The Arabic belongs to the southern branch of the Semitic family of languages, and after the He-brew is the most important member of the family. The other members of the southern branch are the Himyaritic and the Ethiopic. The particular dialect which, mainly through the influence of the Koran, became the standard of the literary language, was that spoken in the central part of Arabia, in Hedjaz and Nedjed. Partly perhaps because of its sheltered position, but partly also because of an unusually strong conservative tendency, the Arabic, though the latest of the Semitic languages to acquire historical importance, is in its forms the most archaic of all. Nowhere else are the inflections so fully preserved, and for the comparative study of these languages the Arabic is of the first importance. In wealth both of grammatical forms and of vocabulary it is equalled by few languages, and no other of the Se?nitic family approaches it. The characteristic features of the family, the provailing triliteral and consonantal charactei of the roots, and the modification of the radical meaning by a significant change of vowels within the root, appear most clearly in the Arabic. There are other features which, if not altogether peculiar to it, are found in the other dialects only in a rudimentary or fragmentary state.
Such are the system of case endings and the so-called "broken plurals," that is. collective nouns which have nearly supplanted the proper plurals formed by means of terminations. The number of derived forms of the verb, commonly called conjugations, is also considerably larger in Arabic, each verb having, at least theoretically, 15; and the mode forms are likewise more numerous. As an instrument of thought the Arabic is characterized by great flexibility, delicacy, and precision. While the other Semitic languages have only a very simple syntactical structure, unsuited to the expression of any but the more obvious relations of thought, the Arabic has an extensive philosophical literature. The external his-tory of the Arabic is remarkable, furnishing in many respects a parallel to that of the Latin. It has taken possession of nearly the whole field formerly occupied by the Semitic family. It has also spread over the whole north of Africa, and in central Africa it is still aggressive. The present Arabic-speaking races number about 35,000,000. Where it has not supplanted, it has strongly impregnated the languages with which it has come in contact.
The Turkish and Persian have borrowed from it nearly one half of their vocabularies, the Hindostani but little less, the Hindi and Malay quite largely. The languages of western Europe have felt its influence, the Spanish, as was natural, most strongly. Elsewhere it is to be traced mainly in the presence of various scientific and technical terms, such as algebra, alchemy, azimuth, nadir, cipher, alcohol, elixir, magazine. A glossary of words of Arabic derivation found in Spanish and Portuguese has been published by Dozy and Engelmann (2d ed., Leyden, 18G9); in French, by Pihan (Paris. 1851);in Dutch, by Dozy (Leyden, 1867). The literary Arabic has during its whole history remained almost without change, and the various dialects now spoken, when we consider the long period (12 centuries) and the wide territory which they cover, show remarkably little divergence either from the literary language or from each other. They differ from the written language mainly in the frequent loss of final vowels, and with them of inflections of the noun and verb, which they served to distinguish.
Phonetic decay has reached about the same stage of progress in the Arabic now spoken that we find in the Biblical Hebrew. - The Arabic alphabet is derived from the Estrangelo, or Old Syriac, and more remotely from the Phoenician, and was introduced not more than a century before Mohammed. It no doubt consisted originally, like the Estrangelo, of 22 characters, which number was afterward raised by the use of diacritical marks to 28. Like all the Semitic alphabets, it is written from right to left, and is essentially consonantal. The vowel signs, written above and below the line, are a later invention, generally attributed to Abul-Aswad, the earliest Arab grammarian, who died in 088. These vowel and diacritical signs were first applied to the Koran, in order to put an end to the disputes to which the previous ambiguous mode of writing had given rise. The Arabic system of vowel notation, unlike the Hebrew and Syriac, is strictly etymological. Only the fundamental vowels a, i, u, long and short, and the diphthongs an, ai, are written, although in speaking several intermediate vowels are heard. Both in manuscripts and in printed texts the vowel signs are frequently omitted either wholly or in part.
There are several forms of the Arabic character, of which the Cufic, so called from the city of Cufah, the seat of one of the early grammatical schools, was the first to gain general currency, though from an early date the neskhi or copy-hand was in use, and since the 10th century has been the prevailing form. Of the remaining forms, some, as the Maghrebine or Moorish, have a local currency, and others are employed for special uses. The Arabic alphabet has gained a wide vogue beyond the limits of the language, having been adopted by the Persian, Afghan, Hindostani, Turkish, Malay, and in quite recent times by the Berber and other African dialects. The original defects of the alphabet are seriously aggravated when it is applied to languages of different families. - Grammar was the first of the sciences cultivated by the Arabs, the special motive being the necessity for fixing the text of the Koran; and though it soon reached the limit of its development among them, it always remained a favorite study.
The earliest grammatical work which has been preserved is that of Sibawaih, about 780; one of the most celebrated, the subject of numerous commentaries, is the Alfiya (so called because composed of 1,000 verses) of Ibn Malek, who died in 1273 (Arabic by Dieterici, Leipsic, 1851; Arabic and French by De Sacy, Paris, 1833). Of those by European scholars, the best are by De Sacy (2d ed., Paris, 1831) and Ewald (Leipsic, 1831-3). Among grammars devoted to the spoken idioms may be mentioned those of Caussin de Perceval (Paris, 1835), Marcel (on the African dialects generally, 2d ed., Paris, 1869), and Pihan (dialect of Algiers, Paris, 1851). Of the native dictionaries, the chief are the Sihah of Al-Jauhari (died about 1007); the Lisan el-Arab of Ibn Mukarram (died 1311); the Kamus of Firuzabadi (died 1414), containing 60,000 words (printed at Calcutta, 1817, and at Cairo, 1864); and the Taj el-Arus, an enormous compilation, of which the Kamus forms only about a seventh part, made at Cairo in the last century. The materials of the large Arabic-English lexicon of Lane, now in progress (Parts i. to iii., London. 18G3-'7), are drawn mainly from the last-mentioned work.