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Arabic Script

Throughout Essential Arabic, you’ll see both written Arabic script and a transliteration system. You’ll learn how to read Arabic script gradually as you progress. If you’re interested in learning how to write Arabic script, Living Language offers a free pdf.

The Basics

The most basic thing to know about Arabic script is that it’s written and read from right to left. That means that Arabic books have their spines on the right and open from the left. Another basic fact about written Arabic is that only long vowels are usually written. Arabic has two types of vowels–long, which we transcribe as aa, ii, and uu, and short, which we transcribe as a, i, and u. The short vowels are usually not written in “real” Arabic. Arabic also has diphthongs (aw, ay), but only the letters w and y are typically written. Just as a point of comparison, this means that if English were written like Arabic, the word son would be written sn, but soon would be spelled out.

Short vowels do appear sometimes–in the Koran, in children’s books, and in language courses like this one. They take the form of strokes or swirls above or below the consonant they’re pronounced after. Here’s an example. In the word below, the two strokes above the word represent the short vowel a. The three consonants, from right to left, are n, x (a symbol we’re using for a consonant that doesn’t exist in English), and m.

نَعَم naxam
yes

The Arabic Alphabet

There are twenty-eight letters in the Arabic alphabet. Arabic is a cursive script, meaning that most letters are connected to the ones before and after them. There are a few letters that don’t connect to the ones that come after them, but we’ll cover those later.

Because Arabic letters (usually) connect to whatever comes before or after them, each letter has a different shape depending on where it’s written:

Independent: This is the form that’s used when a letter is written separately, in isolation from any other letter.

Initial: This is the form that’s used when a letter begins a word or comes after a non-connecting letter. It usually only has a connecting stroke on the left side.

Medial: This is the form that’s used when a letter comes in between two other (connecting) letters. It has a connecting stroke on either side, or just on the right side if it is non-connecting.

Final: This is the form that’s used when a letter comes at the end of a word. It only has a connecting stroke on the right.

Connecting and Non-Connecting Letters

Let’s first look at an example of a connecting letter. Here are the four forms of baa', which is pronounced like the first sound in Baghdad. Notice where the connecting tail is on the initial, medial, and final forms, and that there is no connecting stroke on the independent form, which makes sense because it’s only used in isolation, when there’s nothing to connect it to.

Independent
Initial
Medial ـﺒ
Final ـﺐ

Now take a look at an example of a non-connecting letter, daal, as in Dubai. Logically, because it doesn’t connect to letters that come after it, its independent and initial forms are identical, as are its medial and final forms. Only the medial and final forms connect to the letter that comes before.

Independent
Initial
Medial ـﺪ
Final ـﺪ

We’ll break the Arabic alphabet down into small pieces, so you’ll learn how to read gradually. As we focus on each letter, you’ll learn whether it’s a connecting or a non-connecting letter. But let’s start with a quick reading exercise. Scan the following words and see if you can identify the non-connecting letters, setting aside the final ones for now. Don’t worry if you can’t read the words yet; the point is simply to try to pick out which letters connect, and which ones don’t.

1. باب

2. دار

3. نور

4. ثوم

5. دين

Answers

1. baab; door, non-connecting letter is ا
2. daar; house, non-connecting letters are د and ا
3. nuur; light, non-connecting letter is و
4. thuum; garlic, non-connecting letter is و
5. diin; religion, nonconnecting letter is د

Note: The letter ر in numbers 2 and 3 is actually also a non-connector, but since it’s at the end of the word, you wouldn’t know that from these examples alone.