Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Squiggles, Snails, and Tadpoles: The Arabic Alphabet

Following on from the previous post on a Revert's Relationship with Arabic, here are some reflections on learning the Arabic Alphabet...

This image pretty much sums up my initial feelings towards Arabic; the letters felt like strange squiggles slipping through my fingersAlthough the Arabic alphabet is worlds apart from the Latin one I’m used to, I've begun to find comfort in the logic of Arabic. Once you know the sounds of the alphabet you can read basically anything. You’ll have no idea what it means of course but you can at least sound it out. This is in stark contrast to English as anyone who’s ever attempted to teach English to young children will be aware of the oddity of English pronunciation

You only need to look at words like ‘tough’ or ‘knight’ or have a quick glance at the photo above to see  that English spelling is more like a graveyard, haunted by the ghosts of dearly departed sounds and letters. We don't acknowledge their existence but there they are cryogenically frozen inside a language that’s simply moved on without them!

After studying the way Arabic is written, it came as no surprise that Arabic is the language which gave rise to algebra and geometry. The Arabic script is designed for the letters to flow together depending on whether they’re at the beginning, middle or end (where it ends with a flourish) unlike a lot of English handwriting where the letters seem to be allergic to one another!  Take the letter Mim for example (above), the equivalent of the English ‘m,’ which has three forms when written: at the beginning, middle and end.  

You can see this using the example of ‘Ta’ which looks like a smiley face. One of my favourite new words in Arabic is ‘tut,’ pronounced ‘toot,’ which means strawberry (below). I like it because it looks like a snail wearing a squiggly cap. It’s a good example of how letters change depending on where they are in the word. Although the sound of both T’s is identical, the‘t’ at the beginning of the word looks completely different to the‘t’ at the end. 

Although I may have only learned several letters and have a long way to go to complete the alphabet, it's been incredibly satisfying to have been able to read several words on the Tunisian date boxes in the cupboard and even recognize the handy word 'halal!' 


Have you started to learn a new language? 
Have you ever tackled the Arabic alphabet? 

Link of the Day:

Today's link is 
Learn Arabic with Maha, an Israeli Palestinian living in Italy. I began watching her videos two years ago as a way of improving my Italian and now I'm going through her English videos to learn Arabic properly. She also teaches Hebrew and Italian; and speaks several other languages too. Here are some of her lovely videos including several on culture and food as well as Arabic itself. Enjoy! 

Arabic Beginner Lesson #1: My Name Is... 
5 reasons that will make you fall in love with Arabic

How to Make Falafel


  1. Oh very handy article sis. Thanks for sharing!


  2. I love Arabic. I just wrote about. It is an amazing language. Its difficulty denotes its deepness. I need to learn it, and that's what I am doing.
    Have a nice day :)

    1. Thank you for your comment - I like your point about the difficulty of Arabic revealing its depth. Do you have a link to your post by any chance?

  3. Amazing post!

  4. So in answer to whether we've tried learning new languages, the answer is yes! Loads of them! I wrote about that here - http://elisabethstrout.blogspot.com/2011/09/shocking-obsession.html - if you're interested in my geeky obsession with languages :)

    As for learning the Arabic alphabet specifically, as I mentioned in my other comment, I started before I ever knew I would become Muslim. I'd learned or studied many new alphabets before Arabic, principally Greek and Russian, so getting my mind around new characters wasn't too tough, nor was reading from right to left, as the little handbook I purchased made a point of opening from right to left and emphasizing that aspect of the language. Basically on a 4-hour road trip with the family one day, I took a sheet of paper and copied out the letters over and over, and practiced making English words with them, until they were all in my head, and that was that. From that day on, I used only Arabic script in all my daily note-taking and journaling, sounding out English or French words with the Arabic letters, so that writing quickly became second nature (I used this method previously with the Greek alphabet, and it works really well!). As for learning to pronounced the new Arabic sounds, I went to see an Iraqi neighbor once, listened to her pronunciation, and then went home and sat for hours on the stairs repeating the same sounds, 'qaaf', 'saad', 'daad', etc. till my throat hurt. And until I could pronounce them. That method also works, but make sure you have lots of tea and honey ready :D

    1. I think copying things down is the way forward in Arabic - otherwise I'd never remember anything! You're right about the honey and lemon!

      Thank you for your link : )

  5. Don't even get me started! I love the Arabic language, but WOW it's hard! As a native English speaker, I find English to be very easy haha. And I agree that Arabic would be easy to read - if they actually put the vowels in the words, but they don't! Here are my top ten reasons why Arabic is hard! Re-posted from http://www.whatwouldkatrinado.blogspot.com/2010/10/top-ten-reasons-why-arabic-language-is.html

    1) There are twelve pronouns: I, you (singular male), you (singular female), he, she, we, they (male),
    they (female), you two (male), you two (female), they two (male) and they two (female) - I'm not kidding!

    2) Every verb, adjective, and direct object must be conjugated to agree with one of these twelve.

    3) The plural of most nouns is a completely different word. You have to guess when this applies.

    4) There is no relation to English - ever - thus, a creative mnemonic device is always required (this part can actually be quite fun).

    5) Every letter in Arabic script changes depending upon whether it's at the beginning, middle or end of the word - and the letters all pretty much look the same anyway (picture a cursive, lower-case "w" with some dots around it).

    6) Vowels are left out of Arabic script completely.

    7) Arabic dialects are so different from one another that Arabs do not always undersand other Arabs.

    8) Egyptian Arabic truncates approximately half of every word and always omits certain letters.

    9) There are three H sounds, two S sounds, two D sounds, two T sounds, three TH sounds, two K sounds and Arabs seem to know the differences between them.

    10) My personal favorite: the xayn sound: This is what my Arabic book says about it (verbatim): "You use the necessary muscles when you gag, and if you put your fingers on your throat and make yourself gag slightly, you'll feel the muscles you'll need to pronounce xayn." Note: this letter is in almost every word!

    I had to draw the line there! But I think my Arabic is getting better. I hope that one day I can talk to my mother-in-law without an interpreter :)

    Elisabeth - I love your method of writing English words phonetically in Arabic script to get used to the script. I'm going to steal that idea! And yes, my throat hurts after practicing for a while.

    1. Thanks for your post and comment - it made me chuckle!

      I find the Eyn sound a challenge too! and it's inescapable! one day... one day... I'll get it without making myself feel ill : )


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