How To Read Arabic: An Introduction to the Arabic Alphabet

how to read arabicThe Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters, all derived from an ancient Phoenician script. It’s also read from right to left, opposite the English convention. It’s also a cursive script, meaning that all the letters are connected to each other in the words. This makes learning the Arabic alphabet particularly difficult if you have never been exposed to it before. Not only that, it’s been found that due to its intricate nature, with small curves and diacritical markers, the brain must rely on the left-side only to parse what it is reading, whereas other languages use both sides simultaneously. It’s so detailed and so intricately written that our brains are forced to analyze it before it can read it!

The differences between written Arabic and the different dialects of Colloquial Arabic spoken throughout the world are pretty marked. This means that the most important thing when learning the language is both speaking and learning to read, because one does not actually reflect the other.

Check out this Udemy class, Arabic Language for Beginners, for a jumpstart. Super affordably priced, this will get you started with reading, speaking, and even typing.

Given its linguistic history, if you are reading Arabic (the language, not just the script), the Arabic you are reading is not the Arabic you speak. Written Arabic, which is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), differs from the spoken language in that its rules and grammar are laid out to follow what is referred to as Classical Arabic. Classical Arabic is derived from Arabic as it is used in the Quran and follows that mode of writing. This makes MSA formal and literary. It has changed through history to match the times it exists in, discarded obsolete forms and introducing terms and concepts ancient writers and speakers would not have imagined. MSA is an official language of 27 countries as well as the liturgical language of Islam, meaning MSA is used in worship by Muslims the world over. If all Arabic dialects and variations are taken as a whole, the Arabic language is among the top 5 most spoken languages by number of people worldwide.

In addition to Arabic, the script is used to write several different languages that aren’t related to the Arabic language. Some of these languages include: Persian, which includes the language spoken in Iran and other languages it has influenced; Urdu, spoken in Pakistan but nearly identical with Hindi; Malay, spoken in Southeast Asia; Pashto, one of two official languages in Afghanistan, the other being Dari (related to Persian), and many others.

If you are a beginner and would like to learn how to learn to read and write Arabic, Reading and Writing Arabic is the course for you. It will cover, in depth, the entire writing system and rules and will give you a base vocabulary of 700 words!

In this article, I’ll list each of the Arabic letters, in typical hijā’ī (هِجَائِي) order, meaning that this is how Arabic readers arrange lists “alphabetically”. This list will show you their basics, their typical pronunciations. Here’s a video that goes over each.

The Alphabet

Below, I will provide some comparative examples in English or other languages, as well as elementary explanations of how to pronounce the sounds, for clarity. I’ll also give the linguistic name of the phoneme (sound) and it’s symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet if there is no equivalent in another language, so if you are familiar with IPA, it can aid your understanding of the pronunciation.

ا  alif

This is the sound we typically get from a long ‘a’ but also was used to denote a glottal stop /ʔ/, or a catch in the sound when you put your tongue up at the back of your throat to “stop” the sound.

Since there was confusion because it could be either the vowel or the stop, a new letter was introduced called the hamza ء‎, which is now written as a diacritic over or under the alif.

ب  

Like the name sounds, it is a ‘b’ sound.

ت tā’

This is a ‘t’ sound.

ث thā’

This is a ‘th’ sound, using only air. IPA /θ/. Like the beginning of the words “think” or “throw”.

ج jīm

Sounding like an english ‘j’ this letter has a few different pronunciations in different countries and dialects.

ح ḥā’

A breathy ‘h’ sound, from the top of the throat, like a typical American English ‘h’.

خ khā’

This letter has no English equivalent, though there are several in other languages. Like a ‘ch’ in German or Scottish, or a ‘j’ in Spanish. It’s a breathy sound that comes from the back of the throat, the technical term being a velar or uvular fricative, /x/.

د dāl

This is the same as a ‘d’.

