A Brief History Of Arabic
Learning how many people speak Arabic in the world doesn’t mean much if you don’t know the context and story behind its global popularity. So first, a lesson in linguistic lineage and legacy! Arabic is part of the Central Semitic language family, which includes Hebrew, Aramaic and Phoenician. The language is believed to have evolved from Aramaic more than a millennium ago among the Bedouin nomadic tribes in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula (the word “Arab” means “nomad”).
Following the Islamic conquests that begin in the 7th century, Arabic spread far and wide across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central and Western Asia and even to parts of China. The assimilation of native inhabitants to the Arabs’ culture, religion and language helped plant the seed for Arabic to sprout over the centuries to come, and today the language is the lingua franca of the Arab world.
Arabic is technically deemed a macrolanguage that comprises 30 different varieties. These varieties of Arabic in one given part of the Arab world are not necessarily mutually intelligible with varieties from other geographic areas; the spoken Arabic of North Africa is notably different from that of the Persian Gulf, for example. Arabic speakers all have their own native colloquial variety, but most learn Modern Standard Arabic, which is the universal pluricentric variety preferred in the media, the workplace, and the law and is the only variant taught at all levels of education.
Arabic is a direct descendant of Classical Arabic, which was the version found in literary texts from the 7th to 9th centuries and in the Quran. Today, it’s not a spoken tongue but is still the language of religion throughout the Arab world, and much of its grammar and vocabulary is the same as that of Modern Standard Arabic, though the latter has evolved over time to reflect changing contexts.
Where In The World Is Arabic Spoken?
The majority of Arabic speakers are concentrated in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, known as the Arab world. There are 25 countries that claim Arabic as an official or co-official language: Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. And then there are 6 sovereign states in which Arabic is a national language or recognized minority language: Iran, Turkey, Niger, Senegal, Mali and Cyprus.
You can also find Arabic speakers scattered across the globe where millions of Arab migrants resettled over the past few generations — in places like Brazil, northern and central Europe, the United States and Southeast Asia.
How Many People Speak Arabic In The World?
If you count all of the varieties of today’s Arabic together, you can safely estimate that there are about 313 million Arabic speakers in the whole world, making it the fifth most-spoken language globally behind Mandarin, Spanish, English and Hindi.
Egypt holds the record for the largest Modern Standard Arabic-using population at around 65 million people. Next is Algeria, which has about 29 million. Then it’s Sudan with 27 million, and following behind in the list are Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
There’s a notable number of Arabic speakers elsewhere in the world like in Europe, with almost 4 percent of Belgium’s population, roughly 2.5 percent of France’s population and nearly 1.5 percent of the United Kingdom’s population speaking Arabic as a mother tongue. The United States has a little more than one million Arabic speakers within its borders, and in Brazil, where groups of Arab migrants chose to make their new home, you can find a handful of millions of speakers of Arabic.
Why Is Arabic An Important World Language?
Because Arabic is the language of Islam, if you’re traveling anywhere in the Islam-practicing world, you’ll want to brush up on your Arabic, as there’s no doubt you’ll find it spoken all around you. Knowing Modern Standard Arabic will help you converse with the hundreds of millions of speakers around the globe.
Knowing Arabic is incredibly important in the realm of business development, especially in the energy, construction, technology and real estate industries, which have given big economic boosts to many petroleum powerhouse countries like Saudi Arabia that claim Arabic as an official language. If you can speak Arabic in a professional environment, you’ll likely be a hot commodity for companies and organizations that conduct business in these parts of the planet. Same thing goes for diplomatic, governmental and political careers that address and deal with policy in the Arab world.
When it comes to language learning, you’ll find a lot of linguistic connections to other tongues if you choose to learn Arabic. Throughout its evolution, Arabic has influenced scores of global languages like Spanish, roughly one-third of the vocabulary of which comes from Arabic origin from the several centuries of contact that began with the Moor conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. You can notice its linguistic legacy most prominently in words that begin with a- or al-, which is an article in Arabic that got absorbed into words as the words were absorbed into Spanish; think la almohada (pillow), la alfombra (carpet) and el ajedrez (chess). You can also find elements of Arabic influence in, among many others, Portuguese, Turkish, Bosnian, Persian, Hebrew and even English by way of other languages (‘alcohol,’ ‘sugar,’ and ‘cotton,’ for example).
Plus, if you’re reading this, you’re probably well attuned to using left-to-right Latin script. Learning how to read and write in Arabic script and to adopt Arabic phonology is an extra challenge that can give you new insights about world languages that aren’t staples of the Western world and how they’re different from — and the same as — the languages that are more closely related to ones found in Europe and the Americas.