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Arabic Linguistic Diversity


Admission requirements

Grammatica Arabisch 3, Teksten Arabisch 1 en 2, Conversatie Arabisch 1


This course explores the linguistic diversity of Arabic in three parts: linguistic history, intellectual history, and social history. The first part (linguistic history) will review the general methods of historical linguistics and language classification. We will then examine a representative sample of Arabic, ranging from pre-Islamic texts to the modern spoken dialects. Students will be exposed to the staggering diversity of the modern Arabic dialects, from the well-known idioms of the major urban centers like Cairo and Damascus to the relic dialects of Cyprus, Anatolia, and Uzbekistan. This section will conclude with a discussion on what proto-Arabic, the common ancestor of all forms of Arabic, might have looked like.

The second part (intellectual history) explores the linguistic diversity of Arabic through the lens of the medieval Arab grammarians. We will discuss the goals and biases of this tradition and how it bears on our understanding of the linguistic diversity of Arabic on the eve of the Islamic conquests. In light of this discussion, we will survey the language(s) documented by the Arabic grammatical tradition and how they compare to pre-Islamic documentary sources and the modern dialects.

The third part (social history) will examine the transformation of Arabic following the Islamic conquests. This period saw the rapid Arabization of the conquered people of the Middle East and North Africa. We will investigate the various language ideologies that developed during this period, including development of different registers of the language, including Middle Arabic.

The course concludes with a review of the modern theories on the development of Arabic in light of the data and methods covered throughout the semester.

Course menu

  1. Historical and comparative linguistics – a crash course
    1. The position of Arabic within the Semitic phylum
    2. The Pre-Islamic Arabs
    3. Attestations of pre-Islamic Arabic in Epigraphy and Papyri
    4. The Arabic of the Qur’an and the Umayyad Epigraphy
    5. Samples of Arabic from the Middle Ages
    6. The Arabic dialects of the Arabian Peninsula
    7. The Arabic dialects of Cyprus, Anatolia and the Levant
    8. The Arabic of Egypt and Sudan
    9. The Maghrebine dialects, including the old dialects of Sicily and Iberia, and Maltese
    10. The Arabic grammatical tradition
    11. The old dialects of West Arabia and the language of the old poems
    12. The development of Imperial Arabic
    13. Middle Arabic, Neo-Arabic, and the Arabic Creoles
    14. Theories on the history of Arabic

Course objectives

Data and sources: Students will gain a basic understanding of the Semitic phylum and Arabic’s place within it. They will also become familiar with the diverse types of Arabic, spoken in the past and today. Students will also acquire a basic understanding of the goals and methods of the Arabic grammatical tradition.

Theory and methods: Students will study the theory and methods of historical linguistics and theories of language classification. They will also be able to follow and critically evaluate linguistic arguments.



Mode of instruction


Assessment method

  1. Problem Sets. After each lecture, students will be assigned a problem set to complete at home (20%). These are due at the beginning of the following lecture
    1. Mid-term paper. Students will reconstruct the phonological development of a dialect of Arabic of their choice in Neogrammarian terms (30%).
    2. Final paper. Students will compare and contrast two theories on the development of Arabic (40%, 12-15 pages). Participation and attendance (10%).


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Reading list

Contact information