Arabic: yesterday and today

Arabic, which developed from the Aramaic languages and belongs to the Semitic language branch within the Afro-asiatic language family. The origin of the word “arab” is still not certain as many different hypotheses have been put forward: Arabic etymology suggests that the word “arab” comes from a verb meaning “to explain” (??), whilst it could equally derive from the Semitic route “abhar” meaning “to travel/move”, or from the stem “arab”, from the Aramaic word “arâbâh”, meaning desert.

In the 7th century Arabic became the language of the Quran and the liturgical language of Islam,  as well as the official administrative language of the kingdom under the reign of Umayyad caliph, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, in place of Greek. Although it originated on the Arabic peninsula, its use has since spread to the Middle East, North Africa and even Europe between the 7th and 12th centuries.

Arabic has had a lot of influence on other languages (such as English, Spanish and even Italian) which have borrowed words, usually scientific, from its vocabulary over the course of history.

Today Arabic is the official language of 26 States, of which 22 are members of the Arab League. Many international organisations also declare Arabic as an official language such as the Arab League, the African Union and the UN.


The Arabic alphabet contains 28 letters as well as the hamza (or glottal stop). When compared with our Latin alphabet, the consonants “p”, “v” and “g” are absent. Vowels are only rarely written, and when they are, it is often under the form of diacritic marks.

Arab is written and read from right to left. This means that Arabic books are bound from the right, and are therefore read in the opposite direction to which we are accustomed. Similarly, the punctuation marks that we use, such as the comma or the question mark are inversed or turned.

Arabic writing is unicameral; there is no distinction between upper case or lower case letters. However, the written form of letters changes slightly with their position in the word according to if they are placed at the beginning, the middle or the end of the word. Given that words in Arabic cannot be cut off at the end of a line, the letters are written larger or smaller in order to fit the word in the available space.


Arabic has the distinctive feature of having an important diglossia between the literary language  and the different vernacular languages (dialects). So called “Classical Arabic” was once called Ancient Arabic in reference to pre-Islamic poetry, then Qur’anic Arabic (the language of the sacred texts) and then finally Classical Arabic (the language of the arab-muslim world).

There is also standard modern Arabic, taught in school and used for written and spoken communication in formal situations. This began in Egypt at the start of the 19th century with the development of the printing press.

Arabic has vernacular varieties that are geographically divided into four large groups of different dialects: Middle Eastern, Bedouin, Maghreb and sub-Saharan. These different dialects are often similar in terms of vocabulary but with different pronunciations, to the extent that they are not all mutually intelligible.


Characterised by an extremely rich vocabulary and as having a very high number of native speakers, estimated at 295 million (which makes it the fifth most spoken language in the world), Arabic has a growing importance in the international economic landscape. It is for this reason that SMG and its network of qualified partners area ready to offer you their skills in translation in many linguistic combinations involving Arabic.

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