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The Arabic Language: History and Localization Considerations

Yesterday, December 18th, was World Arabic Language Day! This date was designated by the United Nations in 2012 to commemorate December 18th, 1973 when the United Nations adopted Arabic as the sixth official language in the organization, the other five languages being: Mandarin, English, French, Russian, Spanish.

This year's theme is Arabic Language and Artificial Intelligence: how AI is used to preserve and share the Arabic language. Arabic has a long historical connection with science and the arts and with approximately 420 million speakers, Arabic is a prime language for localization.

In this blog, we will share some history about the Arabic language and some key things to keep in mind when localizing content for an Arabic speaking audience.

[Average read time: 3 minutes]

A Brief History of the Arabic Language

Arabic is a living Semitic language which shares the same language family as Hebrew. Arabic is spoken throughout the Middle East, the Arabic Peninsula, North Africa and is the official or co-official language in 28 countries. Arabic historically gained prominence in these regions during the Muslim Conquests (622 - 750 CE) in which the language spread with the expansion of the Islamic empire and mixed with the local languages, thus forming local Arabic dialects.

Just prior to the Muslim Conquests, it is said that the Archangel Gabriel orally revealed the teachings of God to the prophet Muhammad over the course of 23 years (610 - 632 CE). Muhammad, who was illiterate, taught his followers through the oral tradition. The teachings were committed to memory then eventually transcribed using Classical Arabic to form the Qu'ran, the holy book of Islam, which has become the liturgical language for over 1 billion Muslims worldwide.

Classical Arabic, also known as Qur'anic Arabic, is considered by many as the most perfect form of Arabic as it is the Arabic spoken and read during the time of the prophet Muhammad. However, Classical Arabic has been adapted to Modern Standard Arabic which is used today. What are the differences between the two?


Classical Arabic vs Modern Standard Arabic 

Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) are both referred to as al-Fusha (eloquent speech) and both use the Arabic script which is read right to left. Classical Arabic is the Arabic used when studying the Qur'an, medieval Arabic text, pre-Islamic poetry, and a number of other classical subjects. MSA builds on Classical Arabic and has added a large amount of terminology due to scientific advancements and extensive cultural exchange with other countries.

The difference between Classical Arabic and MSA is analogous to the differences between Early Modern English to Modern English spoken today. They're both mutually intelligible, and are sometimes interchanged, however, MSA incorporates vocabulary for concepts and items that the Arab world was not exposed to or had not been discovered during the time of Muhammad.

MSA is widely used throughout the modern Arab world through news broadcasts and political speeches. It is also the standard written language for Arabic countries for news articles, academic papers, etc...

However, when traveling the Middle East, a student of MSA will come upon a startling discover, no one speaks MSA in daily life! That's because everyday Arabic speech is conducted in that particular region's dialect, known as 'amiya. We've covered the various Arabic dialects here and it's important to know when localizing content for Arabic if it will be in MSA or a target Arabic dialect, the major ones being: Egyptian (Egypt and Sudan), Maghrebi (North Africa), Levantine (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine), or Gulf Arabic (Persian Gulf countries: Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, UAE, etc...).


Key Things to Remember When Localizing Arabic

The different Arabic dialects can be hard to understand between people of different regions so MSA can be used as a standard language both parties can understand. It is also the language of choice when drawing up legal contracts and teaching in higher education. When localizing formal content like e-learning and political broadcasts, MSA is generally used.

However, MSA is not spoken natively. Each Arabic speaking region has it's own native dialect that is used when shopping, hanging out with friends, and in entertainment. If you have an entertainment TV show that you would like localized for a specific country, say Egypt, it would be best to localize the content with Egyptian Arabic so as to better reach that target audience. If the content is meant to entertain, but is presented in MSA, it may seem too formal and a bit out of place.

Another key thing to remember when localizing content into Arabic is that there are many terms, particularly scientific, technical, and business terminology that do not have a one-to-one equivalent in Arabic. There are English chemistry terms like alchemy, sodium, and alkaline that have Arabic roots: al-kimiya, suwwad, and al-qali respectively.  However, modern scientific literature is generally produced in English or French. Thus an expert Arabic translator must make an educated decision when translating technical terms: she/he may choose from an authorized translation established by Arabic regulators (like the Jordan Academy of Arabic) or if an authorized translation does not exist, choose to transliterate it or find a cultural equivalent. The localization of certain terms into Arabic still may not necessarily be widely agreed upon.

As you can see, Arabic has a rich and complex history, with it's own specific considerations for localization. It's important to keep the above topics in mind when localizing your content for an Arabic speaking country; your audience will appreciate it.

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Topics: localization Arabic

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