• Lisa Lumina

Introduction to the Arabic Alphabet: part 1, intro to reading

You might be thinking to yourself that you're never going to learn Arabic, so why learn the letters? Or maybe you want to learn the language but find the prospect of putting sounds into new shapes is too daunting. Knowing the basics is very helpful for bellydancers. First, it makes remembering song titles, dance styles, rhythm names, and names of famous composers and dancers MUCH easier when you can pronounce them. Second, you'll be able to make sense of why one word can be spelled so many different ways. It turns out that it's not arbitrary (well, usually. It depends on who is writing) there are simply a variety of solutions for transliterating phonemes we don't have in English from Arabic.


That's right, the Arabic language has sounds we simply don't use in English. I lived in Japan for a time and in Japanese the letters R and L do not exist, instead they are the same sound. This makes it hard for native Japanese speakers to hear the difference between words like "lake" and "rake" even though it is perfectly clear to someone who grew up listening to English. I'm telling you this so you can get an idea of what it's like to be on both ends of this phenomenon. New Arabic students will sometimes say things like "there are 4 different 'H'es!" Well..... there are 4 totally different letters that all sound like an H to English speakers, in the same way R and L sound the same to many Japanese speakers. Let's have a look at the Arabic alphabet and break down the relevant stuff. This is the Arabic alphabet:

Don't panic! This is a chart I made myself when learning to write, I put it in the bathroom so I could study while I was brushing my teeth. it's not as scary as it looks! Let's ignore the column on the left for now. Each row is one letter, it changes shape depending on where in the word it is. It's exactly like cursive in English. Some letters are very recognizable no matter where in the word they fall, for example: the emphatic Taa, as in طيب (wholesome/good food) or تحطيب (taHTeeb)

Some letters change quite a bit depending on where they are in the word, none more than ha as in هو (he) or قهوة (coffee).

Some letters also change a bit depending on if they are hand written or typed. Like when ha is in the middle of a word (look at the leafy shape in coffee, above, vs the low v shape on the handwritten chart) or any of the letters that have multiple dots, for example taa ت, the two dots in handwriting become a line

Or the 3 dots in Shiin ش becomes an arrow

You'll notice some of the letters in the large chart are in orange. That is because those letters don't like to connect to the next letter. There will be a small space and the next letter will pick up as if it were the first letter in the word. A larger space is used between words so you can tell what's what.


Next post, we'll get into the vowels, and why حبيبي can be spelled habeebee, habibi, hubibi, and more ways, and they're all correct!

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