Ask-A-Linguist: Characteristics of Arabic

Answers for this blog excerpt were researched and provided by Carmen Cross with input from other panelists. For a full response, please see the Ask-A-Linguist FAQ section about Arabic.

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:


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.


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.

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