Arabic, Beyond the Numeral System

The Arabic language is the second to fifth most spoken language in the world, with a population ranging between 350 and 420 million native speakers – depending on your reference.

arabicArabic has a number of unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other top languages out there, positioning it as the strongest candidate for becoming the universal lingua franca. Arabic was actually the global language of art, science, commerce and culture during the Medieval era.

 

Arabic is the only language that is future-proof

For good reasons, Arabic as a language was kept almost intact for fourteen centuries. Arabic is by far the longest still-alive language. On the other hand all other living languages are constantly changing and morphing, for example, if you read English scripts from just a few centuries back, you wouldn’t recognize most of it as English. The same will happen a few centuries later, and the same applies to all other languages – except for Arabic.

Arabic literature written a thousand years ago is now readable as if it were written today. We can only imagine the empowerment this would give to humanity – as the other languages continuously morph over the years, all written literature is either lost as it becomes unintelligible or only accessible by learned scholars.

This reality is not going to change any time soon. Writing in Arabic is the only guarantee you can get that the content you produce today will continue to be comprehensible by the mass audiences thousands of years to come.

Arabic is simple

Arabic has a few-thousand root words that can be derived into many forms and relevant meanings. The root KA-TA-BA for example has many derivatives like:
Kataba Wrote
Yaktob Write
Maktoob Written
Ketab Book or Letter
Kateb Writer
Kuttab Teaching room
Maktab Office
Maktabah Library
Ektetab …etc

The derivation processes comply with standard patterns that mold and fuse the additional meaning to the root. The patterns are systematically applicable.

That being the case, Arabic has a considerably smaller number of words in its core set of necessary vocabulary words compared to other languages, making it easier to master.

Arabic is brief and concise

Arabs always take pride at how briefly they can express their thoughts. “The best of what you speak is what you put in the fewest possible words while expressing exactly what you want.” To put this in in Arabic, “خَيرُ الكلامِ ما قَلّ ودَل”

عمق العربية

Yet another example of brevity: the same exact word delivering many different meanings per context without any confusion or ambiguity on the receiving end. Check the meanings of the word “ضَرَبَ” to see an example of a longer set of meanings associated with that single word.

The use of diacritics (tashkeel) that can be dropped at option greatly reduces the size of a word, whereas English requires individual letters for those light vowels.

Arabic words are considerably shorter on average in contrast to other languages, both in pronunciation and writing.

The use of affixes and template-patterns also compresses what is usually expressed in several words in other languages, like English, into just one word. For example the word “سنأكلها” is expressed “We shall eat it” in English. Another example, “وأحبها وتحبني ويحب ناقتها بعيري” quoted from a sixth-century AD poem, which means “And I love her, and she loves me, and her female-camel loves my male-camel.” A simple word count would get the idea across (5 words in Arabic, 16 words in English).

Poetry is the pinnacle of that brevity, where ideas are molded in rhetorically concise and musically chantable structures.

Elegantly-brief Arabic molds of ideas are mesmerizing, chantable and easy to remember.

Arabic is easy to write and read

Arabic does not have the concept of silent letters, as is the case with English and French. Silent letters are reminiscences of a past debt and only complicate a language.
Every word in Arabic (with the proper Tashkeel) is written in the exact pronounced form.

In English, there is a disconnect between the spelling and how it sounds; you can’t tell exactly how a word is pronounced by just reading it, therefore, you have to learn the pronunciation by hearing it. The written letters are to just to remind you of the pronunciation that you must learn by heart. This has led English to having pronunciation-keys and guides in the dictionaries, and students are encouraged to memorize the spelling by holding spelling contests; two things Arabic never needed and never had.

Written letters in Arabic take various modes (shapes) depending on their position in the word, making it much easier for the eye to pick up the word-pattern as opposed to the split and distinct Latin letters.

homophoneAs you may have already noticed in the word examples above, Arabic does not have the heterograph homophones problem (words pronounced in the same way but spelled differently; e.g., For/Four/Fore, Wright/Right/Write/Rite, Ate/Eight, Week/Weak, Knight/Night, Meet/Meat, etc.) nor hetrophone homographs (words pronounced differently but spelled the same; e.g. Read (present)/Read (past), Use(v.)/Use(n.), etc.).

Arabic is intuitive and coherent

Words in Arabic are very intuitive and magically relate to the meaning. For example, uttering the word “Bala’a” (swallowed) actually mimics the exact swallowing process.

