Some languages have a few things in common, but the differences between Arabic and English are quite distinct. Due to the evolution of each language, even those from the same language family or branch may have some differences. Therefore, it’s no surprise that English and Arabic, which come from different language families, will have more dissimilarities.
Here’s a look at the many differences between Arabic and English.
Different language families
English comes from the large Indo-European language family. It is divided into three major branches: East Germanic languages, North Germanic languages and West Germanic languages. English belongs to the West Germanic languages branch, further divided into the North-Sea Germanic group’s Anglic linguistic varieties.
Arabic comes from the Semitic languages group from the Afroasiatic language family from the Middle East. Among the Semitic languages, the most spoken are Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya, Hebrew, Tigre, Aramaic and Maltese.
English is the third most spoken language in the world, with 379 million speaking it as their first language. English is spoken in 137 countries. Arabic on the other hand is spoken in 59 countries. As the fifth most spoken language in the world, it’s the first language of 319 million people.
Arabic has eight vowels/diphthongs and 28 consonants. The short vowels are not very important in Arabic and often not written. For example, maktab (office) is written as mktb, omitting the vowels, much like stenographic shorthand. This is difficult for English speakers trying to learn Arabic since they have to deduce which vowel sound to use based on the other Arabic letters. Arabic texts are written and read from right to left, using a cursive script, compared to English which is written using Latin script and read from left to right. In Arabic, there is no distinction between lower and upper cases and the rules on the use of punctuation are looser compared to English.
Vowel and consonant sounds
English only has five vowels (or six, if you include the letter y). There are six regular vowels in Arabic and two occasional vowels. But these vowels have their singular distinct sound.
Arabic has six individual phonemes that are not found in the English language. It’s one of the reasons why Arabic to English translation is difficult. English speakers find it hard to vocalize Arabic sounds because of the different way these are produced. Arabic speakers are used to contracting their epiglottis when they speak, something that English speakers are not used to.
The sound of the letters in a language is different from the speech sounds they can create. Phonemes are the individual speech sounds. The English alphabet has 20 consonants creating 24 consonant phonemes while the six vowels (including y) can create 22 vowel phonemes, whereas Arabic only has eight vowel phonemes and 28 consonant phonemes.
Although Arabic uses consonants heavily, English uses more consonant clusters (phoneme groupings) when forming words. Some Arabic words use two consonant clusters in the beginning of the word but never a three-consonant cluster. Arabic also does not have three or four consonant clusters at the end of the word unlike English.
Three primary vowel sounds in Arabic are similar to the I, A and U sounds in English. They each have a long and short form. But Arabic does not have a vowel sound for the letter E and O. For example, the English pronunciation of Cairo becomes Kahirah in Arabic. The sounds of o and e are used in brand names and foreign loan words only.
Various verb tenses as well as irregularities in English are not present in Arabic. The language does not have a present tense conjugation of the verb to be. Likewise, Arabic does not have a present perfect tense conjugation.
In Arabic, word stress occurs regularly. Changes happen frequently in English, as word stress can change the lexical category and meaning of the word. For example, ob’ject is a noun while object is a verb. A change in stress does not change the word’s meaning in Arabic however. The difference can only be noticed through the pronunciation of the word using a different short vowel. However, it is not very obvious to English speakers, because the word is written in the same way.
Elision means dropping of a sound between words or in the middle of the word when saying a sentence. Sound elision is very common in English, so you often hear dunno (I don’t know), wanna (I want to), kamra (camera) or cap’n (captain). Elision does not occur in Arabic because the spelling of the words are very closely related to the sound the letters create, therefore, as a rule, any letter sound is not omitted.
Arabic differentiates between females and males in its sentence structure, words, verbs, pronouns. It even has specifications for you and they in singular, plural, male and female forms.
The way verbs are conjugated in Arabic is different. All verbs come from the root verb, with the conjugation starting in the past tense of the verb. They are conjugated according to gender and number.
Although complex, Arabic grammar structure is systematic. It does not have an extensive range of exceptions. Arabic words are written the way they are verbalized.
Arabic word roots
Since Arabic is consonant-heavy, it is not surprising that its word roots do not contain vowels. A consonantal root is another term used for this occurrence. To form the words, vowel infixes between a series of consonants are added. The change in the meaning of the word depends on the use of a vowel infix. Thus, it is normal to see Arabic words that start with consonants. English words on the other hand, are formed by syllables with a combination of vowels and consonants. Moreover, English words can start with either a consonant or a vowel.
But did you know that despite being consonant heavy, Arabic has less consonant clusters than English?
Examples of consonant clusters in English:
Vowel quality and length
Another significant difference between English and Arabic is in the quality and length of the vowels. Arabic generally uses diphthongs and long vowels as infixes, treating short vowels as insignificant in word formation. Only three short vowels are present in Arabic and they are closely allophonic, meaning they are used in several variations or used interchangeably.
Short vowels are not completely represented in their writing system. Often, the representations of the short vowels are done through the use of diacritics.
In English, short and long vowels are equally vital in word formation because they contribute to the difference in the words’ meanings.
Basic sentence structures of English and Arabic are different as well. English only has verbal sentences. Arabic has verbal and nominal sentences. Arabic’s nominal sentences do not need verbs and typically comprise two nouns only.
A complete and grammatically correct English sentence contains a subject, verb and object.
Arabic has four different types of sentences: verbal, functional, nominal and non-functional. The verbal sentence and the nominal sentence are the most common. In a nominal sentence, you need a topic and a comment (object). There is no need to add a verb. Nominal sentences describe a thing or a person. The other one is the verbal sentence, which in Arabic has a verb, subject and an object or comment. Both of these types of sentences in Arabic have different variations as well.
Due to the many differences between Arabic and English languages, learners of Arabic and English find it difficult to comprehend the complexities of the individual languages. In Arabic the sounds of the letters depend on the mood of the sentence and students have to memorize the pronunciation of the sun letters and the moon letters as well.
Several variations or dialects of Arabic are also present. However, if you are studying Arabic, one good thing to know is that Modern Standard Arabic is the version that is taught today, which is understood by Arabic speakers all over the world. It is the language that is used in broadcast and print media, in various written materials, lectures, TV shows and more.
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