The Arabic Language

Green: Sole official language Blue: One of many official languages

Arab World

Arabic is the official language of 25 countries, the third most in the world after English and French. Arabic is spoken in Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Western Sahara, and Yemen. Modern Arabic is considered to be a macrolanguage, with 27 sub-languages. These varieties are spoken throughout the Arab world. Standard Arabic is widely studied and used throughout the Islamic world. It is estimated that there are over 225 million native speakers of Arabic and as many as 246 million non-native speakers.

Brief History

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), in regards to the number of speakers, is the largest member of the Semitic language family. Semitic languages are thousands of years old, originating in the Mediterranean Basin area. The Semitic language family is a descendant of proto-Semitic, an ancient language that was has no written record. Arabic is part of the Semitic subgroup of Afro-Asiatic languages and is closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic.

There are three distinct forms of Arabic. Classical (Qur’anical) Arabic, Modern (Formal) Standard Arabic and Colloquial (Spoken) Arabic. Classical Arabic is the form of Arabic found in the Qur’an. It is not used in conversation or in non-religious writing. Classical Arabic is primarily learned for reading and reciting Islamic religious texts.


Diglossia is defined as “the use of two varieties of a language by members of a society for distinct functions or by distinct groups or classes of people.”

Modern Standard Arabic is considered of high prestige, and the local colloquial dialects are considered of low prestige. Speakers use a certain variety depending on the social context. This daily use of two languages results in “code-switching” (the speaker uses words from both languages) within the same conversation or even sentence to better suit the topic or meaning of what they want to say.




Modern Standard Arabic has three vowels, with long and short forms of /a/, /i/, and /u/. Short vowels in Arabic are typically not written except in sacred texts (such as the Qurʼan, where they must be written). There are also two diphthongs: /aj/ and /aw/ (formed by a combination of short /a/ with the semivowels /j/ and /w/).


Arabic consists of short and long consonants. Long consonants are produced in the same way as the short consonants, but have a longer duration. While pronunciation of the 28 consonants depends on dialect, most are pronounced with a high degree of regularity. Unlike English, Arabic contains a number of uvular, pharyngeal, and pharyngealized (“emphatic”) consonants. The presence of simultaneous velarization and pharyngealization during the production of consonants. is referred to as “Retracted Tongue Root”.

Syllable Structure

Arabic contains two types of syllables: open (CV and CVV) and closed (CVC). Syllables begin with a consonant, except when a phrase begins with the definite article, for example, “the car”. If a word ends in a vowel and the next word is the definite article, then the initial vowel of the article is left out. In this case the consonant closes the final syllable of the previous word.


In Standard Arabic, word stress is not phonemically contrastive.

Click here to visit a webpage containing sample audio recordings of an Arabic speaker.

Click here to visit the ASHA Website and download a PDF of a phonemic inventory of the Arabic language.


Nouns and verbs are governed by systematic morphophonemic rules. However, pronouns typically don't follow this system. Each noun and verb is made up of a certain set of base letters. Verbs can have either 3 or 4 base letters. Nouns can have 3, 4, or 5. Extra letters can be added to the base letters and they can be dropped or changed due to morphophonemic rules as well. Adding letters can add more meaning, insight, or significance to the basic meaning of the the root letters. Examples of nouns and verbs with added, changed, and dropped letters are found in the figure below.

Grammatical particles* are completely unpredictable and have no patterns. They also do not go through any morphophonemic changes. Therefore, they must be memorized. There are fewer than one hundred particles in Arabic.

* (also called “function words” The infinitive marker “to” and the negater “not” are examples of English particles.)


The placement of verbs in sentences in written Arabic differs from English. The typical order of an Arabic sentence is Verb-Subject-Object (VSO). For example, in English “The boy stole the bike”, would be “Stole the boy the bike” in Arabic. This can be an important factor in understanding how readers of Arab backgrounds react to text. In contrast, however, spoken Arabic syntax is very similar to English as Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) is typically used.


Writing System

Modern Standard Arabic is written from right to left in a cursive style (calligraphy is still used and highly regarded) and consists of 28 letters. While there are several styles of script, Ruq'ah is the most commonly used in handwriting. The Naskh style is what is typically used in print and on computers. Arabic script has been adopted for many different languages. The following map represents countries that use Arabic script as the official orthography (dark green) or alongside other orthographies (light green).


The Arabic alphabet comes from the Aramaic script.


Colloquial dialects are generally only spoken languages. People who speak Arabic use the colloquial language in their daily interactions, but Modern Standard Arabic is used in formal situations. Colloquial language is what Arabic speakers learn as their L1 (first language spoken at home) and then Modern Standard Arabic is learned based on Classical or Quranic Arabic. While there can be differences between the various colloquial dialects, Standard Arabic is the same throughout the Arab World. Some of the colloquial language differences are so great that dialects can be mutually unintelligible. The major dialects are:

  • Egyptian Arabic (Considered the most widely understood and used “second dialect”)
  • Maghreb Arabic (Tunisian, Algerian, Moroccan, and western Libyan)
  • Hassaniiya (in Mauritania)
  • Andalusi Arabic (extinct, but important role in literary history)
  • Maltese
  • Sudanese Arabic (with a dialect continuum into Chad)
  • Levantine Arabic (Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and western Jordanian)
  • Iraqi Arabic
  • Gulf Arabic (Gulf coast from Kuwait to Oman, and minorities on the other side)
  • Hijazi Arabic
  • Najdi Arabic
  • Yemeni Arabic

Slang and Phrases

Arabic slang has developed from Classical Arabic. It does not use all the rules and contains sounds that do not exist in the standard language.


