The Arabic script evolved from the Nabataean
Aramaic script. It has been used since the 4th century AD, but
the earliest document, an inscription in Arabic, Syriac
and Greek, dates from 512
AD. The Aramaic language has fewer consonants than Arabic, so during
the 7th century new Arabic letters were created by adding dots to existing
letters in order to avoid ambiguities. Further diacritics indicating
short vowels were introduced, but are only generally used to ensure
the Qur'an was read aloud without mistakes.
There are two main types of written Arabic:
Classical Arabic - the language of the Qur'an and classical
literature. It differs from Modern Standard Arabic mainly in style
and vocabulary, much of which is archaic. All Muslims are expected
to read the Qur'an in the original language. Translations do exist
but are frowned on.
Modern Standard Arabic - the universal language of the Arabic-speaking
world which is understood by all Arabic speakers. It is the language
of the vast majority of written material and of formal TV shows, lectures,
Each Arabic speaking country or region also has its own variety of
colloquial spoken Arabic. These colloquial varieties of Arabic appear
in written form in some poetry, cartoons and comics, plays and personal
letters. There are also translations of the bible into most varieties
of colloquial Arabic.
Arabic has also been written with the Hebrew, Syriac and Latin scripts.
- The Arabic alphabet contains 28 letters. Some additional letters
are used in Arabic when writing places names or foreign words containing
sounds which do not occur in Standard Arabic, such as /p/ or /g/.
- Words are written in horizontal lines from right to left, numerals
are written from left to right
- Most letters change form depending on whether they appear at the
beginning, middle or end of a word, or on their own. (see
- Letters that can be joined are always joined in both hand-written
and printed Arabic. The only exceptions to this rule are crossword
puzzles and signs in which the script is written vertically.
- The long vowels /a:/, /i:/ and /u:/ are represented by the letters
'alif, yaa and waaw respectively.
- Short vowels are not usually marked, except in poetry, textbooks
for foreign learners, children's books and the Qur'an (Koran). When
short vowels are marked, /a/ is written with a horizontal line (fathaa)
over the consonant letter, /i/ is written with a horizontal line (kasraa)
below the consonant letter, and a little hook (damnaa) is used
to write /u/.
- A shadda, which looks like the letter siin without its tail,
is used to indicate the doubling of a consonant.
- A small circle (sukuun) is used to indicate the absence
of a vowel.
The short vowels (a, i, u) and the diacritics attached to the long vowels
are usually written only in poetry, textbooks for foreign learners,
children's books and the Qur'an (Koran)
Numerals with number names in Standard Arabic
The Arabic language
Arabic is a Semitic language with about 221 million speakers in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain,
Chad, Cyprus, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebannon,
Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Oman, Palestinian West Bank & Gaza, Qatar, Saudi Arabia,
Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Turkey, UAE, Uzbekistan and Yemen
There are over 30 different varieties of colloquial Arabic which
- Egyptian - spoken by about 46 million people in Egypt and perhaps the most
widely understood variety, thanks to the popularity of Egyptian-made films
and TV shows
- Algerian - spoken by about 22 million people in Algeria
- Moroccan/Maghrebi - spoken in Morocco by about 19.5 million people
- Sudanese - spoken in Sudan by about 19 million people
- Saidi - spoken by about 19 million people in Egpyt
- North Levantine - spoken in Lebannon and Syria by about 15 million people
- Mesopotamian - spoken by about 14 million people in Iraq, Iran and Syria
- Najdi - spoken in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria by about 10 million people
For a full list of all varieties of colloquial Arabic
click here (Format: Excel, 20K).
Sample Arabic text
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)