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Research by Carmen Cross
Where is Arabic spoken?
Are h (plosive) and h (pharyngeal fricative) two separate phonemes?
What characteristics are common to languages classified as Semitic?
What was the Arabic influence on the Spanish language?
What is the difference between diglossia and bilingualism?
Where can I study Arabic in a formal setting?

Where is Arabic spoken?

Mauretania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan have Arabic as their primary official language, although not all of the citizens of these countries are speakers of Arabic. Arabic is also an official language of Israel, Djibouti, and Somalia. There are also Arabic-speaking populations in Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

One of the official languages of Malta, Maltese, is an interesting case. Even though it is related to the Algerian and Tunisian varieties of Arabic, and thus classified as a Semitic language, it is the only known form of Arabic that is written in the Latin script. Moreover, due to its linguistic isolation from the Arab world during the heyday of European colonization, it has been heavily influenced by Italian and English.

Are h (plosive) and h (pharyngeal fricative) two separate phonemes?

Before an answer to this question is provided, it is useful to define both "phoneme" and "allophone." Phonemes are used to differentiate words. Thus, they change the meaning of a particular word. For instance, "top" and "mop" begin with different phonemes, /t/ and /m/ respectively. On the other hand, allophones are predictable variants of a particular phoneme and do not change the meaning of a word. For example, if you pay careful attention to your pronunciation of the English word /kat/ "cat," you will notice a slight aspiration after the /k/ as if the word is actually spelled /khat/. Since this type of variation is predictable in English (aspiration typically occurs after stop consonants, i.e., /t/, /p/, and /k/) and does not change the meaning of a particular word, /k h / is considered to be an allophone of /k/.

Now, let us consider an example in Arabic: Arabic has two separate letters, or phonemes (they are used to distinguish words): the first approximates the English /h/ and is classified as a glottal fricative (it will be represented as /h/), and the second is a pharyngeal fricative /h/ and is characterized as a pharyngeal fricative (it will be represented as /ħ/). In the word /habba/ "gust of wind," the first letter is /h/. However, in the word /ħabba/ "pill," the first letter is /ħ/. Since these two letters serve to distinguish word meanings, they are considered to be separate entities and do not represent two allophones of a single phoneme.

What characteristics are common to languages classified as Semitic?

Similarities among the Semitic languages are especially noticeable phonology and morphology:

  • Phonology
  • There are only six vowels, three short /a, i, u/ and their long counterparts, in the phonological inventory of Semitic languages. Of course, this does not take into account the dialects, especially the Arabic dialects, which have a more varied vowel inventory.

    In addition, Semitic languages have rare consonant phonemes, such as the pharyngeal fricatives /ʕ/ and /x/.

    There is a higher proportion of consonants to vowels.

  • Morphology
  • Semitic nouns have only two genders (masculine or feminine) but three numbers (singular, plural, and dual).

    Semitic languages distinguish gender in both the second and third person. So, for instance, at least in Arabic, "he studies" [yadrusu] is contrasted with "she studies" [tadrusu] and "you study, masculine" [tadrusu] with "you study, feminine" [tadruseen]. So, it is not merely the question of just substituting a pronoun but also the addition of prefixes and suffixes in order to conjugate a verb according to gender and person.

    The majority of words are derived from three-consonant roots, in which the vowels are not written. For example, the root /drs/ from /darasa/, "he studied," is used to form, with the addition of affixes, /madrasa/, "school," /diraasa/, "studying," /mudarris/, "male teacher, /dars/, "class," etc.

The following article is also a good resource: Huehnergard, John. "Semitic Languages." Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Eds. Jack M. Sasson, John Baines, etal. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 2117-2134.

What was the Arabic influence on the Spanish language?

The Arabs ('Moors') ruled parts or all of Spain for 700 years. As a result, Spanish contains around 5000 loanwords from Arabic. These come especially from the semantic areas of mathematics, architecture, place names, and agriculture, although by no means are they limited to these areas. One rule of thumb is that if the Spanish word begins with 'al' it is probably an Arabic loanword, e.g., 'algodón,' 'cotton.' However, not all such words borrowed from Arabic have this characteristic.

What is the difference between diglossia and bilingualism?

It is important to note from the outset that "diglossia" and "bilingualism/multilingualism" refer to different, although similar, sociolinguistic situations. Diglossia is the term usually applied to the sociolinguistic situation in much of the Arabic-speaking world. In these countries, there are two forms of the same language (conventionally called "High" and "Low") that are used in different situations. The "High" form (called "Modern Standard Arabic") is normally used in formal situations, such as writing, political speeches, university lectures, television news, etc. The "Low" form (referred to as "dialects," such as Cairene, Levantine, etc.) is used in informal situations, such as conversations, etc. It is useful to think of the language situation as it applies to Arabic as being on a continuum. At one end of this continuum is the "High" form, i.e., Modern Standard Arabic, and at the other lies the "Low" form, i.e., the various dialects. A person's place on this continuum would most likely be somewhere between these two poles, for it is unlikely that they would use pure Modern Standard or a colloquial in a given setting. The choice on which form, or code, to use would depend on many factors, including speaker, conversation topic, and setting.

On the other hand, bilingualism is the term more conventionally used to describe the sociolinguistic situation in Belgium and Switzerland (multilingualism for Switzerland's 4 languages). The key difference is that in a bilingual situation certain individuals (communities, etc.) will use Language A, while other individuals (communities, etc.) will use Language B, but everyone will use the same language for all situations -- writing, job interviews, dinner table chats, etc. That's the ideal. In practice, it gets much messier, and it is best to think of these terms as representing ends of a continuum--actual societies fit somewhere along connecting these two poles. In the American Southwest, for instance, Spanish and English coexist in a situation of bilingualism, but there are some important diglossic elements: in many cases English is used for high-prestige, formal contexts of speech, while Spanish is used primarily in the home, in conversations among good friends, etc. Spanish thus becomes the "Low" form and English the "High" form.

For more information, see Chapter Four, "Choosing a Code," (pp. 86-115) in Ronald Wardhaugh's 'An Introduction to Sociolinguistics,' 3 ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.

Where can I study Arabic in a formal setting?

The following is a list of Arabic programs throughout the United States and abroad. These external links are provided as a reference for those desiring to study Arabic in a formal setting. The Linguist List makes no guarantee, express or implied, as to either the suitability of a particular program nor to the content of the linked site. Please contact each institution directly for up-to-date information and availability of a particular program.

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) maintains an extensive list of colleges and universities that offer Arabic courses. They are grouped according to geographical location. In addition, you can search for Arabic courses at Language-Learning.Net . These listings are fully searchable by language, country, city or institute.

For students wishing to study abroad, provides detailed listings organized by language. The listings can also be searched by country or program type (summer, academic year, internship).

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