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Arabic Diacritics: Important But Neglected Posted by on Mar 15, 2017 in Arabic Language, Pronunciation

Generally, diacritics are marks that are added to letters and have pronunciation- and/or meaning-related values as well as grammatical values. In Arabic, diacritical marks are:

words with diacritical marks

Figure 1: a diacriticized Arabic word representing 15 variants

  • the fatHah  َ , a semi-flat hyphen-like added on top of the letter,
  • the kasrah ِ , similar to fatHah, but put below the letter,
  • the Dhammah ُ, a mark somewhat like the letter wow و in Arabic, placed on top of the letter,
  • the shaddah ّ, a mark like the letter seen سـ when it occurs word-initially, and
  • the sukoon ْ , a mark similar to, and smaller in shape than, the letter ‘o’ in English, added on top of the letter (see figure 2).

The first three marks represent the vowels system in Arabic. The three vowels /a/, /i/, and /o/ are represented by fatHah, kasrah, and Dhammah, respectively. Meanwhile, the shaddah represent a geminated letter, i.e. a sequence of two similar sounds. The sukoon indicates that the letter on which it is placed has no vowel. Thus, albeit simple, Arabic diacritics have significant values at the sound level, meaning level, and grammar level.

a diacriticized letter

As for pronunciation, a letter within the Arabic word can have four different pronunciations. For example, if you take the letterب  /b/, it is pronounced as /ba/, with a fatHah بَ , as /bi/, with a kasrah بِ , as /bu/, with a Dhammah بُ, or as /b/, with a sukoon بْ . These changes in articulation significantly alter the meaning and the grammatical values of words. If you look at Figure 1 above, it is the same word but with 15 different variants, especially in pronunciation. To explain, let’s look at the first five words. The first three words have a single meaning, i.e. flag, with three different grammatical values (this will be elaborated upon in another post). The second two words are typographically the same but grammatically different. That is, they are verbs, active and passive, respectively. Similar account applies to other words in the list. Thus, as a learner of Arabic, it is essential that you properly learn these marks from the beginning. Some may say that they are not used in Modern Standard Arabic. This is true; however, native speakers of Arabic know them intuitively from the context. As you learn more and more of the language they will become a common place and you will acquire the ability of guessing the meaning of the intended variant from the context.

Now try reading these words paying attention to the pronunciation values diacritical marks:

diacritics and disambiguation

Similar to the word in Figure 1, the word سمع  has 7 different variants. Using a dictionary of Arabic, try writing them down with full assignment of the diacritical marks.

To sum up, in learning a new language, we first need to learn to articulate its sounds as intelligibly as possible (and letters for purpose of reading and writing) to be able to read words, phrases, sentences, and subsequently produce comprehensible speech in that language, speech through which our ideas are communicated effectively, i.e. without communication breakdown. In some languages, sounds to letters correspondence is pretty straightforward. However, this is not the case in Arabic when we consider diacritics. A letter in a word can have four or five different articulations depending upon the diacritical mark that goes with it. Therefore, it is essential that Arabic diacritical marks be learnt and comprehended well from the very inception of your learning.

 

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About the Author:Ibnulyemen

Marhaban! I am from Yemen. I am a language teacher. I teach English and Arabic. Besides Arabic and English, I speak French and some German. I have a strong flair for languages; most of my foreign language competency has been self-learning. For Arabic, I have a strong command of its formal aspects. So, if you have any question about Arabic grammar or morphology, feel free to ask any question you may have. In this blog, I will be leading you through Arabic language learning in a sequential and interactive fashion. I will focus on Modern Standard Arabic. Arabic dialectal expressions and vocabulary will be highlighted whenever pertinent to the topic of each post. Enjoy learning!


Comments:

  1. Ruhoof Nozeer:

    Thanks for your informative lesson.
    Please keep giving useful Arabic tips and how to be able to speak Arabic.
    JazaakAllah Khair
    Salaam
    Abdur Ruhoof

    • ibn al-Yemen:

      @Ruhoof Nozeer Sure! You will certainly see more of this. I am covering the basics at the moment. More conversational and interactive stuff that is aimed at making people like you to be more able to speak Arabic is coming soon. Stay tuned!


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