Classical Arabic

Classical Arabic (Arabic: ٱلعَرَبِيَّة ٱلْفُصْحَىٰ, al-ʿarabīyah al-fuṣḥā) is the form of the Arabic language used in Umayyad and Abbasid literary texts from the 7th to the 9th century AD.

Classical Arabic
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

The first comprehensive description of the ʿarabiyya "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]

The orthography of the Qurʾān was not developed for the standardized form of Classical Arabic. The standardized form instead originated from an orthography used by the Quraysh tribe from Mecca in the 6th century CE, which became common and widespread during the Rashidun Caliphate era.

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] it is also used in modernized versions of the Quran and revised editions of poetries and novels from Umayyad and Abbasid times (7th to 9th centuries). 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 'pure.'


In the late 6th century AD, a relatively uniform intertribal ‘poetic koiné,’ distinct from the spoken vernaculars, developed based on the Bedouin dialects of Najd. This probably occurred in connection with the Lakhmid court of al-Ḥīra.

During the first Islamic century the majority of Arabic poets and Arabic-writing persons spoke a form of Arabic as their mother tongue. Their texts, although mainly preserved in far later manuscripts, contain traces of non-standardized Classical Arabic elements in morphology and syntax.

"Colloquial" Arabic refers to the many regional dialects derived from Arabic spoken daily across the region and learned as a first language, and as second language if people speak other languages native to their particular country. By the 8th century, knowledge of Classical Arabic had become 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, Horn of Africa during those times; the analogy is like most literate Romance speakers were also literate in Classical Latin.

Various Arabic dialects freely borrowed words from Classical Arabic, this situation is similar to Romance languages, wherein scores of words were borrowed directly from Classical Latin. People 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 informal dialects. The differentiation of the pronunciation of informal dialects is the influence from native languages previously spoken and some presently spoken in the regions, such as Coptic in Egypt, Berber, Punic or Phoenician in North Africa, Himyaritic, Modern South Arabian and Old South Arabian in Yemen, and Aramaic in the Levant.



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

Classical Arabic consonant phonemes[4]
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 l5 ل ɮˠ ض
Tap r6 ر
Approximant j ي w و


^1 Sibawayh described the consonant ط as voiced (/dˠ/), but some modern linguists cast doubt upon this testimony.[5]
^2 Ibn Khaldun described the pronunciation of ق as a voiced velar /g/ and that it might have been the old Arabic pronunciation of the letter, he even describes that prophet Muhammad may have had the /g/ pronunciation.[6]
^3 Non-emphatic /s/ may have actually been [ʃ],[7] 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,[8] 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].


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.[9]
    • 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 c. 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:[10]

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 c. 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 c. 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 alternation

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 also


  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. Watson 2002, p. 13.
  5. Danecki, Janusz (2008). "Majhūra/Mahmūsa". Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics. III. Brill. p. 124.
  6. Heinrichs, Wolfhart. "Ibn Khaldūn as a Historical Linguist with an Excursus on the Question of Ancient gāf". Harvard University.
  7. Watson 2002, p. 15.
  8. Watson 2002, p. 16.
  9. Studies, Sibawayhi. "solomon i.sara_sibawayh on imalah-text translation". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. 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)
  • 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)
  • Bin Radhan, Neil. "Die Wissenschaft des Tadschwīd". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
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