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Arabic language, Southern-Central Semitic language spoken in a large area including North Africa, most of the Arabian Peninsula, and other parts of the Middle East. (See Afro-Asiatic languages.)
Arabic is the language of the Qurʾān (or Koran, the sacred book of Islam) and the religious language of all Muslims. Literary Arabic, usually called Classical Arabic, is essentially the form of the language found in the Qurʾān, with some modifications necessary for its use in modern times; it is uniform throughout the Arab world. Colloquial Arabic includes numerous spoken dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible. The chief dialect groups are those of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa. With the exception of the dialect of Algeria, all Arabic dialects have been strongly influenced by the literary language.
The sound system of Arabic is very different from that of English and the other languages of Europe. It includes a number of distinctive guttural sounds (pharyngeal and uvular fricatives) and a series of velarized consonants (pronounced with accompanying constriction of the pharynx and raising of the back of the tongue). There are three short and three long vowels (/a/, /i/, /u/ and /ā/, /ī/, /ū/). Arabic words always start with a single consonant followed by a vowel, and long vowels are rarely followed by more than a single consonant. Clusters containing more than two consonants do not occur in the language.
Arabic shows the fullest development of typical Semitic word structure. An Arabic word is composed of two parts: (1) the root, which generally consists of three consonants and provides the basic lexical meaning of the word, and (2) the pattern, which consists of vowels and gives grammatical meaning to the word. Thus, the root /k-t-b/ combined with the pattern /-i-ā-/ gives kitāb ‘book,’ whereas the same root combined with the pattern /-ā-i-/ gives kātib ‘one who writes’ or ‘clerk.’ The language also makes use of prefixes and suffixes, which act as subject markers, pronouns, prepositions, and the definite article.