Classical Arabic

Classical Arabic (Arabic: اَلعَرَبِيَّةُ ٱلْفُصْحَىٰ‎, al-ʿarabiyyah al-fuṣḥā) is the standardized literary form of the Arabic language used from the 7th century and throughout the Middle Ages, most notably in Umayyad and Abbasid literary texts, such as poetry, elevated prose, and oratory.

Classical Arabic
Large Koran.jpg
Verses from the Quran vocalized in a reading tradition considered normative Classical Arabic, written in the cursive Arabic.
Native toHistorically in the Middle East
Era7th century AD to 9th century AD; continued as a liturgical language of Islam, spoken with a modernized pronunciation
Early form
Language codes
ISO 639-3
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The first comprehensive description of Al-ʿArabiyyah "Arabic", Sībawayhi's al-Kitāb, was upon a corpus of poetic texts, in addition to the Qurʾān and Bedouin informants whom he considered to be reliable speakers of the ʿarabiyya.[1]

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is its direct descendant used today throughout the Arab world in writing and in formal speaking, for example, prepared speeches, some radio broadcasts, and non-entertainment content;[2]. While the lexis and stylistics of Modern Standard Arabic are different from Classical Arabic, the morphology and syntax have remained basically unchanged (though MSA uses a subset of the syntactic structures available in CA).[3] In the Arab world, little distinction is made between CA and MSA, and both are normally called al-fuṣḥā (Arabic: الفصحى‎) in Arabic, meaning 'the purest' or 'the most elegant.'


The earliest forms of Arabic are known as Old Arabic and survive in inscriptions in Ancient North Arabian scripts as well as fragments of pre-Islamic poetry preserved in the classical literature. By the late 6th century AD, it is hypothesized that a relatively uniform intertribal "poetic koiné", a synthetic language distinct from the spoken vernaculars, had developed with conservative, as well as innovative, features, including the case endings known as ʾiʿrab.[4] It is uncertain to what degree the spoken vernaculars corresponded to the literary style, however, as many surviving inscriptions in the region seem to indicate simplification or absence of the inflectional morphology of Classical Arabic. It is often said that the Bedouin dialects of Najd were probably the most conservative, a view possibly supported by the romanticization of the "purity" of the language of the desert-dwellers (as opposed to the corrupted dialects of the city-dwellers) expressed in many Medieval Arabic works, especially those on grammar, though some argue that all the spoken vernaculars probably deviated from the literary norm to different degrees, while others, such as Joshua Blau, believe that "the differences between the classical and spoken language were not too far-reaching".[5]

In the 7th century AD, the distinctive features of Old Hijazi, such as loss of final short vowels, loss of hamza, lenition of final /-at/ to /-ah/, and lack of nunation, influenced the consonantal text (or rasm) of the Qur'an (and many of its readings also) and the later normalized orthography of Classical Arabic as a standard literary register in the 8th century.[6]

By the 2nd century AH, the language had been standardized by Arab grammarians and knowledge of Classical Arabic became an essential prerequisite for rising into the higher classes throughout the Islamic world, as it was the lingua franca across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa, and thus, the region eventually developed into a widespread state of diglossia. Consequently, the classical language, as well as the Arabic script, became the subject of much mythicization and was eventually associated with religious, ethnic, and racial conflicts, such as the rise of many groups traditionally categorized under the broad label of Al-Shu'ibiyya who rejected the stressed and often dogmatized belief that Arabs, as well as their language, were far superior to all other races and ethnicities. Furthermore, many Arabic grammarians strove to attribute as many words as possible to a "pure Arabic origin," especially those in the Qur'an.

Poems and sayings attributed to Arabic-speaking personages who lived before the standardization of the Classical idiom, which are preserved mainly in far later manuscripts, contain traces of elements in morphology and syntax that began to be regarded as chiefly poetic or characteristically regional or dialectal. Lexically, Classical Arabic may retain one or more of the dialectal forms of a given word as variants, albeit often with much less currency and use.

