Notes on Arabic pronunciation and transliteration

The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters plus a handful of sounds represented by non-alphabetic characters (including short vowels, which are written as accents and, once you get past first-year Arabic and certainly into literature, are usually omitted altogether). It is written right-to-left (though numbers appear to us to be written left-to-right because in Arabic you read the smallest unit first and the largest unit last, like “six-and-thirty” instead of “thirty-six”). All letters connect at least to the preceding letter (on the right), and most connect on both sides. Each letter has multiple written forms depending on where it falls in the word (e.g., the way the “ba” character is written at the beginning of the word differs from how it is written in the middle of the word and both differ from how it is written at the end of the word). Rather than show all the forms of each letter, which out of context strikes me as useless and confusing, I only show the solitary form below. It will become clear what the other forms are as we proceed through the vocabulary. After the break, a table listing the Arabic letter, its name in plain Latin characters, an undoubtedly feeble attempt to describe its pronunciation, and the character(s) typically used to transliterate that sound into Latin script.

Letter “Name” Pronunciation Transliteration
ا “alif” “a” as in “bat,” but elongated if in middle/at end of word (not elongated if at beginning of word); may be long vowel a, ā
ب “ba” “b” as in “boy” b
ت “ta” “t” as in “tap” t
ث “tha” unvoiced “th” as in “three” th
ج “jeem” “j” as in “jump” (Egyptian colloquial: hard “g” as in “grab”) j
ح “haa” similar to an English “h” but very pronounced and very raspy
خ “kha” sounds like the German “ch” in “ich” or the “kh” in “shaykh” (this latter example is technically cheating since it is an Arabic word) kh
د “dal” “d” as in “day” d
ذ “dhal” voiced “th” as in “that” dh
ر “ra” “r” as in “run” r
ز “za” “z” as in “zebra” z
س “seen” “s” as in, er, “seen” s
ش “sheen” “sh” as in, um, “sheen” sh
ص “saad” “emphatic” or “pharyngealized” (said with a constricted pharynx or epiglottis) “s”
ض “daad” “emphatic” or “pharyngealized” “d”
ط “taa” “emphatic” or “pharyngealized” “t”
ظ “zaa” “emphatic” or “pharyngealized” “dh” or “z” (pronunciation varies)
ع “ayn” the most unusual sound in the Arabic alphabet for an English speaker; like “a” in “tab” but as if you were choking (see note) ʿ, ‘
غ “ghayn” classically pronounced like “r” in French or German, but regionally may sound like a soft “g” as in the Greek “gyro” or like a hard English “g” (particularly when used in loanwords) gh
ف “fa” “f” as in “far” f
ق “qaf” regional pronunciation varies from hard “g” to “k,” but classically really sounds like a “q” if you can separate the “q” sound from the “u” that always follows in in English, or like the “q” in the French “quatre” q
ك “kaf” “k” as in “king” k
ل “lam” “l” as in “lamb” l
م “meem” “m” as in “mark” m
ن “noon” “n” as in, well, “noon” n
ه “ha”/“he” “h” as in “has” h
و “waw” “w” as in “way” or “u”/“oo” as in “pool” or “rune”; may be long vowel u, ū, w
ي “ya” “y” as in “yellow” or long “e”/“i” as in “me”; may be long vowel i, ī, y

Non-Alphabetic Characters

َ “fatha” (fat-ha) short vowel “a” as in “bat” a
ِ “kasra” short vowel “i” as in “bit” i
ُ “damma” short vowel “u” as in “put” u
ّ “shadda” signifies a doubling/lengthening of the consonant on which it sits doubled consonant
ْ “sukoon” signifies the absence of any short vowel, very rarely used and will be very rarely used here N/A
ة “ta marbuta” feminine marker found only at end of word, adds an “-a” sound -a, -ah, -at
ى “alif maqsura” identical to “long a” alif, alternate form sometimes found at end of word
ء “hamza” glottal stop, like the short break in the middle of “uh-oh”; usually attached to a “seat” in the form of one of the long vowel characters, like ئ ؤ أ, in which case it turns the long vowel it’s sitting on into a short vowel with a stop ʾ, ’

There are other characters and forms that we may encounter as we proceed, but we’ll deal with them as they arise.