  • Shlonkom?: how are you all?
  • zen/zena [M/F]:fine
  • Shako mako?: what’s new?
  • Kulshi mako: nothing new..


  • Shonak?/Shonik? [M/F]: how are you?
  • Kafe al haal?: how are you?
  • Very Well: tamam, bikhair
  • What is your name?: ma ismiki (f)
  • My name is…: ismee
  • Alhamdo lillah: thanks God
  • Safiya Dafiya: everything is fine (literally means: sunny and warm)

Body Language & Gesture

The messages embedded in body language and gesture are far from universal. People who make the assumption that gestures are the same regardless of language spoken run the risk of unintentionally sending a nonverbal message that is misinterpreted by, or even offensive to, the recipient. For example:

  • The “OK” hand sign used in the US to indicate that something is good is the same as an Arab sign for the evil eye that is used in conjunction with curses.
  • A quick upward movement of the head accompanied by a click of the tongue is used to indicate “no” in Arab culture, which could be mistaken for nodding “yes” in the U.S.
  • In the U.S., sitting in a chair with one foot placed on the opposite knee is a relatively common and innocuous posture. In Arab culture, it is considered an insult to those around you to show the soles of the feet while sitting.

Demographics of Arab-Americans

According to the American Arab Institute there are over 3.5 million people of Arab ancestry living in America. The 2000 U.S. Census reported that over 6,000 Arab-Americans live in Oregon, over 8,000 in Washington, and over 140,000 in California. The census stated that these numbers were likely under-reported and since 2000 have significantly increased. For example, a recent survey suggests that there are over 700,000 Arab Americans currently living in California.


Arab Americans

  • with high school education: 85%
  • with bachelor's degree: > 40% (compared to 24% of all Americans)
  • with post-graduate degree: 17% (compared to 9% of all Americans)

Occupation and Income

Arab Americans

  • employed in managerial, professional, or technical fields: 73%
  • employed in service industry: 12% (compared to 27% of all Americans)
  • work in private sector: 88%
  • median household income: $47,000 (compared to $42,000 for all of U.S.)

Religious and Political Views

The Arab World is composed mostly of people of the Islamic faith. However, according to the Arab American Institute (AAI), most Arab Americans are Christian. They reported the following: 63% Christian, 24% Muslim, and 13% Jewish/Other/No affiliation.

According to the AAI, Arab Americans tend to vote more Democratic than Republican. A recent poll found that 62% of Arab Americans vote Democratic, while only 25% vote Republican. As a group they backed John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. While some Arab Americans believe their values are more in line with the conservative Republican party, the AAI estimated that 52% of Arab Americans are pro-life, 74% support the death penalty, 76% are in favor of stricter gun control, and 86% want to see an independent Palestinian state.

Family Structure

Loyalty to family and the extended clan is a strong value in Arab culture. The family structure is patriarchal and hierarchical. Boys are favored over girls and are expected to care for their parents in their old age. Women are subordinate to their husbands and male relatives. Some Arab American families expect their members to strictly adhere to these traditional gender roles, while others allow for more equality between the sexes.

Social Etiquette

The Arab concept of personal space is very different from that of mainstream US culture. People of the same sex stand close together, and it is considered rude to step or lean away. Men who are friends or colleagues may hold hands as they walk together. Much greater distance is expected between the sexes, however, and a man should not stand too close, stare at, or touch a woman.

It takes time to establish mutual respect and trust. Social niceties should not be rushed, particularly when meeting for the first time.

Food and drink are offered to guests, and it is customary to accept at least a small amount of the offered refreshment. When serving or passing food and beverages, use the right hand only. It is customary to leave a little something on the plate.

Considerations for Speech-Language Pathologists

  • The Arab-speaking world encompasses people with a wide range of religious beliefs, ethnicities, and lifestyles. Don't make assumptions about people based solely on their native language.
  • When assessing an Arabic speaker it is important to keep in mind that there are many dialects in Arabic and many phonological variations exist between them.
  • Male clinicians should be particularly sensitive to an Arab woman's expectation of privacy and personal space - for example, it may be considered highly inappropriate for a man to initiate shaking hands with a woman.
  • While syntactical rules for spoken Arabic are similar to those of English, rules are different for written Arabic.
  • Arabic script is written from right to left. This could result in some confusion when asking a child to point to the “first” item on a page.
  • Arabic contains some different consonants than English as well as fewer vowels. This will affect pronunciation of English words. For example, Arabic speakers typically will substitute b for p; s for voiceless th; z or d for voiced th; and sh for ch.
  • Phonemes in English that are not found in Arabic include: /p/, /v/, /ɹ/, /ʒ/, /g/, and /ŋ/.
  • In Standard Arabic, word stress is not phonemically contrastive. English language learners whose L1 is Arabic may need explicit instruction in correct usage of word stress in English.
  • In Arab culture, words have power and talking about unpleasant things is thus avoided. Clients and families may be uncomfortable talking about a diagnosis of a disorder.
  • Admitting ignorance is frowned on in Arab culture. Clients and family members may be reluctant to say “I don't know” in response to a question.


On this Website

Other Websites

Books & Articles

  • Amayreh, M., & Dyson, A. (1998). The acquisition of Arabic Consonants. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 41, pp. 642-–653.
  • Stetkevych, J. (2006). The modern Arabic literary language: Lexical and stylistic developments. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
  • Versteegh, K. (2001). The Arabic language. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Student Contributors for this page: Claire Barnes, Katy Brandt, & Devin Dolan; Winter 2010

cultural_information/by_language/arabic.txt · Last modified: 2012/06/06 01:10 (external edit)
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