Various Arabic dialects freely borrowed words from Classical Arabic, a situation is similar to Romance languages, wherein scores of words were borrowed directly from Classical Latin. People may speak Classical Arabic as a second language if they speak colloquial Arabic dialects as their first language, but as a third language if others speak other languages native to a country as their first language and colloquial Arabic dialects as their second language. But Classical Arabic was spoken with different pronunciations influenced by vernaculars. The differentiation of the pronunciation and vocabulary of vernaculars was influenced by native languages spoken in the regions, such as Coptic in Egypt; Berber and Punic in North Africa; Himyaritic, Modern South Arabian, and Old South Arabian in Yemen; and Aramaic in the Levant.[7]



Like Modern Standard Arabic, Classical Arabic had 28 consonant phonemes:

Classical Arabic consonant phonemes[8]
Labial Dental Denti-alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
plain emphatic
Nasal m م n ن
Plosive voiceless t ت 1 ط k ك 2 ق ʔ ء
voiced b ب d د ɟ 4 ج
Fricative voiceless f ف θ ث s3 س ص ɕ ش χˠ خ ħ ح h ه
voiced ð ذ z ز ðˠ ظ ʁˠ غ ʕ ع
Lateral fricative ɮˁ 7 ض [9]
Approximant j ي w و
Lateral approximant l5 ل
Tap r6 ر


^1 Sibawayh described the consonant ⟨ط⟩ as voiced (/dˠ/), but some modern linguists cast doubt upon this testimony.[10]
^2 Ibn Khaldun described the pronunciation of ⟨ق⟩ as a voiced velar /ɡ/ and that it might have been the old Arabic pronunciation of the letter, he even describes that prophet Muhammad may have had the /ɡ/ pronunciation.[11]
^3 Non-emphatic /s/ may have actually been [ʃ],[12] shifting forward in the mouth before or simultaneously with the fronting of the palatals (see below).
^4 As it derives from Proto-Semitic *g, /ɟ/ may have been a palatalized velar: /ɡʲ/.
^5 /l/ is emphatic ([ɫ]) only in /aɫɫɑːh/, the name of God, Allah,[13] except after /i/ or /iː/ when it is unemphatic: bismi l-lāhi /bismillaːhi/ ('in the name of God').
^6 /rˠ/ (velarized) is pronounced without velarization before /i/: [r].
^7 This is retrospectively reconstructed based on ancient texts describing the proper pronunciation and discouraging the use of any other pronunciation.[9]


Monophthong phonemes
Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i u
Open a
  • [ɑ(ː)] is the allophone of /a/ and /aː/ after uvular and emphatic consonants
  • [e(ː)] arose from two separate sources, often conflated:
    • The contraction of the triphthong *ayV. Some Arabs said banē (< *banaya) for banā ("he built") and zēda (< *zayida) for zāda ("it increased"). This /eː/ merged with /aː/ in later Classical Arabic and most modern Arabic dialects.[14]
    • A completely different phenomenon called imāla led to the raising of /a/ and /aː/ adjacent to a sequence i(ː)C or Ci(ː), where C was a non-emphatic, non-uvular consonant, e.g. al-kēfirīna < al-kāfirīna ("the infidels"). Imala could also occur in the absence of an i-vowel in an adjacent syllable. It was considered acceptable Classical Arabic by Sibawayh, and still occurs in numerous modern Arabic dialects, particularly the urban dialects of the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean.




The A1 inscription dated to the 3rd or 4th century AD in the Greek alphabet in a dialect showing affinities to that of the Safaitic inscriptions shows that short final high vowels had been lost in at least some dialects of Old Arabic at that time, obliterating the distinction between nominative and genitive case in the singular, leaving the accusative the only marked case:[15]

أوس (بن) عوذ (بن) بناء (بن) كازم الإداميْ أتو من شحاصْ؛ أتو بناءَ الدَّورَ ويرعو بقلَ بكانون

ʾAws (ibin) ʿūḏ (?) (ibin) Bannāʾ (ibin) Kāzim ʾal-ʾidāmiyy ʾatawa miś-śiḥāṣ; ʾatawa Bannāʾa ʾad-dawra wa yirʿaw baqla bi-kānūn

"ʾAws son of ʿūḏ (?) son of Bannāʾ son of Kāzim the ʾidāmite came because of scarcity; he came to Bannāʾ in this region and they pastured on fresh herbage during Kānūn".

Safaitic (ca. 3rd - 4th century AD)
Triptote Diptote Dual Masculine plural Feminine plural
Nominative ∅..الـ
- الـ)..ـَان)
Accusative الـ..ـَا
Genitive ∅..(الـ)

Classical Arabic however, shows a far more archaic system, essentially identical with that of Proto-Arabic:

Classical Arabic (ca. 7th century AD)
Triptote Diptote Dual Masculine plural Feminine plural
Nominative ـٌ
Accusative ـًا، ـً
Genitive ـٍ


The definite article spread areally among the Central Semitic languages and it would seem that Proto-Arabic lacked any overt marking of definiteness. Besides dialects with no definite article, the Safaitic inscriptions exhibit about four different article forms, ordered by frequency: h-, ʾ-, ʾl-, and hn-. The Old Arabic of the Nabataean inscriptions exhibits almost exclusively the form ʾl-. Unlike the Classical Arabic article, the Old Arabic ʾl almost never exhibits the assimilation of the coda to the coronals; the same situation is attested in the Graeco-Arabica, but in A1 the coda assimilates to the following d, αδαυρα *ʾad-dawra الدورة 'the region'.

