northern African countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia
- Levantine – spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan
- Gulf Arabic (Khaliiji) – spoken in the Arabian Gulf and Iraq.
In each of these regions are various local sub-dialects (for example, in Egypt there’s the Cairo, Alexandria, Upper Egypt, etc. dialects), but nevertheless they share enough common characteristics that they can be classified in one category, and people from different parts of the same region will have little trouble understanding each other.
If you only know standard Arabic and have no knowledge of any of the dialects, you can go to the Middle East and be understood when you speak to people (unless they’re very, very uneducated), but you probably won’t understand a whole lot when they speak to you. Among the more educated segment of the population, people generally can speak in fuSHa, but it feels unnatural and strange to them. They may use a more “elevated” dialect, mixing in some fuSHa with their dialect, but the base of what they speak is still colloquial. As for more uneducated people, they would have a lot more difficulty speaking in fuSHa.
Basically, if you only know fuSHa, you’ll miss out on a huge part of Arab culture. You’ll be unable to interact naturally with people (even if you get people to talk to you in fuSHa, it’s not the norm for them), and you won’t be able to enjoy any aspects of popular culture like music, TV (aside from news broadcasts etc.), or movies. Of course, if you only know 3ammiyya, you’ll be shut out from a whole other chunk of Arab culture: literature and the media. That’s why it’s really best to learn both standard Arabic and a dialect. But if you don’t have the time, consider your goals and choose which variety of Arabic to learn based on what you want to do with Arabic. If you want to travel in the Middle East, talk with Arab family or friends, and enjoy aspects of popular culture like movies, then focus on colloquial Arabic. If you’re interested in Arabic for research purposes or want to focus on literature or the news media, learn standard Arabic.
No Standard and colloquial Arabic exist on a continuum, and are not separate languages. Indeed, the linguist El-Said Badawi created a five-level continuum to capture the way Arabic is used by native speakers in Egypt:
- fuSHa al-turāth – the classical Arabic of the Qur’an
- fuSHa al-3aSr – the modern standard Arabic used today
- 3āmmiyyat al-muthaqqafīn – educated spoken Arabic heavily influenced by standard
- 3āmmiyyat al-mutanawwarīn – semi-literate Arabic or everyday colloquial with lots of loanwords from other languages
- 3āmmiyyat al-‘ummiyyīn – illiterate spoken Arabic with no influence from standard Arabic and no loanwords
What are some of the characteristics of the different dialects?
Pronunciation: The ق (qaaf) is often pronounced as a glottal stop in many urban dialects, as a hard G in many parts of the Gulf and rural and Bedouin dialects, and as a K in some rural areas of Palestine. The ك (kaaf) is sometimes pronounced as a “ch” in parts of Iraq, rural Palestine, and the Gulf. In the Levant, the ta marbuuTa is often pronounced “-e” (Palestine/Jordan) or “-i” (Lebanon) instead of “-a.” The ج (jiim) is pronounced as a hard G in urban Egyptian Arabic (and also parts of Yemen). In Egypt, the ث (th) is usually pronounced as an “s” or “t,” the ذ (dh) becomes a “d” or “z,” and the ظ (DH) is pronounced more like an emphatic “z,” and sometimes becomes a ض.
Vocabulary: The dialects include a lot of loan words from different including English, French and Italian; e.g.:
English – narfiz (to annoy s.o.), from nervous; kombyuuter (computer); internet; sayyev (to save [ex.] a computer file); farmaT (to format [ex.] a hard drive); tinis (tennis); gool (goal [in sports]); šuuTa (a kick or shot [in sports]); fawl (a foul [in sports]); viidiyo kliip (music video); kliinex (paper napkin); turmomitr (thermometer); kamira (camera); luuri (truck/lorry); aayis kriim (ice cream)
French – kanaba (sofa), from canapé; dušš (shower), from douche; abažoora (lamp), from abat-jour; mokett (wall-to-wall carpet), from moquette; aSanSeir (elevator), from ascenseur; sešwaar (hairdryer), from séchoir; ruuž (lipstick), from rouge; iišaarb (scarf), from écharpe; balTo (coat), from paletot; žuup (skirt), from jupe; kilott (underpants), from culotte; dantilla/dantel (lace), from dentelle; bissiin (pool), from piscine; blaaž (beach), from plage; lesaans (BA), from licence; gatooh (cake), from gâteau; šampinyoon (mushroom), from champignon; reklaam (advertisement), from réclame; garsoon (waiter), from garçon; kuwafeir (hairdresser), from coiffeur
Italian – mooDa (style, fashion), from moda; gambari (shrimp), from gambero; kawitš (tire), from caucciù; gunilla (skirt), from gonnella; guwanti (gloves), from guanti; žakitta (jacket), from giacchetta; bosTa (mail, postal service), from posta; rušitta (medical prescription), from ricetta; faraawla (strawberry), from fragola; želaati (ice cream), from gelato; baruuka (wig), from parrucca
However, most of the colloquial words that differ from standard Arabic are concentrated in the area of everyday vocabulary. The majority of words in, say, Egyptian Arabic are the same as they are in fuSHa, just pronounced a bit differently — and especially once you get into more high-level vocabulary, like the words used in the media, the words used in fuSHa are also used in the dialects, with the only real difference being some pronunciation modifications. Here’s a list of some basic colloquial words to give a quick idea of a few vocabulary differences between dialects:
|what||ايه (eih)||شو (šuu)||شو (šuu) or ايش (aiš)|
|how||ازاي (izzaay)||كيف (keif)||شلون (šloon)|
|why||ليه (leih)||ليش (leiš)||ليش (leiš) or الويش (ilweiš) or لويش (luweiš)|
|where||فين (fein)||وين (wein)||وين (wein)|
|thing||حاجة (Haaga)||شي (šii)||شي (šii)|
|now||دلوقت (dilwa’ti)||هلّق (halla’)||هسا (hissa)|
|good||كويس (kwayyis)||منيح (mniiH)||زين (zein)|
|very||قوي (‘awi)||كتير (ktiir)||كلش (kulliš)|
|to want||عايز/عاوز (the active participle 3aayiz/3aawiz)||بدّ (badd-/bidd- + possessive pronoun)||راد – يريد (raad – yriid)|
|to say||قال – يقول (‘aal – yi’uul)||حكى – يحكي (Haka – yiHki)||قال – يقول (gaal – yguul)|
|to give||ادى – يدي (idda – yiddi)||عطى – يعطي||نطا – ينطي (niTa – yinTi)|
|to close||قفل – يقفل (‘ifil – yi’fil)||سكر – يسكر (sakkar – ysakker)||سد – يسد (sadd – ysidd)|
|mouth||بقّ (bo”)||تمّ (timm)||حلگ (Halig)|
|clothes||هدوم (huduum)||أواعي (awaa3i)||ملابس (malaabis) or اهدوم (ihduum)|
|money||فلوس (filuus)||مصاري (maSaari)||فلوس (fluus)|
|car||عربية (3arabiyya)||سيارة (sayyaara)||سيارة (sayyaara)|
|cheese||جبنة (gibna)||جبنة (jebne)||جبن (jibin)|
|ice cream||آيس كريم (aayis kriim) or جيلاتي (želaati)||بوظة (buuZa)||موطة (muuTa) or دوندرما (doonderma)|
Some Sudanese Arabic: