Arabic Travel Phrases
marHaban bikum! Welcome to the Fodor's Arabic Language Page, brought to you by the language experts at Living Language. Here you'll find over 150 essential phrases for your trip.
For more Arabic language and cultural tips, visit the Living Language Arabic Blog.
Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is a standardized form of Arabic used in business, literature, education, politics, and the media throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It's really a modernized form of classical Arabic, and it is not the same language as the spoken varieties found from Morocco to Iraq. But it's a good form of Arabic to familiarize yourself with as a tourist, because it is used as a common language in Arab countries.
MSA has three vowels, a as in taco, i as in him, and u as in put. There are long varieties of these vowels as well: aa, like a long ah, ii as in see, and uu as in toon. There are two diphthongs, aw as in house, and ay as in bite or bait. Most Arabic consonants are very similar to English or other familiar European languages: b, d, s, t, k, sh, th as in this as well as th as in think, rolled r, gh as in the French rue, kh as in German ach. Then there are the really "Arabic sounding" consonants, which may take a bit of practice! The letter xayn (also transcribed sometimes as 3) is produced with a tight constriction in the throat, not unlike a gag. The letter H sounds as though you're blowing on glasses to clean them. Q is like k, but from further back in the throat. The "emphatic" consonants D, T, DH, and S are all produced with the tongue pulled down and back, giving the vowels around them a "deeper" quality. If you'd like to hear some Arabic sounds, check out the bonus audio to the Living Language Complete Guide to Arabic Script.
MSA has some borrowings from English and other languages, so you'll come across words like tilifizyuun (television) or kumbyuutar (computer). But you won't be able to rely on cognates very often, because Arabic and English are not closely related. One important feature of Arabic and other Semitic languages is that words are built around
Some aspects of Arabic grammar are very similar to languages you may already have studied. But since Arabic is not closely related to English or other European languages, some grammatical concepts may be new to you.
- Arabic nouns have gender, either masculine or feminine. Arabic has no indefinite article, but it does have the definite article al. Adjectives agree with nouns for gender and number, but there are actually three numbers: singular, plural, and dual (two of something). Adjectives also agree with nouns for definiteness: al-kitaab al-jadiid (lit,. the-book the-new, 'the new book.')
- There are only two basic tenses in Arabic, past and present. The future is expressed with the present tense and the particle sa or sawfa in front of the verb. There are two other "moods," the subjunctive and the jussive, which have certain specialized uses. Arabic verbs have a rich conjugation, with a total of 13 forms in each tense/mood once you figure in dual and both masculing/feminine forms. The past conjugation involves suffixes or endings (katab-uu, they wrote), but the present tense involves both prefixes and suffixes (ya-ktub-uuna, they write).
- A major feature of Arabic and other Semitic languages is the triconsontal root, that is, a root form consisting of three consonants. For example, k-t-b has the general meaning of writing, and those consonants appear in verb forms, nouns, and even adjectives, with prefixes, suffixes, or different vowels interspersed between the root consonants. Some examples are: kitaab (book), kutub (books), kataba (he wrote), yaktub (he writes), maktab (office), kaatib (writer), kutubii (bookseller), mukaataba (correspondence), maktuub (written down, predestined), and so on.