Going back to the heavy leverage of roots and stems, the same stem/root always revolves around the one concept. For example, in English, the masculine/feminine, noun/adjective are completely different words in many cases, whereas in Arabic we use the same stem with the respective template to express the variation:
Brother and Sister: أخ
Wife and Husband: زوج
Cow and Beef: بقر
Moon and Lunar: قمر
Sun and Solar: شمس

Conclusion

In the same way the Arabic numeral system proved to be a better option over Latin numerals, I believe Arabic has the same kind of advantage over English. It took Europe a long push back and several centuries until they finally adopted Arabic numerals. It’s just a matter of time for the same to happen with the Arabic language. The future-proof language will probably become the language of the future.

In this short blog post, I only tried to highlight some practical aspects demonstrating the convenience of the Arabic language, and hence present the case of why it could be the best contender to become the lingua franca. I didn’t touch on other debatable aspects that may or may not have practical value.

Bonus

Here are two bonus points for your patience in reading all of the above 🙂 :
1. In the broader context, anyone who speaks Arabic is called Arab. The context of using the word “Arab” to refer to the ethnicity of Arabs was restricted a long time ago. So being an Arab is just a matter of you speaking the language fluently. Actually, that is the primary meaning of the verb “yo’reb” that shares the same root with “Arab”, which means expressing oneself in a clear Arabic language.
2. Putting aside the debate of who reached to the new world first, many researchers believe that Christopher Columbus actually used Arabic to communicate with the indigenous crowd he first met when landing in the New World. Aileen Vincent-Barwood writes:

columbus-native-americansIs it possible that the first words spoken by Christopher Columbus on stepping ashore in the New World were the Arabic greeting “As-Salam Alaykum“? A far-fetched idea? Consider… Arabic had been the scientific language of most of humankind from the eighth to the 12th century. It is probably for this reason that Columbus, in his own words, considered Arabic to be “the mother of all languages,” and why on his first voyage to the New World, he took with him Luis de Torres, an Arabic-speaking Spaniard, as his interpreter. Columbus fully expected to land in India, where he knew that the Arabs had preceded him. He also knew that, for the past five centuries, Arabs had explored, and written of the far reaches of the known world. They had been around the perimeter of Africa and sailed as far as India. They had ventured overland beyond Constantinople, past Asia Minor, across Egypt and Syria – then the western marches of the unknown Orient – and into the heart of the Asian continent. They had mapped the terrain, traced the course of rivers, timed the monsoons, scaled mountains, charted shoals and reached China, and, as a result, had spread Islam and the Arabic language in all these regions.

Update: Thanks to Sarah Barakah for the review and feedback.

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2 thoughts on “Arabic, Beyond the Numeral System

  1. Amal Ayyash

    Well we first have to admit you are biased 🙂 and there is nothing wrong with that. The relationship between Arabs and Arabic is a love-hate relationship, extremely emotional, as Arabs are proudly are. And we also must put things in their right perspective, the Lingua Franca is basically about authority and power, too bad for everyone else Arabic language simply doesn’t die.

    But the main aspect of Arabic grammar that makes it timeless is the derivation system, which only an engineer would understand and appreciate. Arabic language is sort of object-oriented 🙂

    Most Arabs are not aware of this, when it comes to derivation, but it is so powerful it taints everything they say no matter what language they use. It occurs in all other languages I am pretty sure, but because other languages do not support templating, it is rare. An example, we derive the “command voice” or verb structure to command, according to limited number of rules. We have gotten so used to it, that by the time we have an English word to Arabize, unable to fetch the right word in Arabic, does not stop us from “deriving the command voice from the English word.” So we say: “Sayyev” (Save) and “Kallek” (Click), we also use past tense “Karrash” (Crashed) and the list goes on forever.
    In English, I did that only in one word in my life: Damaration 🙂 but you see how it goes, it is possible in English because -ation and -tivity nouns are almost templated, it builds in the head of those who speak it.

    In English, coming up with new words is via stitching, (web-based, stream-line, tele-vision) while in Arabic it is via derivation, so Telfaz in this case, is not a simple word, it is rather a word that has a root, and verb tense, command voice, noun, and the whole package that comes with templates. That does make it more powerful, but creating new words, if Arabs do not gain the upper hand in industry, will remain dependent on Arabazing instead of using Arabic words.

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