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Overview: The group of languages commonly referred to as “Arabic” provides the basis for speech and the written word throughout most of North Africa and the Middle East. It is comprised of several dialects, and as in other places (such as China) the exact classification of which are dialects and which are actually independent languages is a matter of controversy among linguists. If all the various speakers are taken together, Arabic is one of the top ten most widely spoken languages in the world. The most influential dialect is probably that of Egypt, which not only has a massive population of more than 80 million people but also exports a majority of Arabic-language media and pop culture.
Arabic is considered to be one of the primary examples of the linguistic phenomenon known as diglossia. This means that two unique languages exist side-by-side in a culture, each used for separate social situations. The distinction here refers to the difference between “Colloquial” Arabic, which is highly localized and used for familiar and everyday speech, and Modern Standard Arabic, which is derived from Classical Arabic and used for formal and literary purposes.
Roots of the language: Both Modern Standard Arabic and the many dialects of Colloquial Arabic are descended from a mix of ancient languages spoken by the early civilizations of North Africa and the Middle East. So-called Classical or “Literary” Arabic emerged in the Middle Ages, and has the distinction of being the language that the Quran was written in. It became considered as both a holy and prestigious language, and has been mostly preserved and used as the basis for Modern Standard Arabic. The spoken languages, on the other hand, continued to grow and change at a fast rate and have since become distinct from the literary tongue.
Arabic in its various forms has influenced many other languages around the world. Spanish and Portuguese show particular Arabic influences, largely due to the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula from the eighth century to the fifteenth century. Arabic words filtered into other European languages as well, including English. There is also a definite Arabic influence on the languages of their immediate neighbors, especially in other African or Mediterranean countries.
Language characteristics: Arabic is a complex language that tends to have a quite diverse range of grammar and pronunciation, depending on the dialect being spoken. Modern Standard Arabic has more codified rules and is regulated by a central authority, the Academy of the Arabic Language. Nevertheless, it is becoming slightly more simplified for easier use as time goes on, much as it itself is a somewhat more practical version of Classical Arabic. Arabic grammar usually involves construction of a word from a number of consonant-based roots, and has few prefixes and suffixes.
Written form: Arabic script is based on a unique alphabet of 28 letters, written from right to left in a flowing, cursive style. Most letters in Arabic script stand for consonants, with the reader mentally filling in the vowels as dictated by context or other cues. The Arabic style of writing lends itself very well to calligraphy, and it is considered to be a very important skill and even a medium of artistic expression unto itself. Arabic letters are written differently depending on their placement in a word, as well as which other letters they are meant to connect to.