A Guide to Arabic - The Arabic alphabet

What's the Arabic alphabet like?

You may well have to spell out your name and perhaps your address in Arabic. Here is the alphabet and how to pronounce it

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What's significant about the Arabic alphabet?

  • Where did the vowels go?

    The Arabic alphabet, or  الأبجدية [el abjadiyya], consists of 28 letters, 25 of which are consonants, and only 3 are vowels:
     أ [alif],  و [waw] and  ي [ya’a] also known as long vowels.

    Arabic is a consonantic language which means vowels could theoretically be omitted when writing words. However, spoken Arabic obviously has vowel sounds. They are indicated by diacritical marks placed above or below the letters. These vowel signs or
     حركات التنوين [harakat attanween], short vowels, differentiate between the several sounds and meanings that the same sequence of consonants can have.
    With the use of these signs, the word
     علم [ilm], knowledge (without vowel signs), becomes
     عـِلـْم [ilm], knowledge (with vowel signs),
     عـَلـَم [alam], flag,
     عـَلـِم َ [alima], he found out, and
     عـُلـِم [olim], understood.

    It is possible to see these words written without vowel signs in everyday use, e.g. in general publications and on street signs, but in learning materials they are always included.

  • A single dot makes a big difference

    Several letters in the Arabic alphabet share the same shape and are differentiated only by the number and placement of dots above or below, e.g. the letter
     حـ [ha], becomes
     خـ [kha], with a dot above it, and
     جـ [gim], with a dot below it.
    The letter  نـ [noun], becomes
     تـ [ta], if you add another dot above it, and
     ثـ [tha], if you add two dots, while it becomes
     بـ [ba], if you place the dot below it, and
     يـ [ya], if you add a dot to that dot.
    So, when writing in Arabic, forgetting a single dot could lead to a lot of confusion!

  • Direction and attachment

    Arabic words and sentences are written and read from right to left and books and papers from back to front. However, Arabic numbers are read and written from left to right.

    There is no upper or lower case and there are multiple forms to write a single letter. This is the letter [ayn] in an isolated position:   ع.
    If it comes at the beginning of a word, it looks like this: عـ.
    If it comes at the end of a word, it would be written in a final form ـع.
    And if it comes anywhere else in a word, you would write it in a medial form ـعـ .

    Arabic words are always written with joined up letters, except for the letters  أ [alif],  د [dal],  ذ [thal],  ر [ra],   ز [zain], and  و [waw], which can only be attached to the letter that precedes them, and not the one that follows them.
    In the word  سور [sour], wall, the letter  و [waw], is attached to the one that precedes it, but detached from the one that follows it.

  • When writing becomes an art form

    Artistic Arabic writing, or calligraphy, has developed over a thousand years, both for the Qur'an and other books, and for inscriptions on monuments and buildings as decoration.
    It’s still widely used and is considered by Arabs to be a major form of art, reflecting the beauty and the wealth of their culture.

  • Email and website conventions

    When giving an email or website address the conventions are:
     @ آت [at], at
     . نقطة [nuqta], dot
     / واصلة قصيرة [waseela kaseera], slash
     - شرطة [sharta], hyphen

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Facts about Arabic

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