So, this post is going to be a little different from previous forrays. In addition to the poetry and blogging content, there will be a language
component as well. This is the introduction to my “Yes I Kalaam” series. Kalaam means “speech” in Arabic and in the “Yes I can” spirit, I will research and provide you with the most basic building blocks of Arabic, along with articles about interesting topics relating to or inspired by the Arabic language.
Yala (let’s go)
Let’s Define “Arabic”
Arabic has no paramameters to it. Keep this in mind before you catch yourself saying “I’m studying Arabic”. This is a fragment sentence. You’re better off stating a purpose for your study of Arabic such as
- Im learning Arabic so I can understand Quran
- I’m learning Arabic so I can understand what “habibi” means in my favorite songs
- I’m learning Arabic becasue so many words in my language borrow from it
- I’m learning Arabic so I can pass this insane 6 credit Arabic course where I learned “United Nations” before “Goodmorning”
- I’m learning Arabic so I can head to Arab countires and get paid to kill the inhabitants more efficiently
- I’m leanring Arabic so I can look cool at the shawarma shop
We all have our reasons.
And simply brushing over Arabic with a stroke of uniformity is an injustice. For example, I read a book (in English) about Arabic rhetoric and it stated in its introduction that although historically Arabic grammarians have used either excerpts from the Quran or Pre-Islamcic poetry to demonstrate Arabic
rhetoric, that they opted to use Modern Standard Arabic instead. That level of blatant linguistic disregard would be unsettling even if we were studying Klingon, let alone a language spoken natively by roughly 467 million people worldwide.
That type of white washing is culturally irresponsible and reduces the study of Arabic to some Buzzfeed, Orientalist, Slim-fast interpretation of it. I don’t want that for you. Arabic is not the domain solely of Arabs or solely of Muslims. For example:
- The Maltese Language which is a testament to Arabo-Islamic rule over Mediterranean Europe in antiquity is so dense with Arabic that some regard it as an Arabic dialect instead of a separate language
- Slave revolts that were organized through the Arabic literacy of Muslim on plantations in the Americas
- the volume of Arabic loanwords in non-Semitic languages such as Farsi/Dari/Tajic, Urdu, Sawhili, etc.
Instead we have “Al-Kitaab”
If you’ve ever studied Arabic in the US over the last decade in University, Military or at various language institutes, you know of “Al-Kitaab fi Ta3allum Al-3rabiyah” [The Book of Learning Arabic]. It may not be of the caliber of Sibaway’s Al-Kitab, but…well…I can’t lie, its horrible.
Instead of using classical methodology, it takes the information highway approach, as the creators, under the influence of people desperate to learn everything at once, attempts to teach you both Modern Standard Arabic and two dialects (Musri and Shami).
I’ll get to why that’s such a trainwreck later, but, as anyone who has ever taken an Arabic class based on this book can attest to, the course material itself is hard to digest, especially for well-intentioned Muslim students who
are taking the class to learn how to comprehend Arabic. This book and these classes aren’t for comprehension, they are for communication, and, frankly, with the workload you’ll get from the book and the creolization that you’ll develop from essentially learning two languages at once, you will be able to be fluent in a relatively short amount of time. You won’t understand the gravity of what you’re saying, but you’ll be able to get by. In this sense, secular learners treat Arabic as any other language and engaging it purely for communicative purposes. If your intent is simply learning to get by, I’d suggest taking an Arabic course if you’re still in college- but be warned, it’s the work intensity of these classes that makes you fluent, not the material.
I can go into greater detail in a later post, but as far as essential books are concerned, check out:
- The Nicholas Awde Arabic dictionary for beginners, then the The Hans Wehr Arabic dictionary for more advanced studies
- Modern Standard Arabic Grammar: A Learner’s Guide by Mohammad T. Alhawary
- Fundamentals of Arabic Grammar by Mohammed Sawaie
I didn’t include links because you can dig around the internet or a local book store and possibly find a better price than I could recommend from this platform. However, note how poorly received the AlKitaab series is on Amazon, which adds credibility to the argument against the book. Nobody enjoys it, as it embodies everything wrong with how Arabic is taught in the West and why Americans take all these Arabic classes and still can’t communicate functionally in Arabic. If you’re going along the self-taught route, an enjoyable, logical textbook is your best companion and I hope you at least look one of these recommendations up.
On the Other End is the Bayyinah Generation
Bayyinah, Qalam, Fawakih, Toobah and several other Arabic institutes/madrassas have been established in recent years, due in part to the unprecedented Quranic rhetorical analysis available on YouTube. Nouman Ali Khan’s videos are particularly popular due to his deliverance of complex Arabic topics and Quranic miracles into relatable, comprehensible English.
