Today people travel more than any other period in our history, and it would not be unusual if you had to visit an Arabic speaking country whether for business or pleasure. There are many European companies that do business in Dubai and Lebanon, for example, and those two countries are considered the business hub of the region; Dubai for its sprawling business sector, and Lebanon for its banking sector. There are also some wonderful places to visit like Petra in Jordan, or the majestic Roman temples in Baalbek, Lebanon, where nearby you could also ski on some fantastic slopes. Knowing some essential and common Arabic phrases and words would be extremely helpful, and will make your trip easier and enjoyable. The good news is that most people in the Arab world tend to speak one European language or another1, but it’s always best to be prepared.
What do those crazy numbers mean?
But in order to learn those words and phrases correctly you need to be able to pronounce them correctly. To do that I would like to introduce you to a very helpful technique that Arabic speakers have been using for many years. Its purpose is to aid our pronunciation when we transliterate Arabic words in Latin encoding. You may already know that Arabic contains several letters that lack English and Latin equivalents. The letters “ع” (a growl-sounding “a”), “خ” (a thick kha, similar to a German “h”) and “ث” (th as in “think” or “thick”) are three examples (don’t worry about pronouncing those letters yet as I’ll explain them later). “ث” is found in English by using “th” just like in the word “think.” But “ع” and “خ” are more tricky as their sounds are completely alien to English speakers. So how do we transliterate them? For that, we have something called “Arabizi”2 or “Arabish,” which are slang compound-names consisting of the words “Arabic” and “English” (in Arabic), like “Spanglish,” for example.
Back in the early to mid 90s, before mobile phones with Arabic keys were popular, finding an Arabic keyboard was difficult. Those of us living in other parts of the world communicated frequently with our friends and families back home using instant messaging and the Internet. But, for the most part, our computers and phones had English and Latin keyboards and the Arabic alphabet was not available. We needed a way of encoding Arabic letters in Latin (ASCII), and “Arabizi” came to be. For example, to say “hello Ali, how are you?” we would type “mar7aba 3ali, keef 7alak?” Those numbers in the sentence are not a typos. Since English and Latin keyboards do not have equivalents of some Arabic letters, we resorted to using numbers to simulate those letters.
The following is a list of common “Arabizi” encoding. It’s not a complete list, but it contains the characters you will use the most when reading and transliterating Arabic:
- For the letter “ع” (growling aaa) we use the number “3” – This is the equivalent of a very rough “a” where the sound is produced in the throat. It’s akin to a growl, actually.
- For “ﺡ” (strong sounding “hhha”) we use “7” – This is a hard “h.” The Arabic equivalent of “h” is another letter; that is the letter “ﻫ” (ha).
- For “ط” (deep ta) we use “6” – Note that “ط” is not “t”. In Arabic “ﺕ” (thin ta) is the equivalent of “t.” The letter “ط” produces the same sound as “t” but it’s from the throat; a deeper sounding “t,” and not from the top of the tongue.
- For “ء” (frozen a) we use “2” – This is an easy letter to pronounce because its sound exists in English, but it’s used differently. It is essentially an “a.” In English, when “a” is used in the middle of a word it acts as the accent to the preceding consonant. So it’s the “ah” sound in “hat” or “bat.” In Arabic, “ء” produces the same sound that you would make when pronouncing only the letter “a” as in the begging of the word. It’s an “a” without an accent. It’s the sound you make when you say the first part of the letter “a” alone; the “a” in “at,” or the “a” in “about.”
- For “خ” (strong kha) we use “kh” – This is a tricky one, and a bit more difficult for English speakers because the sound does not exist in English. It does exist in German, though, and if you have heard the German pronunciation of “Zurich” you would know the letter. The “h” in Zurich is pronounced not as a “k” but a rough “kh” combination. There is no pleasant way to describe this, but imagine clearing your throat.
- For “ث” (tha) we use “th” – This is very easy and it’s the same sound you produce when you say “think” or “thick.”
- For “ق” (deep ka) we use “q” or “9” – This is a deep “ka” that sounds similar to “ط” (deep ta). It is a deep sounding letter produced from the throat by trapping air, and not the tip or front of your mouth. It’s almost like a gulping sound with a “k” instead of a “g”, akin to pouring water out of a bottle. The thin version, or equivalent of an English “k” is the “ﻙ” (kaf) letter.
- For “غ” we use “gh” – This is a little tricky, but it’s easy to master. Imagine the sound “ghrrrrrr” would make if you were to roll the r letters, and you would be very close.
Transliterating in Arabizi
Let have a look a t a few words using “Arabizi:”
1) English word
a) Transliteration (transliteration without “Arabizi”)
i) Arabic word
a) 6areeq (tareek)
a) 6a3am (ta’am)
a) Fondoq (fondok)
a) Ma63am (mat’am)
a) 3asha2 (aasha’a)
a) Ghada2 (Gada’a)
a) Waqt (wakt)
a) Ta3ban (ta’aban)
a) Jo3an (joa’an)
a) Masra7 (masrah)
a) Ma6ar (matar)
a) 6a2era (ta2era)
a) Re7la (re7la)
a) Moghaffal (mogaffal)
a) Thulatha2 (thulatha’a)
a) Bitaqa Bareediya (bitaka bareediya)
i) بطاقة بريدية
a) Be3ajala (bea’ajala)
a) Osboo3 (osboo)
I will stop here for this entry as it is quite long already. I will record an audio guide tomorrow to go along with this entry to help you familiarize yourselves with the pronunciation, and have a sound reference for understanding the difference between these letters and the sounds they make. And the next entry in this series we’ll start learning some very useful sentences and words. If you need an immediate audio reference, take a look at this Wikipedia article on the Arabic Alphabet where you will find an audio reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_alphabet
1 The language spoken usually depends on whom the country’s colonists were. For example, in Lebanon French is considered an official language along with Arabic, while English is also widely spoken. French is considered an official language in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, while parts of Libya speak Italian; in Egypt, Jordan, the gulf and Iraq English is widely spoken.
2 “Arabizi” is only one form. There is also “Fraco-Arabe” and many other variations depending on the language used for transliteration.