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Characteristics of the Arabic script

Before you jump into learning the Arabic Script let's review some major characteristics of the Arabic language and its writing system with an emphasis on differences with the Roman alphabet.

Most of the material here will be covered again in detail later.

Arabic is the native language of over 280 million people and is an official language in 25 countries from Iraq in the Middle East to Morocco in Africa.

Arabic is classified by the Foreign Service Institute as one of the five most difficult languages for native English speakers along with Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. But YOU will prove them wrong.

Multiple "Arabics"
When people talk about the Arabic language they may be talking about three different things:
  • Classical Arabic - This is the language used in the Qur'an which was compiled shortly after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632.
  • Modern Standard Arabic - Modern Standard Arabic, often abbreviated as MSA and sometimes referred to as "Literary Arabic", is the Arabic currently taught in schools and used in newspapers and official broadcasts. Its grammar is slightly simplified compared with Classical Arabic and the vocabulary used is somewhat different.
  • Colloquial Arabic - Colloquial or "spoken" Arabic is the set of dialects that native Arabic speakers actually use to communicate with each other locally. The vocabulary and exact pronunciation will differ from MSA and in general the grammar will be simpler. The difference between two dialects generally increases with distance. A native speaker from Syria would have a hard time understanding someone speaking colloquially in Morocco but both speakers could switch to MSA and understand each other.
Luckily they all use the same script so everything you learn here will apply to all three.

TenguGo Arabic 1 covers Modern Standard Arabic.

Regional Pronunciation
Certain letters are pronounced differently in different regions. The audio examples used here are spoken by a native Syrian followed by a native Iraqi.

You will notice a difference in pronunciation. In particular the pronunciation of the 'a' sound.

Right to Left

Arabic is written from right to left. Take a look at the word below:

Father - 'ab

The letter on the left stands for the sound 'b' and the letter on the right stands for the sound 'a'. However since Arabic is read from right to left it is pronounced 'ab'.

Connecting/Non-connecting letters
Arabic is a cursive script, so in general the letters for a word will connect to each other. However there are 6 non-connecting letters that only connect to letters on the right. Take a look at these two words:

(left) baab
(right) thabata
باب  and  ثَبَتَ

The word on the right (thabata) contains only connecting letters so it is written as a single unit. The word on the left (baab) however has an 'alif in the middle which is a non-connecting letter. This means there is a gap in the middle since a non-connecting letter will not connect to letters on the left (though they do connect to letters on the right).

Letter forms
Each of the letters in the Arabic alphabet has more than one form depending on where it occurs in a word. Take a look at the four forms for the sound 'b':

Independent Final Medial Initial

The letter 'b' has four forms because it is a connecting letter and needs to be able to connect to both the left and right. However if we look at the non-connecting letter 'alif it only has two forms since it only needs to connect to the right.

Independent Final

Here is a quick guideline for when the forms are used.
  • Initial - Used for connecting letters only at the start of a word or after a non-connecting letter.
  • Medial - Used for connecting letters only between two other letters.
  • Final - Used as the last letter in a word or for non-connecting letters that are connected to the right.
  • Independent - Used when a letter is not connected on the left or the right.
Long and short vowels
Arabic has three short vowel sounds (a, i and u) and three long vowel sounds (aa, ii and uu). The long vowels are written as letters but the short vowels are written as diacritics: small marks above or below the letters.

If we look at these two words again:

(left) baab
(right) thabata
باب  and  ثَبَتَ

The word on the left 'baab' is using the 'alif long vowel for 'aa' and so the vowel ('alif) is actually written out as a letter.

The word on the right however only has short vowels for 'a' so instead of being written as letters in the word they are written as small marks above the word.

Unvocalized text
Unfortunatley for beginners most Arabic is written unvocalized, also known as unvoweled, which means that none of the diacritics are written out.

Take a look at he word 'thabata' written below with and without the diacritics:

To fasten - thabata
ثَبَتَ  or  ثبت

Other than the Qur'an and educational texts almost all Arabic is written without diacritics. You will need to know which diacritics belong to the word though eventually you will be able to guess correctly in many cases.

Other differences
Some other things to keep in mind:
  • No capital letters - Arabic writing does not have the concept of upper and lower-case letters.
  • Spaces - There will always be a space between two words. But as mentioned above there can also be a space within a word if a non-connecting letter is used. Generally the space between words is bigger than the gap due to non-connecting letters.
  • Diacritics - These are most often used for short vowels but there are others as well.