ذ dhāl

Similar to dāl, this sound is how ‘d’ is pronounced in Spanish, which is something between a ‘d’ and a ‘th’ sound in English. The IPA is /ð/, a voiced dental fricative, as in the word “that”.

ر rā’

This is sound is very close to the trilled ‘rr’ in Spanish, placing the tip of the tongue at the back of the teeth and flipping the ‘r’ sound.

ز zayn / zāy

A voiced alveolar fricative, or a common ‘z’ sound.

س sīn s

A simple ‘s’.

ش shīn

A ‘sh’ sound.

ص ṣād /sˤ/

This letter ṣād along with the next 3 represent some sounds not found in English or other European languages. These sounds are all ‘pharyngealized’. This is not some painful medical procedure, but just a way to pronounce the phoneme (the sound).

In some Arabic dialects, ṣād sounds similar to a typical ‘s’ sound. However, the correct way to say it is to push your tongue back to make the sound seem like it’s coming from the throat. This makes it sound like you’re trying to swallow the ‘s’.

ض ḍād /dˤ/

This is also “swallowed” or pharyngealized. Push your tongue back and say the ‘d’.

ط ṭā’ /tˤ/

A swallowed ‘t’. The back of the tongue gets pushed back, just like the previous two letters.

ظ ẓā’ [ðˤ]

Although written like a ‘z’, letter is closer to a ‘th’ sound, and is the fourth “swallowed”/pharyngealized letter in this sequence.

ع ‘ayn /ʕ/

This one is the mother of all consonants, called an epiglottal fricative, meaning you need to move your tongue back while voicing or humming and make the sound come from the middle of your throat. There is no English equivalent of this pronunciation so it’s best to hear it if you aren’t quite familiar with the linguistic term. Wikipedia has a sample to listen to.

غ ghayn /ɣ/

Similar to ‘ayn above, but like a ‘g’ closer to the back, soft portion of the mouth, which is called the velar region.

ف fā’

After the previous difficult consonants, this is an easy ‘f’ sound.

ق qāf /q/

Sounding very similar to ‘k’, it is actually pronounced at the back of the mouth, from the uvula. You know, that thing that hangs down at the back of your mouth. Move your tongue back toward that and make a ‘kaf’ sound, like you’re coughing.

ك kāf

This is a ‘k’ sound, from the soft part of the mouth, like the ‘k’ in ‘kick’.

ل lām

This sounds like an ‘l’.

م mīm

Here’s the bilabial nasal, a.k.a. an ‘m’ sound.

ن nūn

‘N’ sound all the way.

ه hā’

This ‘h’ is closer to the chest, down in the throat and called a glottal fricative. Same breathy sound as an American English ‘h’, but throaty.

و wāw w / ū / aw

A ‘w’ sound when it begins a word, but a long ‘u’ /u/ or something like the word “ow” when used elsewhere.

ي yā’ y / ī / ay

A ‘y’ sound when it begins a word, but then a long ‘i’ sound or a diphthong of “ay”

Vowels

After all of that, you maybe wondering where the vowels are. Only one, alif, is listed and the final two, waw and ya can act as long vowels, but that’s it. Vowels in Arabic are not usually spelled out, but are implied by diacritics in the spelling, and even these may be omitted in signs and handwriting. Luckily, for learners of the language and in the Quran, vowels are explicitly spelled out to avoid confusion.

These diacritics are as follows. Vowels always follow consonants.

َ ‎  fatḥah /a/

A short ‘a’ sound.

‎ُ   ḍammah /u/

A short ‘u’.

ِ ‎  kasrah /i/

A short ‘i’.

And even these may be used in conjunction with other letters and vowels to alter the pronunciations!

Now, if you aren’t completely intimidated, then you would probably like this class, The Basic Arabic Course. This, along with its sequel, The Advanced Arabic Course, will get you started with the most common dialects of Arabic, as it is spoken in Egypt and across the Middle East, also known as Shami or Levantine Arabic.

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