When I tell people I’m an Arabist, they often look at me like they’re waiting for the punchline. Some confuse it with aerobics and look at me dubiously — I don’t quite have the body of a dance instructor. Others do recognize the word “Arabic” and look at me even more dubiously — “What made you decide to study that!?”
Well, my case is simple, if probably not typical. In the Netherlands, where I grew up, you can learn a lot of languages in secondary school, and I tried them all. So when the time came to choose a university study, “a language that isn’t like the others” seemed the most attractive option — and boy, did Arabic deliver.
Squiggly lines and dots?
It started with the script. A lot of people are put off by Arabic’s script, because it looks so impenetrable — all those squiggly lines and dots. At least if you are unfamiliar with Italian you can still make out some of the words. However, the script is really perfectly simple, and anyone can learn it in an hour or two. Arabic has 28 letters, some for sounds that don’t exist in English (and learning to pronounce these can be tricky and cause for much hilarity, like the ‘ayn which I saw most accurately described as “imagine you are at the dentist and the drill touches a nerve”), some handily combining a sound for which English needs two letters into one, like th and sh. Vowels aren’t usually written, only consonants. The dots are to distinguish between letters which have the same basic shape. And the reason it all looks so squiggly is that letters within one word are joined up, like cursive. Once you can see that, it all becomes a lot more transparent.
So once we mastered the script, after the first day of university, things got really interesting. The script unlocked a whole new world of language, and a fascinating language it was. Arabic is a Semitic language, which places it outside the Indo-European language family, and Semitic languages have some unique properties that I had never imagined.
For example, Arabic (and other Semitic languages) has a so-called “root-and-pattern” morphology. This means that every word is built up of a root, usually consisting of three consonants, which carries the basic meaning of that word; for example the root KTB, with basic meaning “writing”, or DRS “studying”. This root is then put in a pattern consisting of vowels and affixes, which manipulate its meaning to form a word. For example, *aa*i* means “the person who does something”, so a KaaTiB is “someone who writes”: a writer; and a DaaRiS is “someone who studies”: a researcher. Ma**a* means “the place where something takes place”, so a maKTaB is an office, a maKTaBa a library or bookshop, a maDRaSa a school.
This makes learning vocabulary both harder and easier. On the one hand, in the beginning all words sound the same — all verbs have the pattern *a*a*a: KaTaBa, BaHaTHa, DaRaSa, HaDaTHa, JaMaʿa — and you may well get utterly confused. But after a while, you get used to it, and if you encounter a new word and are familiar with the root and recognize the pattern, you can at least make an educated guess at what it might mean.
Keeping things logical . . . usually
Another wonderful aspect of Arabic is that it doesn’t have irregular verbs, unlike, for example, French (I’m looking at you pouvoir). But before you all throw out your French text books and switch to Arabic, let me warn you that there are about 250 different types of regular verb, each of which conjugates into 110 forms. This led to Guy Deutscher remarking, “if the Latin verbal system looked uncomfortably complex, here is an example which makes Latin seem like child’s play: the verbal system of the Semitic languages, such as Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew.” Fair enough, it’s complex, but it’s all logical, and regular. I, for one, had much less trouble learning these Arabic verbs than the Latin and French ones, simply because there is such an elegant method to them.
There are other aspects of Arabic that are less logical. The numbers, for instance. I won’t go too deep into them, but suffice it to say that if you have three books the three is feminine because books are masculine and if you have three balls it’s vice versa, and then if you have thirteen of something the three is the opposite gender but the ten is the same, the counted word is suddenly singular and for no reason at all the whole lot has become accusative. Then at twenty it all changes again. It’s a wonder the Arab world proved so proficient in mathematics.
Other reasons to learn Arabic
Which leads me to the many other reasons one might want to learn Arabic. I focused on its fascinating linguistics above, because that is my personal favorite field, but there are the cultures steeped in rich history, the fascinating literature ranging from ancient poetry to cutting-edge modern novels, and of course the fact that every Muslim must know at least a little bit of Arabic in order to fulfill their religious duties (shahada, Fatiha, and salat), and for gleaning a deep understanding of the sources of Islam, Arabic is essential. Arabic is also a very wanted skill in many professions, and not just the obvious ones. I recall one of the recruiters at the Arabists’ Career Fair, speaking for a law firm, stating, “We can teach you law. Law is easy. What we need are people with a firm knowledge of Arabic.”