In Classical Arabic, the definite article takes the form al-, with the coda of the article exhibiting assimilation to the following dental and denti-alveolar consonants. Note the inclusion of palatal /ɕ/, which alone among the palatal consonants exhibits assimilation, indicating that assimilation ceased to be productive before that consonant shifted from Old Arabic /ɬ/:

Sun consonants in Classical Arabic
Dental Denti-alveolar Palatal
plain emphatic plain emphatic
n nن
t tت ط
d dد
θ ث s sس ص
ð ذ ðˤ ظ z zز
ɕ (< *ɬ) šش ɮˤ ض
l lل
r rر


Barth-Ginsberg alternationEdit

Proto-Central Semitic, Proto-Arabic, various forms of Old Arabic, and some modern Najdi dialects to this day have alternation in the performative vowel of the prefix conjugation, depending on the stem vowel of the verb. Early forms of Classical Arabic allowed this alternation, but later forms of Classical Arabic levelled the /a/ allomorph:

Pre-Classical (taltalah) Classical
1 sg. ʾi-rkabu ʾa-qtulu ʾa-...-u
2 ti-rkabu ta-qtulu ta-...-u
3 ya-rkabu (< *yi-) ya-qtulu ya-...-u
1 pl. ni-rkabu na-qtulu na-...-u

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Al-Jallad, Ahmad (2011-05-30). "Polygenesis in the Arabic Dialects". Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics.
  2. ^ Bin-Muqbil 2006, p. 14.
  3. ^ Bin-Muqbil 2006, p. 15.
  4. ^ Versteegh, Kees; Versteegh, C. H. M. (1997). The Arabic Language. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-11152-2.
  5. ^ Blau, Joshua; Blau, Joshua (1970). On Pseudo-corrections in Some Semitic Languages. Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
  6. ^ Putten, Marijn van; Stokes, Phillip. "Case in the Qurˀānic Consonantal Text. Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 108 (2018), pp. 143-179". Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes.
  7. ^ Hickey, Raymond (2013-04-24). The Handbook of Language Contact. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-118-44869-4.
  8. ^ Watson 2002, p. 13.
  9. ^ a b Kinberg, Naphtali (2001). "Treatise on the Pronunciation of the Dad". In Kinberg, Leah; Versteegh, Kees (eds.). Studies in the Linguistic Structure of Classical Arabic. Leiden; Boston; Koln: Brill. pp. 197-267. ISBN 9004117652.
  10. ^ Danecki, Janusz (2008). "Majhūra/Mahmūsa". Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics. III. Brill. p. 124.
  11. ^ Heinrichs, Wolfhart. "Ibn Khaldūn as a Historical Linguist with an Excursus on the Question of Ancient gāf". Harvard University.
  12. ^ Watson 2002, p. 15.
  13. ^ Watson 2002, p. 16.
  14. ^ a b Studies, Sibawayhi. "solomon i.sara_sibawayh on imalah-text translation". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  15. ^ Al-Manaser, Ali; Al-Jallad, Ahmad. "Al-Jallad. 2015. New Epigraphica from Jordan I: a pre-Islamic Arabic inscription in Greek letters and a Greek inscription from north-eastern Jordan, w. A. al-Manaser". Arabian Epigraphic Notes 1. Retrieved 2015-12-09.


  • Bin-Muqbil, Musaed (2006). "Phonetic and Phonological Aspects of Arabic Emphatics and Gutturals". University of Wisconsin–Madison. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Holes, Clive (2004) Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions, and Varieties Georgetown University Press. ISBN 1-58901-022-1
  • Versteegh, Kees (2001) The Arabic Language Edinburgh University Press ISBN 0-7486-1436-2 (Ch.5 available in link below)
  • Watson, Janet (2002). "The Phonology and Morphology of Arabic". New York: Oxford University Press. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Bin Radhan, Neil. "Die Wissenschaft des Tadschwīd". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)

External linksEdit