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. Continue reading