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The Importance of Arabic

We should not underestimate the significance of the Arabic language. It is the native mother tongue of more than 250 million Arabs, the majority to be found between Morocco in the west and Iraq in the east. The classical Arabic language (Fus'ha) is seen by all Muslims as sacred (amounting to one seventh of the world's population).

People around the world revere Arabic as the language of the Holy Qur'an. The Holy Qur'an has preserved Arabic in its purest form in the eyes of Muslims,

Arabic has changed little over the centuries. The Holy Qur'an therefore continues to be an essential cohesive influence on the language. Consequently, a well-educated Arab is quite capable of reading Arabic written a thousand or more years ago.

It was due to the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries that the language gained its importance. This was in part due to its religious importance but also because it was the language of the civil service of the Islamic Caliphate. It was at this time that Arabic came into contact with European languages which it helped to enrich.

Arabic and the Modern World

Arabic has had to develop over the last century to incorporate new words and idioms such as new technological terms. Translation of European works of literature in particular accelerated the process. This has created a battle between the purists who object to the absorption of foreign words into the language and the modernists who have been more than willing to break with certain age-old traditions. For example a journalistic method of writing has developed to report news stories, which is often influenced by Western media styles. The purists have concentrated on forming new words in Arabic forms to cover the modern vocabulary. For example, the word "haatif" has been adopted for telephone, although the Western version "talfuun" is still in usage.

Other changes include the loss of many old fashioned terms, above all those relating to Beduin life. This was a result of the rapid decline in Bedouin numbers and the onset of a more urban sedentary society.


The World's Most Widely Spoken Languages

According to George Weber’s article “The World’s 10 Most Influential Languages” in Language Today (Vol. 2, Dec 1997):
(number of native speakers in parentheses)

  1. Mandarin Chinese (1.2 billion)
  2. English (330 million)
  3. Spanish (300 million)
  4. Hindi/Urdu (250 million)
  5. Arabic (200 million)
  6. Bengali (185 million)
  7. Portuguese (160 million)
  8. Russian (160 million)
  9. Japanese (125 million)
  10. German (100 million)
  11. Punjabi (90 million)
  12. Japanese (80 million)
  13. French (75 million)

According to Ethnologue, 13th Edition,

1. Chinese (Mandarin) 1,075 million.
2. English 514 million.
3. Hindustani 496 million.
4. Spanish 425 million.
5. Russian 275 million.
6. Arabic 256 million.
7. Bengali 215 million.
8. Portuguese 194 million.
9. Malay-Indonesian 176 million.
10. French 129 million.

The following is a list of these languages in terms of the number of countries where each is spoken. The number that follows is the total number of countries that use that language (from Weber, 1997):

  1. English (115)
  2. French (35)
  3. Arabic (24)
  4. Spanish (20)
  5. Russian (16)
  6. German (9)
  7. Mandarin (5)
  8. Portuguese (5)
  9. Hindi/Urdu (2)
  10. Bengali (1)
  11. Japanese (1)

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