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Alif and short vowels

We will start by covering 'alif, which is one of the three long vowels, as well as the three short vowels.

'alif - ا
The long vowel for 'aa' is 'alif. Since it is a long vowel you should pronounce it about twice as long as a normal English vowel:

As mentioned before, audio examples are done by a native Syrian and a native Iraqi speaker and there is a difference in the pronunciation.

It is a non-connecting letter. This means it will connect to any letters on the right but that it will NOT connect to any letters on the left. Therefore it only needs to have two forms: independent and final.

Independent Final

As you can see the characteristic of 'alif is a straight vertical line that does not connect to the left.

Transliteration: When 'alif is used as a long vowel and transliterated in the Roman alphabet it is written as: aa. You may also see other texts use: ā.

Diacritics and short vowels
Diacritics are marks written above or below the Arabic letters. They can represent short vowels (a, i, u) or other information about the correct pronunciation (covered in later chapters).

As mentioned before in 'Characteristics of the Arabic script' one of the characteristics of Arabic is that these diacritics are normally not written out except in certain contexts like children's books, education and the Qur'an.

Here are the diacritics for the three short vowels and the sukun which indicates that there is no vowel:

fatHah Dammah kasrah sukun
ـَ ـُ ـِ ـْ
a u i (none)

  • fatha - A small upward slash above the the letter. Represents the short vowel 'a'.
  • damma - A small loop above the the letter. Represents the short vowel 'u'.
  • kasra - A small upward slash below the the letter. Represents the short vowel 'i'.
  • sukun - A tiny circle above the letter. It shows that there is no short vowel.
Transliteration: As expected the three short vowels are transliterated as: a, u and i.

The sukun is not transliterated as it represents an absence of sound.

The hamza is a special character. It sometimes behaves like a regular letter and is written on its own but it usually hitches a ride on one of the three long vowels ('alif, waaw, yaa'). The hamza has only one form but as mentioned it can be placed in many positions.


The hamza is pronounced as a 'glottal stop' which is a tightening/constricting in the back of the throat. An example of a glottal stop in English is in the middle of the word 'uh-oh!'.

Transliteration: The hamza/glottal stop is transliterated as an apostrophe: '.

Alif as the first letter
Here are two important facts to remember:
  • No Arabic word starts with a vowel
  • Many words start with the letter for one of the long vowels
How can these both be true? The reason is that the long vowels each have a second possible function.

When 'alif is used at the start of a word, instead of being pronounced 'aa', it is simply being used as a "seat" or placeholder for the hamza and one of the short vowels.

When the long vowels for 'uu' or 'ii' are used at the start of a word they are instead pronounced as 'w' and 'y' respectively. This will be covered in more detail later.

Here are the possible ways to write 'a, 'i and 'u using an 'alif at the start of the word.

'a 'u 'i
أ أَ اَ اُ أُ إ اِ

Once again there are different ways to write the same thing depending on regional or personal stylistic preferences.