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An Introduction to Arabic Script

Updated on September 8, 2012

To a beginning student of the Arabic language, one of the most intimidating aspects of the language is the written script. The seemingly incomprehensible collection of lines and curves and dots can look impossible to master.

In fact, this beautiful script is one of the easiest aspects of the language to learn - easier in many ways than the Latin alphabet of English, with all of its twisted rules and exceptions for pronunciation. Arabic uses a phonetic script, and letters are pronounced consistently in the Modern Standard Arabic dialect. (There are some differences in regional colloquial pronunciations of certain letters, but this is outside the scope of this hub).

The script is written right-to-left and has a cursive style, with most letters being connected to their neighbors. The letters also change shape depending on where they are in the word, with different versions used in the beginning, middle, and ends of words as well as when they are used in isolation. The following table illustrates how seven of these letters, which connect to each other in front and back, appear when used in each of these locations:

Note: You may wish to increase the text size in your browser while viewing the table below to improve readability.

Double-Connectors

Letter Name
Pronunciation
Isolated
Initial
Medial
Final
Baa
B as in boy
Taa
T as in test
Thaa
Th as in thing
Faa
F as in fit
Qaf
C as in cop, but in the back of the throat
Nun
N as in net
Yaa
Vowel i or consonant y

As you can see, the dots that lie above and below the text are critical to distinguishing one letter from another. These let you see the difference between بنت (bint - girl) and بيت (beit - house) and بين (beyn - between). Congratulations - you just learned your first three words!

Now, let's look at some more of these double-connecting letters:

More Double-Connectors

Letter Name
Pronunciation
Isolated
Initial
Medial
Final
Jeem
J as in jaded
7aa
Strongly aspirated H
Khaa
CH as in Bach or Loch
Seen
S as in sand
Sheen
SH as in shin
Kaf
K as in kitchen
Lam
L as in lake

These letters again utilize a small number of basic shapes, known as rasm, and are mainly distinguished from each other by the dots, or i'jam. The shapes in the letters above all have a distinctive tail in their final and isolated forms that does not appear when these letters are used at the beginning of the word.

Most of these sounds above are found in standard English, but the خ and ح (khaa and 7aa) are not commonly found. These two sounds are also easily confused by beginning Arabic students, and require a bit of practice to master.

The next group contains some sounds that are even more difficult to master:

Still More Double-Connectors

Letter Name
Pronunciation
Isolated
Initial
Medial
Final
Sod
Heavy S as in sod
Dod
Heavy D as in Todd
ﺿ
Tah
Heavy T as in thyme
Zah
Heavy Z or DH
'Ayn or 3ayn
Back-of-the-throat gag
Ghayn
French r sound
Meem
M as in mom
Heh
H as in happy

The letters above are perhaps the most difficult for beginning Arabic learners. With the exception of the and , these sounds do not exist in English. The , , , and change forms radically depending on their place in the word, adding to the difficulty in learning them.

Learning to pronounce the ﺹ, ﺽ, ﻃ, and ﻇ - and distinguish them from the , , , and when listening - takes considerable practice. These letters have a heavier sound, using a cupped tongue and often changing the tone of the vowels following them.

The Single-Connectors

Letter Name
Pronunciation
Isolated
Initial
Medial
Final
Dal
D as in door
Thal
Th as in this
Rah
R as in roar
Zain
Z as in zebra
Waw
Consonant W or long vowel O/U sound
Alif
Long vowel A sound

These letters do not connect with the letters that follow them - only preceding letters. This, too, can be a source of confusion for beginning Arabic students, particularly when reading very widely-tracked print - these letters can fool the reader into thinking the word has ended prematurely. Happily, the sounds they represent are ones that are familiar to all English speakers.

بالتوفيق - Good Luck!

Since its standardization in the 6th Century, the Arabic script has remained relatively unchanged within the Arabic language. It is also an easily-expandable writing system, and has been adopted as the script of other languages in the greater Middle East and Asia such as Kurdish, Persian, Urdu, Pashto, and Uyghur. Since these languages feature additional consonants not found in Arabic, the script has been modified with new letters that use the same basic shapes but different dot patterns. The Persian (representing a ch sound) and the Urdu (representing a retroflex T sound) are two examples of this.

Learning the Arabic script takes practice and dedication, and may seem impossible at first. However, it can be mastered in time. The ability to read this beautiful script is the key to unlocking this fascinating language.

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    • nettraveller profile image

      nettraveller 4 years ago from USA

      Shukran!

      It sounds fairly complicated to me, but fascinating as well. Excellent hub! I like listening to songs in Arabic, and enjoy them, even though I usually don't know what they say. Sometimes they are sung in two languages, or they provide a translation. How many total letters are there in the Arabic alphabet?

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 5 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Great informative hub, scottcgruber. It's gratifying to note that inspite of you being from the West you have made a thorough analysis of the Arabic script.

      Cheers.

      Voted up.

    • scottcgruber profile image
      Author

      scottcgruber 5 years ago from USA

      ????????:

      Thank you very much! I'm glad you enjoyed it, and definitely encourage you to keep up trying to learn. It's a great language.

      The regional spoken dialects definitely make it tricky - each one is essentially a different language, with its own grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. Very confusing...

      Thank you again for your feedback!

    • profile image

      jenubouka 5 years ago

      My father's side is Lebanese, and I have always desired to learn the language. It is a bit tricky with the basics and then trying to add the dialect of the region. I found the tables you provided awesome, this really breaks it down. It inspires me to continue to try to learn this language. Well done, this is awesome.