Skip to content

The Story of Arabic in the Latin script

There is not one Arabic, there are many dialects, alongside a formal, mainly written, standard called Fusha (الفصحى) or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). This situation where two languages or varieties of the same language are used under different conditions or contexts is called diglossia.

There are also several writing systems. Historically, dialects remained oral. Writing them down was rare until the 19/20th century. With the advent of mass literacy, the mobile phone and the internet, written dialect use increased rapidly. Early mobile phones and keyboards did not have Arabic keys, so people used Latin letters and numbers as approximations, so كيف صحتك شو عم تعمل becomes keef se7tak shu 3am t3amel?

Given that there is no official way of writing Arabic words in Latin script (as there is the Arabic alphabet!) native speakers each have different ways of writing in Latin letters, dependent upon their accent, preferences, and second language use.

This text language is sometimes called Arabizi (عربيزي), or the Arabic Chat Alphabet, and is the basis for our system of latinisation[i] Whilst there is no common way of writing it, we document here the standard way we write Arabic letters in English for our students at Lingo Arabico. We mainly use this system as it will help you best adapt to reading Levantine speakers texts with Latin letters.

Although not truly phonetically accurate, through consulting many different systems adopted by different people, we feel our latinisation is preferable to using many new symbols[ii], or the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which only professional linguists can decipher. We of course include the symbols native speakers may use for you to be aware of these in future, but we do not actively use them.

The task of standardising a transliteration or romanisation system is difficult: first, the dialects of the Levant have important divergences in pronunciation, with Beirut[iii] or Damascus dialects used as ”prestige dialects”. Second, differences in pronunciation are matched by different choices for representation in Latin letter, for example, should we use ‘i’ or ‘e’ or ‘é’, that are often influenced by the dominant European language — usually French or English — of the writer.

Third, the everyday Arabic users’ need for quick written communication and the educator’s need to accurately represent distinct sounds can be at odds. For this reason, we do not use symbols like in Arabizi but distinguish between the standard letters, like ‘s’ (س), and the emphatics, like ‘S’ (ص), with capitalisation. This helps beginners with pronunciation, but most native Arabic speakers would not bother capitalising the emphatics — ص ض ط ظ —when texting.

The choice of a script is also deeply political. Strong support for the Latin script or linguistic reform of Arabic[iv] often comes from the pro-Western and Christian communities. Reformers argue that Arabic script is unnecessarily complex, has hindered printing, and still hinders child literacy. Historically, they favoured the use of French or English in education for these ex-colonial languages’ greater connection to the globalised western and scientific spheres.

In contrast, the pan-Arab or Islamic communities with an Arabic-based education system favour Arabic script for the connection it brings to their history and identity. In contrast to the Turks switch to the latin script, the Arabs and Persians have favoured the stronger link with the history and culture by sticking to the Arbic script.

Language and politics have also played out differently across the Arab world. Countries like Lebanon and Morocco, maintained greater linguistic diversity, while countries like Syria and Algeria re-Arabised their education systems by removing French influence.

By emphasising the need to learn the Arabic script, our course subtly favours the pan-Arab or Islamic perspective. Yet our main interest is to build rare new bridges between our usually Western students and these communities. But in the end, flexibility, and the capacity to communicate in writing with both communities requires a familiarity with both scripts, which would be an admirable end point for dedicated learners.

 References

[i] If you interested in a deeper history of the Arabic Chat Alphabet, this thesis is worth a read: https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/72420/sullivan_natalie_ThesisFinalDraft.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

[ii] This an example academic transliteration guide from the International Journal of Middle East Studies: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-file-manager/file/57d83390f6ea5a022234b400/TransChart.pdf

[iii] This is one attempt to standardise romanisation using the Beirut dialect as a benchmark for Lebanon: https://www.facebook.com/LebaneseWritingRules/

[iv] One interesting example is the Lebanese born architect Nasri Khattar’s (نصري خطار‎) attempt to remove letter variations or shapes in Arabic to make them like Latin letters to remove one of the main difficulties with the Arabic script and increase its printability. His project was called ‘Unified Arabic’: https://worksthatwork.com/6/unified-arabic