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Arabic Alphabet overview

The Arabic Alphabet has 28 letters. There are 25 consonants, and three “long vowels”, as well as three “short vowels”, and other markings.

Grammar aid: what is the difference between consonants and vowels?

We don’t normally think about this in English, but we produce vowels with our mouths open, with no air restrictions, and produce the sounds of consonants using a combination of our lips or teeth and controlling the airflow.

(These ‘Grammar aid’ boxes are intended for those without a background in language learning.)

The main differences between Arabic and Latin Alphabets

We start with our first informal word that we all use every day as an example to highlight the key differences.

Hi

هاي

On the right it says ‘h-a-y’ – hay! Directly from the sound of ‘hi/hey’ in English. You will soon be able to read this but don’t worry for now! As we consider the main differences between Arabic and Latin alphabets below, try to come back to this initial example to see what we might be referring to.

There are six major differences:

№ 1. Right to left text

The script is written from right to left, the opposite direction to English. Again consider:

Hi

هاي

ه + ا + ي

You read the word above from right to left by first trying to recognise a succession of symbols هـ then ـا then ي .

It takes some time to retrain our brains to read from the right and identify new symbols and lines as letters, but soon enough it will become second nature!

№ 2. No upper case

Unlike Latin script, there are no upper- and lower-case letters, although that may be hard to see right now!

№3. Cursive style

Arabic is written in a cursive, joined-up style, both in print and when handwritten. Most letters join to the next letter, but six do not. This joining, unlike English, is important, as it changes the type of letter.

№4. Four shapes

All Arabic letters have an isolated form when they are written on their own and not as part of a word. We always learn the isolated from first. This is the easy part.

The difficulty comes when you connect several letters together to form a word, as Arabic letter shapes change depending upon their position in the word.

Most letters have four possible shapes or positions:

  1. Initial – only connects to the left
  2. Medial – connects on both sides
  3. Final – only connects to the right
  4. Isolated – when we write it on its own

This will make more sense soon with the first letter we introduce!

№5. All about the dots

Many letters are distinguished by dots above or below the lines – which can get very confusing when letters are joined together. We’ve tried to include some fun ways to remember.

№6. Two layers of writing

The Arabic alphabet consists of consonants and three ‘long’ vowels. ‘Short’ vowel sounds (many of which change with accents) are not often written in Arabic and we must learn how different words are pronounced over time.

This long short vowel distinction is similar to how different English dialects/accents pronounce the word ‘bath’: In southern England, people say ‘baath’ with a long “aa” sound, in the north, you say ‘bath’ with a short “a”.

To help with pronunciation in Arabic, short vowel sounds are usually inserted for beginners, Children’s books, and religious scripts. These are symbolised by small markings above and below letters.

An except from the Qur'aan

A leaf from an elegantly calligraphed and illuminated large codex containing a part of the Qur’an with the suras 78 through 114 and executed probably in Iran in the 9th AH / 15th CE century. Creative Commons License

We will properly introduce and use voweled script once we have studied the ‘short’ vowels to help you read at the beginner level. But in the long run we must all get used to reading Arabic without these markings as a native speaker would, as it is rarely written with short vowels in day-to-day life.

The video below summarises some of these points: