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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.


 The nineteenth century witnessed the development of a periodical press in Arabic, at first in Syria and later in Egypt as well. The first Arabic periodical was the Egyptian government newspaper al-Waqa'i' al-Misriyya (1828), established by Muhammad 'Ali. The involvement of Arab Christians in the publication of private newspapers ensured the emphasis on its Arabic character. The activities of language reformers in Syria, such as Faris as-Sidyaq (1804-87) and Butrus al-Bustani (1819-83), gave an impetus to the much-needed modernization of the lexicon. Al-Bustani, for instance, published the first modern large-scale dictionary of Arabic, al-Muhit, which borrowed heavily from the Classical dictionaries, to be sure, but nevertheless aimed at the incorporation of all exciting new ideas and concepts in an Arabic garb.

 This is not to say that there was a consensus among Arab linguists about the best way to deal with the influx of Western notions into the Arabic language. Just as political thinkers differed in their ideas about Islam and Islamic civilization and its relationship to Western/Christian culture, the language reformers ranged from those who believed that in itself the Arabic lexicon was sufficient to express anything needed in this modern age, to those who strongly advocated the wholesale adoption of Western words and a complete revision of the lexicon. The more careful approach of the moderates resembled the ideas of some of the political thinkers of this period. They maintained that in itself Arabic was the perfect language, but people had started to corrupt it. What was needed was a return to the purity of the Classical language.

 In the process of modernization of the language at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Arab Academies played a central part. Modelled after the great language academies of Europe both the Academy of Damascus and the Academy of Cairo, for instance, were founded with explicit reference to the example of the Académie Française ― their aim was to implement the ideas about the place of Arabic in the modern world that had become commonplace in the Nahda . During his short lived reign in Syria, King Faysal expressed concern about the quality of the educational system and the preservation of the cultural heritage in the form of libraries, manuscript collections and museums. The Diwan al-ma'arif that was installed for this purpose came under the presidency of Kurd 'Ali, who had been the founder of the National Library ( Dar al-Kutub az-Zahiriyya ). In 1919, the second task of the council, the cultivation of the Arabic language, was entrusted to what became the first language academy in the Arab world, al-Magma' al-'Ilmi al-'Arabi, nowadays called Magma' al-Luga al-'Arabiyya bi-Dimasq 'The Academy of the Arabic Language in Damascus'.

 From the start, the goal of the Academy was twofold: to guard the integrity of the Arabic language and preserve it from dialectal and foreign influence, on the one hand, and to adapt the Arabic language to the needs of modern times, on the other. The same two functions appear in the charter of the Academy of Cairo ( Magma' al-Luga al-'Arabiyya al-Maliki, since 1955 called the Magma' al-Luga al-'Arabiyya ), founded in 1932 by Fu'ad I. In practice, the main function of the Cairene academy since 1960 has been the creation of new Arabic terminology, as well as the reform of both Arabic script and grammar. New terms are introduced through a complicated process of consultation and deliberation: they are proposed in the many subcommittees of the academy, each responsible for a specific field of knowledge, and after approval by the general assembly of the academy they are published in its journal. Usually the introduction of a new term leads to long and sometimes heated discussions in the proceedings of the Academy, and it may take years before a proposed term finally finds its way into the dictionaries and technical vocabularies of the Academy.

 The academies of Iraq ( al-Magma' al-'Ilmi al-'Iraqi, established in 1947) and Jordan ( Magma' al-Luga al-'Arabiyya al-Urdunni, established in 1976) are of more recent date and of secondary importance in the process of language modernization. It appears that the Iraqi academy concentrates more on the edition of Classical texts in an effort to contribute to the 'ihya' at-turat 'resuscitation of the heritage', whereas the Jordanian academy serves as an instrument in the arabicisation of education in Jordan. There have been some attempts to create a pan-Arabic association of language academies, but the national academies guard their independence and autonomy jealously so that cooperation on a higher level is at most a cherished ideal and does not seem to have led to any concrete results.

The most urgent problem of language reform was that of the expansion of the lexicon. In addition to their confrontation with European political ideologies at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Arab provinces were confronted by a host of new technical notions and objects, for which names had to be invented. The lexical expansion for political and technical terminology in this period parallels that in another period in which the Arabic language incorporated an entirely new vocabulary, that of the eighth/ninth centuries, when the translation of Greek logical, medical and philosophical writings required the invention of many new words (cf. above, Chapter 5).

A major difference between the Classical period of the translations and the modern period is the degree of uniformity. At first, the translators of the Classical period had been free to create their own terminology, but, with the establishment of the translators' academy by al-Ma'mun, terminology in the 'Greek' disciplines such as medicine, philosophy and logic became increasingly uniform. In the twentieth century, even more so than in the nineteenth, the expansion of the lexicon was undertaken simultaneously in many different places. In the nineteenth century, one could say that the major centres, Egypt and Syria, were at least in touch with each other, and some of the people who worked on the modernization of the language in Egypt had come from Syria. But in the twentieth century, every country undertook its own voyage on the way to the modernization of the lexicon, and not even the Academies were able to unify the 'national' terminologies. In some fields, of course, the differences in terminology constituted an acute threat to the cooperation between scholars and scientists from the various Arab countries, for instance in the field of medicine and physical sciences, and for some of these technical disciplines pan-Arabic word lists were, indeed, compiled.

The following methods may be distinguished in the creation of new vocabulary:

  1. borrowing of the foreign word
  2. integration of the foreign word morphologically and/or phonologically
  3. analogical extension of an existing root
  4. translation of the foreign word
  5. semantic extension of an existing word.

These methods do not represent successive stages in the creation of vocabulary: they are different ways of coping with the introduction of new notions in a civilization. There is a certain tendency, however, to go through them successively, starting with the wholesale borrowing of foreign words, which are then gradually adapted to the structure of the language. The actual choice of a new word depends on many factors, such as the nature of the notion to be translated and the cultural and political circumstances. Often, a new notion is introduced in the form of a close approximation of the foreign word. Such foreign loans are usually printed in Latin letters between brackets or transliterated and written in quotation marks. Thus, one may find today in popular scientific texts word like 'laser' in Arabic transliteration, followed by the same word in Latin letters. A similar procedure is sometimes followed with proper names.

Although both in the Classical period and in modern times there were purists who strove for the complete elimination of all foreign loans from the Arabic language, most people were willing to admit them on the condition that they were adapted to the structure of Arabic, both in their phonetic shape (no foreign sounds and no combinations of consonants that are not allowed in Arabic) and in their morphological pattern. In the Classical period, this procedure of arabicisation ( ta’rib ) was very successful, the number of unadapted words remaining minimal. In the modern period, the Academies adopted a restrictive policy, only allowing loans in scientific terminology. Many nineteenth-century political loans (such as the above-cited kumunizm ) were replaced eventually by Arabic terms, while purely scientific and technical terms (such as hidrukarbun 'hydrocarbon', klurufurm 'chloroform') retained their foreign shape.

The real controversy arose around the question as to whether or not foreign words could be used as productive roots for new derivations. In Classical Arabic, once a foreign word had been admitted and adapted, it behaved like any other Arabic word, but in the modern period the Academies tried to restrict new derivations to scientific terminology. While some people deplored this invasion of the Arabic language, preferring to leave the foreign words in their original shape in order to set them apart from the Arabic stock, others saw in arabicisation the best solution to preserve the integrity of the language. Once a foreign word was introduced, scientists soon derived words like tamagnut 'magnetisation' (from magnatis ) and mubastar 'pasteurised' (from bastara 'to pasteurise'). But the powerful mechanism of root-abstraction did not stop at scientific terminology. Just as the dialects re-analyzed foreign words and integrated them into their lexicon, writers did not hesitate to produce new derivations from accepted loans. Numerous examples for this procedure may be cited, e.g. the verbs talfaza, talfana from tilifizyun, tilifun ; or the broken plurals 'aflam, bunuk from the nouns film, bank . In spite of the resistance of the Academies, some of these derivations were commonly accepted.

