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Arabic is a Semitic language, related to ancient Cana'anite, Aramaic and Nabatean. Arabic script evolved from Nabatean and/or Syriac writing about 300 AD. Earlier inscriptions were written in Nabatean or Aramaic.  Written Arabic was spread through the Qu'ran. Literary Arabic remained bound to the Quran, but the colloquial language changed a bit over time, and developed different dialects and pronunciations in different countries. Variations are most common in pronunciation of vowels.

Arabic Alphabet

The Arabic alphabet has 28 consonant letters. Arabic is written from right to left. Long vowel sounds are written explicitly using diacritic marks to modify the alif, while others are usually inferred.  The chart below gives the entire alphabet. The Arabic alphabet is complex. Letters change their form depending on whether they are at the beginning, middle or end of a word, and are modified by marks indicating vowel sounds as well  as the hamza, a glotteal stop sign, the shadda, which indicates doubling of the letters, and the suqqun, which indicates that no vowel is to be sounded.

Arabic has three vowels, long and short: i, u and a. There is no o.

Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions

'Ha - ('h) -a guttural sound made deep in the throat.  To Western ears it may sound like an h, or like the "ch" in loch, but it is easily distinguishable by speakers of Semitic languages from the Kh, which is closer to the ch in Loch. In transliteration using the standard alphabet, it is written 'h.  Examples: 'hamas, 'hezbulla. 

Ayn -  ('a) - This letter is pronounced from deep in the throat. It is like an "ah" with the extreme back of the tongue held up against the roof of the mouth. It is written as 'a .

Gayn - (gh) - This letter is an ''ayn that is pronounced so deeply that is is sounded as a very deep rolled "r." It is not pronounced as "G." It is usually written as gh. In English spelling of some place names,  the Gayn has been anglicized to "G' as in Gaza.

U -  "ou" but not quite as long as ou in "soup." About like oo in "woops" but longer than "look." 

A- sounded about like a in and in standard English.

R- close to the French or Eastern European r.

Dha (tha, th, dh) - Pronounced approximately as "th" in "this," sometimes  "z" in vernacular; written as th or dh.

Tha - (tha ) - Pronounced and written as th (soft as in "with").

Qaf- (qaf, q) - In transliteration, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the qaf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Qassam is preferable to Kassam for example. It is not necessary to add a "u" after the q, because Semitic languages, unlike English, do not necessarily have a "u" sound after the q. Words with different spelling such as nakba and naqba have different meanings. The Palestinian "catastrophe" of 1948 must always be written as "nakba."

Arabic alphabet and phonetic transliteration standards


Synonyms and alternate spellings: 

Further Information: See: Hebrew

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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