Standard Arabic To Modern Arabic: How Has It Changed?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE STORY OF HUMAN LANGUAGE

By John McWhorter, PhD, Colombia University

When we talk of diglossia, it happens when a language is caught in a particular structure and not allowed to change. If we consider standard Arabic, it is clearly frozen in form just like standard English. It has not been allowed to change naturally. But modern Arabic has seen many changes. So how is modern Arabic different from standard Arabic?

Image showing Taha Hussein and Abdel Nasser, two staunch supporters of standard Arabic.
Taha Hussein and Gamal Abdel Nasser were staunch supporters of standard Arabic. (Image: Unknown / Public domain)

Standard Arabic Language

Standard Arabic is very closely based on the Arabic used in the Koran. And since the Koran is a very valuable religious document, it is thought that it should not change. But the perception that it does not change is in contrast with the fact that the language does change, whether we like it or not.

So, on one side, the words spoken by Mohammed have to be preserved and, on the other, the language spoken in the real word over millennia changes unavoidably and sees immense changes. The result is we have modern standard Arabic that is artificially frozen. If this type had not been recorded in great literature and in important ritualistic literature, then it would have changed like other Arabic languages: Moroccan Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, and Syrian Arabic.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Arabic from Koran in 7th century AD.
Arabic from the Koran in the old Hijazi script, 7th century AD. (Image: Unknown author / Public domain)

The result is that the dialect is based on the old-fashioned type. Old-fashioned, not in the way of being old only, in not being allowed to change naturally as a language would. So the other languages would have to come out and play, and that way modern standard Arabic is Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, frozen in time.

Like, the word in standard Arabic is kathirah. It is not by chance that in Egyptian Arabic it is katir. Such sound changes are possible. The final uh is a not so clear form of [a]. If in kathirah, we leave the last [a] sound out we are left with kathir. And then it becomes katir in Egyptian Arabic

Such are the changes that we see from old English to modern English and the same in Egyptian. What we would not expect is that it would be kathirah in the Koran and that in Egyptian Arabic, it would be something like “akathiranamour” or something similar. Languages don’t change like this. Abbreviation is part of evolution. New things are made in a different way and one such way is grammaticalization.

Learn more about the distribution of language families.

The Variations

In modern Standard Arabic and in the Arabic of the Koran, the case endings are similar to Latin. Hence bayt means house; baytu is house in the nominative sense, bayti means ‘of the house’. And when the house is used as an object it becomes bayta. So here we have these case endings: baytu, bayti, bayta.

You can see these endings don’t have an accent and are just hanging at the end and are vowels. Such a lingustic particle is always at risk. It means such case endings are not there in non-standard modern Arabic anymore. It is so because we can see that these types of things do happen as the language moves along. It happens naturally.

On the other hand, preserving them like modern standard Arabic language is doing might look great and innocent but it is unnatural in the way that because of this language has not moved through time. So we can say that a standardized language, which is an H language in terms of dialect, can be compared for its development to a wheel that is turning and someone jams a stick into it. So the wheel really wants to turn but the stick jams it and holds it back.

Modern Standard Arabic And Other Arabic Languages

Arabic in Al-Bayan script.
Modern Standard Arabic retains most of the structures of Classical Arabic. (Image: murraytheb / Public domain)

So, modern standard Arabic has challenges but there is something about it. One thing about it that is comparatively simple is that they are not very keen to subdivide time very finely in modern standard Arabic. The basic thing is that there is a past and there is a present. That is all that is there. No pluperfect is there. And no separate future is there.

It actually is just like “Did it happen earlier?” or “Is it happening now?” For example, while ‘he wrote’ is kataba, ‘he writes’ becomes yaktubu and the common thing about these words is the root of three consonants. Therefore, KaTaBa and yaKTuBu. That’s all. There are no knick-knacks like in a European language.

But there are time distinctions in Egyptian Arabic and other regional Arabic languages. Ways are being developed to do that. Languages tend to become more complex. You have a future in Saudi Arabian Arabic. For example, Aguul means I tell, and baguul means I will tell. They don’t use a separate word like us. It is not an ending but a prefix. But still, they have an approach of indicating the future.

Standard languages are often more complex in certain ways. But if you really look closely at the nonstandard varieties, then you often find that they are developing complexities, too.

Common Questions About Standard Arabic

Q: In which type of Arabic is the Koran written?

The Koran is written in what is called Classic Arabic also known as Koran Arabic. This type of Arabic was used between the 7th and 9th centuries CE.

Q: How many people use Arabic as their first language?

Like Hebrew and Aramaic, Arabic is a Semantic language. It is the first language of more than 250 million people worldwide. Just like Hebrew, Arabic is also written from right to left.

Q: In which countries is standard Arabic spoken?

Standard Arabic is the official or semi-official language in as many as 25 countries around the world. Some of these are Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lybia, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.

Q: Is classic Arabic still in practice in speech?

Of the many ancient forms of Arabic, the only surviving form is what is known as Old North Arabian. Classic Arabic is not spoken anymore and is mainly used for religious purposes only.

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