Even those who admitted foreign loans usually conceded that at least in theory the most elegant solution was to replace foreign words with 'pure' Arabic words. In this context, the structure of the language was a relevant factor. In Germanic languages, the possibility of building compounds invites the speakers of the language to invent new combinations of existing words to express foreign notions and objects (neologisms). In Arabic, on the other hand, the possibility of using compounds was extremely limited, but the language had another device at its disposal for the formation of new words, the so-called qiyas 'analogy',

Pattern Meaning Examples
mif’al, mif’al, mif’ala instrument

mighar 'microscope'

minzar 'telescope'

mirwaha 'fan'

-iyya abstract noun ihtiraqiya 'combustibility'
fi'a1a profession

qiyada 'leadership'

sihafa 'journalism'

fa’’al professional

sawwaq 'driver'

tayyar 'pilot'

fu'al disease

buwal 'diabetes'

buhar 'seasickness'

Table 11.1 Approved patterns of word-formation in Modern Standard Arabic.

which consisted in the application of morphological patterns to borrowed or existing sets of radicals. In internal qiyas, existing roots were used for this purpose. In its efforts to regulate the formation of new words, the Academy of Cairo declared certain morphological patterns to be productive, meaning that they might be used legitimately to create neologisms (see Table 11.I).

In the examples of qiyas given here, the construction of the new term is original, but in many cases the meaning of the foreign word determines the selection of the radicals. In such cases, we speak of a loan translation (calque, Lehnübersetzung ). Combinations of words that serve as set expressions are usually modelled on a foreign example. The Arabic expression for 'satellite', for instance, qamar sina'i (literally 'artificial moon') is probably a translation from French (or Russian?). Even when the Arabic expression does not have a direct foreign equivalent, the English or French term shines through, for instance in the term for 'heading', la'iba 1-kura bi-r-ra's (literally 'to play the ball with the head'), in football terminology. Loan translation also accounts for a large number of idiomatic expressions and metaphors, especially in the language of the media. In the course of time, such translations become part of the Arabic phraseology and are no longer regarded as foreign. The most frequently-quoted example of a loan expression is la'iba dawan 'to play a role'. Another example of loan translations is a variation in the use of prepositions under the influence of foreign idioms, e.g. iltaqa/iltaqa ma'a 'to meet/to meet with', and the development of syntactic calques, such as ma 'ida to translate English 'whether', e.g. sa'ala ma 'ida.

The most highly-regarded device for the expansion of the lexicon in Arabic, albeit not necessarily the most successful one, was the semantic extension of an existing word by giving it a modern meaning. Attempts to revive old Bedouin vocabulary in the search for new words were seldom successful, probably precisely because they had fallen into disuse and were therefore unfamiliar to the average speaker. One example of a term that did succeed is that of the word for 'train', qitar, originally meaning 'caravan'. But the associated word hadiya 'lead-camel' was never accepted for 'locomotive' (which became qatira instead). Revived words owed their success mostly to the efforts of one author, for instance garida 'newspaper' (originally 'strip of palm-leaf used for writing') and magalla 'journal' (originally 'codex, book'), introduced by as-Sidyaq and al-Yazigi, respectively. Many of the proposals of the Academies, however, never gained general acceptance because they were regarded as too artificial, for instance, gammaz 'swift-footed [ass]' for 'tram' (remained tram ), or 'irziz 'sound of thunder' for 'telephone' (remained tilifun although hatif, a Classical Arabic word meaning 'unseen man whose voice is heard', is becoming increasingly frequent).

In spite of the extreme productiveness of the nominal and verbal patterns of the Arabic language, the lexicon-builders kept looking for additional means of lexical expansion. In most Western languages, the use of Latin and Greek prefixes and suffixes provides a powerful means of expanding the scientific lexicon, which is absent in Arabic derivational morphology. At an early stage, combinations with the negations la- and gayr- were used to coin equivalents to Greek terms with the privative prefix a- . In modern times, these served as a model for the introduction of prefixes into the Arabic lexicon, at first only with the negations, e.g. la- ( la-niha'i 'infinite', la-'adriyya 'agnosticism'), gayr- ( gayr-sar'i 'illegitimate', gayr-masru’ 'illegal'). Later, several prepositions were used in this function, e.g. sibh- ( sibh-gazira 'peninsula', sibh-rasmi 'semi-official' qab- ( qab-tarih 'prehistory'). Morphologically, these words behave as compounds: from la-niha'i we may derive, for instance, the substantive al-la-niha'iyya 'the infinity', in which the article precedes the entire combination.

