Arabic linguistics: overview and history

Arabic linguistics is a vast field combining study of the Arabic language with the analytical disciplines that constitute the field of linguistics. Linguistic theories, methods, and concepts are used to analyze the structure and processes of Arabic; but at the same time, Arabic with its millennium-long intellectual traditions, its complex morphology, and its current broad diversity of registers, informs linguistic theory. Many linguistic approaches to Arabic language analysis have been applied over the past fifty years both within the Arab world and from the point of view of western scholars. These approaches and their disciplinary procedures are both varied and convergent, covering a wealth of data but also coming to terms with central issues of concern to Arabic linguistics that had been neglected in the past, such as validating the prominent role of vernacular Arabic and variation theory in Arabic society and culture. Arabic linguistics is now an active subfield in sociolinguistics, corpus linguistics, and computational linguistics as well as theoretical and applied linguistics. Both traditional and new genres of Arabic writing are now being examined within postmodern frameworks of literary theory and linguistic analysis. Media Arabic studies is a new and rapidly growing field; medieval texts are being re-examined in the light of new philology and discourse analysis; previously ignored forms of popular culture such as songs, advertisements, oral poetry, vernacular writing, letters, email, and blogs are now legitimate grist for the linguistics mill.

The discipline of linguistics has a growing number of subfields. The traditional four core divisions usually include theoretical linguistics, applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, and computational linguistics. Each of these has developed new applications, perspectives, hypotheses, and discoveries that extend their analytical power in novel ways, such as cognitive linguistics in theoretical linguistics, second language acquisition in applied linguistics, corpus linguistics in the computational field, and discourse analysis in sociolinguistics. When these perspectives and theories are applied to Arabic, the findings can be revealing, satisfying, or puzzling, but generally lead toward greater understanding of how languages work, how they resemble each other, and how they differ. The field of computational linguistics has provided ways to develop extensive corpora of spoken and written Arabic that can be used for pioneering research and analysis of language in use. An active subfield of linguistics – history of linguistics – examines linguistic historiography, the development of language analysis over time, and the evolution of grammatical theory in different cultures.

The phonological, morphological, and syntactic structures of Arabic reflect its Semitic origins and its essential differences from Indo-European languages. These differences and their cultural embeddedness are what make Arabic of interest to research in many fields of linguistics. For example, the particularly well-defined and elaborated verb system with its derivations reflect an aspect of classical Arabic that is both fascinating and rigorous in its structure and linguistic logic. As another example, the contrasts between vernacular and written language, their different roles within Arab society, and the tensions between local and regional linguistic identities, form areas of sociolinguistics that pose particular challenges to data collection, empirical study, and objective analysis. Many research challenges and opportunities still lie ahead in this regard.

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