Political and economic developments in the Middle East, as well as the internationalization of many businesses and professions, have made understanding, speaking, reading, and writing Arabic an increasingly valuable skill. As the fifth most widely spoken language in the world, as one of the official languages of the United Nations, and as the religious language of a quarter of the world’s population, Arabic is also a language with a rich literary and cultural heritage that deserves to be studied in its own right.
Arabic is a Semitic language, related to Hebrew and a number of ancient languages of the Near East. It is structurally distinct from English and other Indo-European languages. While this presents native speakers of English with a challenge, it also offers them significant insights into linguistics and the nature of language in general. The Arabic alphabet, which consists of 28 letters and a finite set of diacritical markings, is written from right to left and is used to write a number of languages today, including Persian and Urdu, neither of which belongs to the Semitic language family. The script forms the basis for Arabic calligraphy, one of the preeminent art forms of the Islamicate world.
Arabic is characterized by diglossia. That is, literate native speakers know two forms of the language: a formal form, often called Modern Standard Arabic, which is used for formal communication such as speeches and most writing; and an informal form that is used primarily in conversation. Because Arabic is spoken across a culturally and geographically varied region stretching from Western Asia across North Africa, there are many dialects of spoken Arabic. Students in Arabic courses at UNC learn both Modern Standard Arabic and a dialect of spoken Arabic (either Egyptian or Levantine) simultaneously.
Arabic is also characterized by a long and rich literary tradition. The oldest extant works of literature are pre-Islamic odes that were composed orally in the sixth century BCE. The early years of Islam saw the rise of the science of grammar and linguistics as well as religious scholarship. By the medieval period, Arabic had become the language of literature and learning across a vast empire that stretched from Spain (Andalusia or al-Andalus) and Sicily to China. Writers and scholars of this period produced both imaginative and scholarly writings. They also undertook vast translation projects that integrated the great works of Greece, Persia and India into Arabic, and eventually served as a vehicle for transferring ancient knowledge from these cultures to Europe. Muslim scholars made scholarly contributions in Arabic and in fields such as medicine, pharmacology, mathematics (algebra is an Arabic word), astronomy, agriculture, philosophy, and literature.
The Arab world today continues to be characterized by cultural and linguistic diversity, cosmopolitanism, and transnationalism. In recent decades migrant workers from Asia and Africa have brought their cultures and languages to cities throughout the region, enriching the cultures of the Arab world as a result. At the same time, the rise of large communities of Arab immigrants in Europe, Africa, and the Americas has profoundly affected communities in these societies, and interestingly also the very development of the Arabic language.