In Classical Arabic, there was a limited possibility of deriving new roots from combinations of words (called naht ), usually delocutive verbs from nominal expressions, e.g. basmala 'to say "in the name of God" ( bi-smi llahi )', or hamdala 'to say "praise be to God!" ( al-hamdu lillahi )', or adjectives from compound names, e.g. hanafi 'belonging to 'Abu Hanifa', or ’abqasi 'belonging to 'Abd al-Qays'. In modern times, initiatives to use this method of coining new words in the creation of scientific vocabulary became so popular that in 1953 the Academy of Cairo felt compelled to issue a ruling. According to the Academy, the method of naht was admissible only in scientific language, and the resulting terms had to be transparent. Words like fahma'iyyat 'carbohydrates' ([from] fahm 'carbon' + ma' 'water') and halma'a 'to hydrolyse' ([from] hallala 'to dissolve' + ma' 'water') satisfied these conditions. Likewise, combinations with kahra- 'electro-', e.g. kahra-magnatisi or even kahratisi 'electromagnetic', kahra-ri'awi 'electropneumatic', kahra-kimiya'i 'electro-chemical', and sibh- 'pseudo-' found favour with the Academy.

Generally speaking, however, the attitude of the Academy vis-à-vis compounds was conservative, and most proposals were deemed to be contrary to 'the spirit of the Arabic language'. Words like 'arbarigl 'quadruped' ([from] 'arba' 'four' + rigl 'foot'), qatgara 'laryngotomy' ([from] qat' 'cutting' + hangara 'throat), or sarmana 'somnambulism' ([from] sayr 'going' + manam 'sleep') met with disapproval. Even more extreme proposals, such as mutamatir 'polymer' ([from] mutamatil 'homogeneous' + mutakatir 'multiple') or musganahiyyat 'orthoptera' ([from] mustaqim 'straight' + ganah 'wing') were rejected outright, because of their lack of transparency. On the other hand, adjectival compounds have become relatively common, e.g. sarq-'awsati 'Middle Eastern', ra'smali 'capitalist', barma'i 'amphibian' ([from] barr + ma' ), 'umami 'UN-' ([from] al-'umam al-muttahida ), ma fawqa l-banafsagi 'ultra-violet', tahta l-'ahmar 'infra-red'.

Usually, within one semantic domain all methods to coin new words are used simultaneously, even though there is a tendency to go through certain stages. A few examples from modern vocabulary may illustrate the coexistence of different methods in the creation of a set of terms. In football terminology, all foreign terms have been replaced by Arabic words:

Calque by extension


Partial calque

muraqib al-hutut

Compound calques

darba rukniyya, hurra, al-marma, al-gaza’

'corner (kick)', 'free kick', goal kick', 'penalty (kick)'

haris al-marma






la’iba l-kura bi-r-ra’s

'to head'
Semantic extension


'offside' (lit. 'infiltration')


'dribble' (lit. 'to trick someone in a debate')

This example also shows that it may be difficult to classify a new term. The word marma 'goal', for instance, could be regarded as a neologism ('place where one throws'), or as the semantic extension of an existing term, meaning 'target'.

In computer terminology, the wish to go with the times and appear sophisticated competes with a tendency to purism that leads to the replacement of the English terms by neologisms. The omnipresent kumbyutur (or similar transliterations) seems to be on the way out, and it is very possible that the actively-promoted hasub 'calculating machine' will, indeed, win eventually. Some Arabic computer terms have already become current, such as munassiq alkalima 'word-processor', sasa 'computer screen' and bank al-ma’lumat 'databank'.

Finally, the example of modern linguistic terminology in Arabic demonstrates the opposition between the purism of the Academies and the attitude of modern linguists. There is no consensus on the name of 'linguistics' itself. In the Eastern Arab world, 'ilm al-luga is quite accepted, but linguists in the Maghreb object to the traditional term and replace it by 'alsuniyya or lisaniyyat . The official Arabic equivalent of two central notions in modern linguistics, 'morpheme' and 'phoneme', is in the form of a paraphrase, 'unsur dall 'signifying element' and wahda sawtiyya 'phonetic unit' (word list of ALESCO). But most linguists simply transliterate the English terms, murfim and funim . One linguist (Mseddi 1984) coined completely new terms, saygam (containing the element siga 'form') and sawtam (containing the element sawt 'sound').

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