NOTE ON THE ʿAYN: (the Unicode “modifier letter left half ring” if you’re interested in reproducing it, although a single open quote makes an acceptable substitute) represents the letter “ayn” (or ع in Arabic script), which has no cognate in English. In fact it’s basically impossible to describe how to reproduce this sound in English, at least for me. Wikipedia describes it as a “voiced pharyngeal fricative,” by which I assume that reading the phrase “voiced pharyngeal fricative” causes most readers to audibly make the sound in question. Colloquial pronunciations may vary, but for the MSA version it’s essentially like making the “a” sound in “mad” or “tab” while lightly choking yourself. For people familiar with the “glottal stop” imagine making one but continuing to push a sound out through it while simultaneously resisting making the sound. Basically you have to hear it to understand it.

The definite article should be mentioned here as it plays a role in pronunciation. To add the definite article “the” to any word, one adds “al-” (ال) before the word. For example, “a book” is kitāb (کِتاب) and “the book” is al-kitāb (الکِتاب). Certain letters that don’t sound so nice with an “l” sound before them cause the “l” in “al-” to assimilate into them, so instead of the initial “l” sound you get a doubling of the first consonant of the word. These are called “sun letters” or ḥurūf shamsīyah (حُروف شَمْسيّة) and they are: ن ل ظ ط ض ص ش س ز ر ذ د ث ت, so for example “the sun” (الشَمْس) is generally transliterated al-shams but is pronounced ash-shams (and some may transliterate it this way as well). Note that the addition of the “-ī”/ي or “-īyah”/ية is a commonly used adjectival form (here, changing al-shams to al-shamsīyah changes the noun to an adjective). The letters that do not force the definite article’s “l” sound to assimilate are, you guessed it, called “moon letters” or ḥurūf qamarīyah (حُروف قَمَرية), and these are ي و ه م ك ق ف غ ع خ ح ج ب ا, so “the moon” (القَمَر) is both transliterated and pronounced as al-qamar.

Finally, one last language note that I should have mentioned in my first post. Arabic has, over time, as all languages do to one degree or another, evolved a number of regional dialects that serve as the actual spoken tongues of the Arab world. Much, though not all, of written Arabic, as well as the spoken Arabic you’ll encounter from pan-Arab outlets like Al-Jazeera, takes the form of what we call Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which at least in principle claims to retain a standardized Arabic as has existed throughout the language’s history. While more formal than the dialects, MSA is also less useful for the speaker since so much of spoken Arabic is done in dialect. Some of these regional dialects, due to isolation from other centers of Arabic and/or contact with other tongues like Tamazight, Coptic, Persian, Turkish, French, etc., may take on pronunciations, idiomatic expressions, and even vocabulary that are vastly different from one another and vastly different from MSA; when speakers of two different dialects interact with one another, they will often switch between dialect and MSA in order to get their meaning across. Left to their own devices, in a world without significant amounts of interaction between regions or dialects, and without pan-regional sources of language like, again, al-Jazeera, some of these dialects, given enough time, might eventually evolve into literary tongues in their own right, as the Romance languages evolved from Latin in the absence of the overarching Roman Empire to prop up the mother tongue. In our modern society, such an outcome is unlikely at best. I am decidedly not fluent in the dialects, having virtually all of my experience with the language from classroom study. Fortunately, since I’m only dealing with vocabulary here and not purporting to instruct anyone in how to speak the language (in MSA or any other form), this is not a major problem for our purposes. The roots are still the core of the vocabulary regardless of dialect, and knowing them will help anybody who wants to go on and learn more about the language, regardless of whether they want to learn the literary form or the spoken dialects (or both).

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One thought on “Notes on Arabic pronunciation and transliteration

  1. It’s often said that the glottal stop is essentially the sound in between the two syllables of the English interjection “Uh-oh!” English speakers aren’t trained to hear it as a discrete sound, but it’s there nevertheless. I personally find this to be a useful way of thinking about it, although it might be more confusing than it’s worth for some English speakers. Then again, most English speakers don’t realize there are two different “l” sounds in the word “little” either. We’re not trained to detect that.

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