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Will Middle Eastern Languages "Up-Rise" As Well?

By: Yasmina Raouf (Saudisoft) - Saudisoft Co. Ltd.

03 September 2013

The political and civil unrest in the Middle East has shone a new light on language and culture in the region. Yasmina Raouf explains the language landscape of the region and discusses implications for the translation and localization industry. 

Nowadays, when you mention "the Middle East," the first question that pops up is about The Arab Up-Risings: revolutions, coups, wars. In this article, we will leave those topics to the nations, media, and politicians, and instead tackle the Middle East from its cultural and linguistic sides and ask the question, "Do the latest political events have an impact on the language industry, especially the Middle Eastern languages?"


The term "Middle East" may have originated in the 1850s in the British India Office. The term was first used by the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan in an article entitled "The Persian Gulf and International Relations," published in September 1902 in the National Review, a British journal.

Until World War II, it was customary to refer to areas around Turkey and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean as the "Near East." The Middle East came to mean the area from Mesopotamia to Burma (namely the area between the Near East and the Far East). In the late 1930s, the British established the Middle East Command, which was based in Cairo, to secure military forces in the region. After that time, the term "Middle East" gained broader usage in Europe and the United States.

Languages spoken in the Middle East

The Middle East consists of the countries of Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, State of Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

The top languages, in terms of numbers of speakers, are:

* Arabic and Berber represent the Afro-Asiatic language family.

**Persian and Kurdish belong to the Indo-European language family.

***Turkish belongs to Turkic language family.

  1. Arabic*
  2. Persian**
  3. Turkish***
  4. Berber*
  5. Kurdish**
  6. About 20 minority languages

Arabic (with all its dialects) is the most widely spoken and/or written language in the Middle East, and is an official language in all North African and most West Asian countries.

Persian is the second most spoken language, despite being confined to Iran and some border areas in neighboring countries. Iran is one of the region's largest and most populous countries.

The third most widely-spoken language, Turkish, is a member of the Turkic languages, which have their origins in Central Asia. It too, is largely confined to its country of origin, Turkey, and areas in neighboring countries.

Other languages spoken in the region include Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Mesopotamian Aramaic dialects spoken mainly by Assyrians and Mandeans. Also to be found are Armenian, Azerbaijani, Somali, Berber (which is spoken across North Africa), Circassian, rarer Iranian languages, Kurdish, rarer Turkic languages (such as Gagauz), Shabaki, Yazidi, Roma, Georgian, Greek, and several Modern South Arabian languages such as Geez. Maltese is also linguistically and geographically a Middle Eastern language.

English is commonly taught and used as a second language, especially among the middle and upper classes, in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. It is also a common language in some of the Emirates of the United Arab Emirates.

French is taught and used in many government facilities and in the media in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Lebanon. It is taught in some primary and secondary schools of countries such as Egypt and Syria.

Urdu is widely spoken by migrant communities in many Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia (where 20-25% of the population is South Asian), the United Arab Emirates (where 50-55% of the population is South Asian), and Qatar, which has large numbers of Pakistani immigrants.

Arabic in Particular

The most common language in the Middle East is Arabic. It is spoken by more than 400 million people, making it one of the six most popular languages in the world. Arabic is also the eleventh-most-spoken language in the United States.

Arabic is the only surviving language of the Old North Arabian dialect group found in Pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions dating back to the 4th century.

Arabic is written with the Arabic alphabet, which is an Abjad script, and is written from right-to-left. Interestingly, modern technology and the unlimited use of texting has resulted in the common use of Arabic written in ASCII Latin, which has no standardized form.

The English language has many Arabic loanwords, some pulled directly from modern Arabic, but most gleaned through the medium of other Mediterranean languages. Examples of such words include admiral, adobe, alchemy, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, alkaline, almanac, amber, arsenal, assassin, candy, carat, cipher, coffee, cotton, ghoul, hazard, jar, kismet, lemon, loofah, magazine, mattress, sherbet, sofa, sumac, tariff, and many other words.

Middle Eastern Languages and the Arab Up-Risings

There has been a surge in the use of social media networks by the Arab population in order to keep up with the news and the quick changes happening in the region. This has resulted in an increase in Middle Eastern languages represented on the web as well as on TV Channels such as international news, and new channels in Arabic aimed at addressing Arabic speakers in particular.

The increased exposure of the Middle East and its languages has given businesses the opportunity to expand and grow. The media industry, social networks, and technology companies (such as mobile service providers) are uniquely situated to take advantage of such exposure.

Impact on Localization

As a language service provider serving these markets, we have witnessed an increase in the demand for Middle Eastern Languages during the last couple of years despite the political unrest in the region. The demand is not limited to one industry or language. We are seeing more demand from business areas such as Mobile Applications, IT, and even book translation requests. And we are seeing more demand for translation into multiple languages including Arabic and other languages like Kurdish, Urdu and Farsi.


Regardless of up-risings, wars, economic challenges, coups, and revolutions, the Middle Eastern language market has not been negatively affected by these politics, but has instead created new demand from a huge population. While the unrest undoubtedly takes its toll on citizens and businesses alike, we are able to see the opportunity amidst the challenge.

Yasmina Raouf is a Senior Marketing specialist in Saudisoft Co. She has 11 years' experience in the marketing field spent in the manufacturing sector, banking sector and finally language sector. She is currently responsible for marketing and works on the business development team of Saudisoft.