- Lisa Lumina
Introduction to the Arabic Alphabet: part 2, the vowels
Updated: Mar 20, 2022
OK! Now that we have a basic sense of how the writing goes,
let's figure out those vowels. Why do you sometimes see this woman's name written as Om Kalthoom, Um Kaltoom, Om Kalthum, etc? Or, why can no one can seem to agree on the spelling of baladi/beledi? Lets explore.
There are 3 vowels in Arabic: Alif, UU and II and they look like these. Notice that the Alif and the UU do not like to connect to the next letter in a word.
The pronunciation of these will vary from region to region, which accounts for some of the differences in transliteration. When searching for a word that is spelled in Arabic with an alif (ا ) you can try searching with an A or with and E. If you're searching for a word spelled with an UU (و ) you can try O or U. For words with an ii (ي ), try both I and E.
In Arabic, short and long vowel refers to the length of time, not necessarily a change in the sound of the letter. Here's where it gets tricky. In native Arabic words, vowels are usually only written out if there is a long vowel. For example, the neighborhood I used to live in, Westcott, if it were a native Arabic word, would be written wstcot (double consonants are also not written out). Foreign words are spelled out with all the vowels as if they were long, since one couldn't just look at the word and recognize it. Short vowels are written in certain cases: if it's a legal
document or a religious text where they want zero ambiguity about the meaning, or a new vocabulary word being introduced to students. In these cases the symbols on the top left of that chart in the last post are used: the Fatta (short A sound), Damma (short U sound), and Kasra (short I sound). In the photo they are shown in relation to the letter Baa (ب ).
What does this mean for dancers reading, writing, and searching for Arabic words? The word Beled, meaning "country", as in "beledi dress" or "beledi progression" is written as بلدي that is bldi and the vowels are inferred from context. If we were to write them out for a vocabulary text, they would use the fatta, meaning the sound of a short Alif: بَلَدي. This is why, following the guide above, you can search "baladi" or "beledi" and come up with many results for both.
Lastly, the Taa Marbutta! This is a letter that generally comes at the end of a word, and makes an "ah" sound in Egyptian Arabic, and (usually) and "ih" sound in Levantine. You see it in words like حفلة (dance party) and my former stage name فرحة (joy/Joy). It usually indicates a feminine noun, and it's variation in pronunciation is why you will hear Egyptians invite you to a "hafla" while Lebanese and Palestinians will invite you to the "hafli".
Lastly, I should mention that the long vowels II and UU, if they are next to another vowel OR if they are at the start of a word, change their sounds to Y and W, respectively. So a word like شوية "Shwayya" (a little bit) might be spelled in English "shuwaya" or "shwayya" "shwaeea" etc. When you hear a word that starts with one of these sounds, like "olooloo" (tell him) or "Ibrahim" the sound is a short vowel riding on an Alif at the start of the word. This is a spelling thing, and doesn't usually affect transliteration too much, since the sound its self is pretty clear.
Next post, we'll talk about consonants, and those sounds that the Arabic language uses but we don't have equivalents for in English. You'll find out why some words are spelled with numbers!