December 18 was the United Nations Arabic Language Day, the perfect opportunity to learn more about this language.

Arabic Language Day was established in 2010 by UNESCO to promote cultural understanding and to highlight Arabic as one of the most important languages in the world. Today, there are three different types of Arabic: Classical; Modern Standard, which is used in publishing, education, and the media across the Arab world; and Colloquial Arabic, an everyday dialect, used in different regions and having numerous variations. Due to its elegant, flowing lines, thousands of people all over the world have also chosen to get tattoos in Arabic, including singer Christina Perri and actors Colin Farrell and Zoe Saldana, to name but a few.

Arabic is the official language of 27 countries (Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Irak, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Niger, Oman, Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Western Sahara, Yemen) and the fifth top spoken language in the world (sources may vary), with 206 million native speakers and 24 million second-language speakers.

Being one of the few modern languages to be written and read in a right-to-left form, Arabic is a fascinating language with a long history. People sometimes wonder (or maybe it’s just us) where all this fascination with languages, and especially rare languages, comes from. Is it the difficulty to learn and/or speak them, is it the niche they open for you? Is it the history behind them? Is it the peculiarity of the language? Now, regarding Arabic, one of the qualities that makes Arabic a difficult language to learn is that its writing system doesn’t follow an alphabet, but an ajbad. An ajbad is a system where each letter stands for a consonant and not a vowel, which requires the user of the language to provide the vowels using vowel marks.

Another interesting if not fascinating element about Arabic is that it has at least 11 words for love and each of them conveys a different stage in the process of falling in love. The word hawa, for example, describes the initial attraction or inclining of the soul or mind towards another. Alaaqa describes the next stage when the heart begins to attach itself to the beloved, before evolving into a blind desire (ishq) and all-consuming love (shaghaf). The final stage of falling in love, huyum, describes the complete loss of reason. Talk about profoundness… Interestingly, the most common word for love in Arabic, hubb, comes from the same root as the word for ‘seed’ – that which has the potential to grow into something beautiful.

English has many words acquired either directly from Arabic or indirectly from Arabic words that have entered Romance languages before passing into English. Examples include: racquet, alchemy, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, alkaline (the article al in Arabic denotes ‘the’), amber, arsenal, candy, coffee, cotton, ghoul, hazard, lemon, loofah, magazine, sherbet, sofa, tariff – and many more.

The algebraic letter x that represents an unknown number originates in the Arabic word shay (‘thing’), which eventually became translated to xay in Spain, leading to its final abbreviation and use in algebra as x. Even the number system used today was introduced to Europeans by Arab merchants.

Why do we like not just Arabic, but languages, in general? Because they take us to an unknown land, they teach us something new every time we get in contact with them one way or another, because they challenge us and mold us like nothing else. Does then a language like Arabic, for all the above plus other reasons, deserve a day of its own? It definitely does!


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