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Basic Arabic: The Alphabet Posted by on Sep 20, 2018 in Arabic Language, Pronunciation

الأَبْجَدِيَّة العَرَبِيَّة al-abjadiiyah al-‘arabiiyah, i.e. the Arabic Alphabetical System, includes twenty-eight letters. In addition to the alif ا and the alif al-madd آ, they are thirty.  Nearly all these letters are consonants. Vowels are two types: long and short. Long vowels are represented by letters, while the short ones are represented by diacritical marks. Each letter has four pronunciations based on the short vowel that accompanies it. This post provides the essential information that you need to know about the Arabic Alphabetical System.

In the table above is a list of the Arabic letters / sounds. They are ordered according to the place of articulation, that is from the front of the oral cavity (the lips and teeth) to the back (the throat). In the first right column, the letters are not accompanied by diacritics, so they are called saakinah (i.e. with no short vowel), and hence are pronounced as b, m, w, f, … etc.

When accompanied by shorts vowels, each of them has three variant pronunciations. With the fatHah َ, they are pronounced as ba, ma, wa, fa … etc., as in the second column. With the kasrah ِ, they are pronounced as bi, mi, wi, fi … etc., as in the third column. With the DHammah ُ, they are pronounced as bu, mu, wu, fu … etc., as in the fourth column.

For each short vowel, there is a corresponding long vowel. Hence, for the fatHah, it is ا / ـا aa; for the kasrah ِ, it is ي / ـيـ; and for the DHammah, it is و / ـو. The alif ا / ـا is always a vowel (i.e. it is never accompanied by short vowels; therefore, it is not listed in the table above. ي and و, on the other hand, can be consonants, that is they can be accompanied by short vowels, as listed in the table. When they are vowels, they are never accompanied by short vowels, that is they are saakinah.

In Arabic short vowels are referred to as الحَرَكَات القَصِيْرَة al-Harakaat al-qaSiirah, while long vowels are called الحَرَكَات الطَّوِيْلَة al-Harakaat aT-Tawiilah. As far as pronunciation, the long vowels are basically prolonging the short vowels. For example, فَ (with fatHah) is pronounced as ba. If followed by the alif (i.e. فَا), it is pronounced as faa. Likewise, نِ (with a kasrah) is pronounced as ni; if followed by the corresponding long vowel (i.e. نِي), it is pronounced as nii. Also, كُ (with a DHammah) is pronounced as ku; if followed by the corresponding long vowel (i.e. كُو), it is pronounced as kuu. Here are more illustrations:

The letter with a short vowel Pronunciation The letter with a long vowel Pronunciation
خَ kha خَا khaa
دِ di دِي dii
لُ lu لُو luu
حِ Hi حِي Hii
شُ shu شُو shuu
رَ ra رَا raa

As seen from the table above, the fatHah َ and DHammah ُ are written on the letter, while the kasrah ِ is written below the letter. As for the long vowels, they are simply connected to the preceding consonant, and they trigger the appearance of corresponding short vowels on the letter to which they are joined.

When long vowels are joined to it, the hamzah changes orthographically. If it followed by و or ي, it is written on the line ـئـ. If it followed by an alif ـا / ا, it changes to alif madd آ.

You may be wondering what the difference between the hamzah ء and the alif ا is. While the hamzah can be accompanied by short vowels, that is ءَ, ءِ, and ءُ (i.e. ‘a, ’i, and ’u), they never accompany the alif, as it is always saakin (i.e. accompanied by sukuun).

In modern written Arabic, the short vowels are not added mainly for practical reasons; that is, it is time-consuming to add them to every single written word. Native speakers, however, can pronounce words with the right short vowels. Given their intuition, as native speakers, and the context, they rarely mispronounce words. When ambiguity is inevitable, one or two short vowels are added to disambiguate typographically similar words.

Joining Letters

Arabic is a cursive language; letters must be joined to form words. Almost all the letters have four different shapes: in isolation, word-initially, word-medially, and word-finally, as shown in the table below.

How Arabic Letters are Joined

Individual letters Word-initially Word-medially Word-finally
ا ا ــا  |  ا ــا  |  ا
ب بــ ــبــ ــب  | ب
ت تــ ــتــ ــت  | ت
ث ثــ ــثــ ــث  |  ث
ج جــ ــجــ ــج  |  ج
ح حــ ــحــ ــح  |  ح
خ خــ ــخــ ــخ  | خ
د د ــد ــد  |  د
ذ ذ ــذ ــذ  |  ذ
ر ر ــر ــر  |  ر
ز ز ــز ــز  |  ز
س ســ ــســ ــس  |  س
ش شــ ــشــ ــش  |  ش
ص صــ ــصــ ــص  |  ص
ض ضــ ــضــ ــض  |  ض
ط طــ ــطــ ــط  |  ط
ظ ظــ ــظــ ــظ  |  ظ
ع عــ ــعــ ــع  |  ع
غ غــ ــغــ ــغ  |  غ
ف فــ ــفــ ــف  |  ف
ق قــ ــقــ ــق  |  ق
ك كــ ــكــ ــك  |  ك
ل لــ ــلــ ــل  |  ل
م مــ ــمــ ــم  |  م
ن نــ ــنــ ــن  |  ن
ه هــ ــهــ ــه  |  ه
و و ــو ــو  |  و
ء أ  |  إ ـئـ | ـأ |  ـؤ ـأ | ـئ | ئ | ـؤ |ء
ي يــ ــيــ ــي  |  ي
آ آ ــآ  |  آ ــآ  |  آ

Six letters in table above don’t join to subsequent letters; they only join to preceding letters. These are ا, د, ذ, ر, ز, and و.

The following examples illustrate how the Arabic letters look like in actual words.

بـَ  + ـتـَ  +  ـرَ  = بَتَرَ

خَـ  +  ـشَـ  +  ـبَـ  +  ـا  +  ت  = خَشَبَات

شـِ  +  ـبـْ  +  ـسٌ  =  شِبْسٌ

دُ  +  حـِ  +  ـرَ  =  دُحِرَ

حَـ  +  ـرَ  +  دْ  +  نَ  +  ا  =  حَرَدْنَا

تَـ  +  ـخْـ  +  رُ  +  جَ  +  ا  +  ن  = تَخْرُجَان

عَـ  +  ـفَـ  +  ا  +  ف  =  عَفَاف

نُـ  +  ـكْـ  +  ـرَ  +  ا  +  ن =  نُكْرَان

وُ  +  جُـ  +  ـو  +  ه  =  وُجُوه

هُـ  +  ـمُـ  +  و  +  مُـ  + ـهُ  = هُمُوْمُهُ

يَـ  +  ـبْـ  +  ـد  +  أ  =  يَبْدَأ

مُـ  +  ـفَـ  +  ـا  +  جِـ  +  ـئ  =  مُفَاجِئ

مَـ  +  ـسَـ  +  ـا  +  ء  =  مَسَاء

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About the Author: Ibnulyemen اِبْنُ اليَمَن

Marhaban! I am from Yemen. I am a language teacher. I teach English and Arabic. In this blog, I will be leading you through Arabic language learning in a sequential fashion. I will focus on Modern Standard Arabic. To learn more, you can also visit my website Ibnulyemen Arabic or my facebook page.