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The Emergence of Modern Standard Arabic

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Kees Versteegh

From The Arabic Language
© 1997 Kees Versteegh
Used by permission of the Edinburgh University Press.


In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte's brief expedition to Egypt brought this province of the Ottoman empire into direct contact with Western Europe. This marked the beginning of a period in which European culture, at first primarily from France, but later from England as well, began to infiltrate the Arab world. At first, the reception of new ideas was promoted by the government: Muhammad 'Ali, who governed Egypt from 1805 until 1848, stimulated the translation of books and articles from French, mostly on technical subjects, but political and cultural topics were also included. In this way, the concepts of the French Enlightenment became part of the intellectual atmosphere of the country. The introduction of new political ideas stimulated the rise of Arab nationalism, which in the second half of the nineteenth century centred around the position of Arabic as the language of the Arab world. At the same time, the confrontation with Western ideas led to a debate about the compatibility of these ideas with the tradition of Islam, and, on a linguistic level, about the capacity of the Arabic language to express the new notions. In this chapter, we shall deal with four topics: the position of Arabic in the nineteenth century; the adaptation of Arabic vocabulary to the modern period; the reform of grammar; and the changes in the structure and phraseology of the language.

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