He was part of a generation of Muslim speakers who mainstreamed balagha and kindled a wide interest in American Muslims to study Arabic in order to appreciate the miracles of the Quran and strengthen their faith through that comprehension. In
previous generations, speakers either were amazing orators in English but had a shaky foundation in their Arabic or were scholars of Usulu- Deen but couldn’t transport their studies outside of its cultural and linguistic homeland.
Of course, this caused a disconnect that in a post 9/11 society for American Muslims put them under internal and external threat. Fortunately, as every other Muslim community in the world has done at one point or another,the collective has realized the vitality of Arabic in preserving their faith.
As such, the intent and curriculum behind studying Arabic for Islam begets a different audience than the more secular university/Arabic institutes classes.
Given the nascence of Arabic and Islamic scholarship by native Muslims in America, what most students learn in these seminaries they can’t really use outside of the masjid. Arabic isn’t widespread enough in the Muslim community in America yet. Whereas university Arabic classes focus on communication, these seminaries focus on grammar. As will be explained when I get to the digolssia section, Arabic SUFFERS from divergent colloquial dialects that are nearly incomprehensible to standard Fusha (Standard Arabic). There will be grammar that the seminary student will know that lifetime Arabic speakers won’t, yet the native Arabic speakers would laugh at the student’s impeccable speech, as it would sound unnaturally posh to them.
As of 2018 this is the situation, but as more natives go to these seminaries and inform
members of their communities, there will be a shift from learning a language to native speakers creolizing it, as is already happening.
One of the most critical threats to the preservation of Arabic isn’t bombs and desertification. It’s not even immigration, as Arabic communities have retained their language traits fairly well. It’s colloquial Arabic. Even the most basic rules of Arabic get routinely violated in these dialects. Moreover, unlike Classical or Modern Standard Arabic, which has minimal influence from outside languages, colloquial Arabic has taken on the flavors of colonizers, neighboring languages and the previous mother tongue. Instead of uniting Arabs, these dialects have divided them, and there is considerable code switching or opting for the Standard form. However, more often then not, depending on their competency in it, speakers will resign to using non- Arabic languages (English, French, etc.) in their conversations. It is the fear of many, particularly Muslims- who’s book has been revealed in Arabic- that the condition of the language will start to deteriorate and the depth of its meaning will start to be permanently lost in translation.
Arabic is a textbook case of diglossia. Diglossia is the phenomenon where there exists in a language extensive disparity between the written (standard) and spoken (colloquial) forms. The standard dialect is typically a preservation of an older, more established and widely attested dialect. The colloquial varieties typically have different phonology (pronunciation), syntax (sentence structure) and loan words. These partings from the standard dialect are usually not due to the speaker’s laziness, but to “interference” from other languages. Arabic has been attested to as early as the 1st Century CE and evolved alongside other South Arabian languages, a few of which were inherited from the people of Thamud referenced in the Quran .
Without getting too deep into history (that can be saved for another post or series of posts) after the establishment of the Umayyad Dynasty in the late 7th century, Arabic had to be standardized due to its contact with foreign languages and cultures. During this era, lands that we now associate with being the heartland of Arabic language (and even some we don’t) were under the control of the Umayyads, and Arabic in some regions, such as Syria and the Levant ( Al- Shams as it is known in Arabic) transitioned from Aramaic, Syriac and other Semitic languages with relative ease. In North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, Coptic and Berber/Tamasheq would hinder the adoption of Arabic, as they were far-flung territories who only gradually adopted Arabic, Islam and other aspects of traditionally Arab culture. In the cases of the North African regional varieties as well as in Oman and Yemen, pre-Arabic, pre-Islamic and pre-colonial languages somehow managed to exist and are still spoken in isolated pockets in the Arabian Peninsula.
Of course, this results in a wide variety of colloquial Arabic that diverges significantly from eachother in addition to Standard Arabic. Just listen to these videos and note how some of these dialects sound like a completely different language:
- Indian speaking Arabic in 10 different accents part
- Lebanese Speaks 12 Arabic Dialects
- Yemeni Girl Speaks 8 Gulf Dialects
The written variety, Fusha sounds completely different, even when spoken:
- Warning: Don’t Speak Standard ( FusHa) الفصحى Arabic in Egypt
- Fusha being used for religious sermon (Khutbah)
- Fusha being used in news broadcasts across the Arab world
And there you have it. In addition to going into more details on the subjects covered in this article, namely more about the grammar, history and variations of Arabic, I additionally intend to write about Arabic contacts with other languages. This would include Farsi, Turkish, Malay, Urdu, Hausa, Swahili, Spanish and Portuguese.
Any assistance with these languages or suggestions for other languages with an Arabic substrate would be appreciated. If you like this article, comment below and share it your social media platforms.
إلى اللقاء (ilaa al-liqa’- until next time)
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