Praise & Disparagement
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Semitic languages are written from right to left. Ancient Mesopotamians wrote on stones with chisels, and since that most inscribers were right-handed, it was easier and more natural to them to write from right to left (I think it still makes more sense today to write from right to left!).
The Arabic script, which is derived from that of Aramaic, is based on 18 distinct shapes. Using a combination of dots above and below 8 of these shapes, the full complement of 28 characters can be fully spelled out.
Those 28 Arabic letters are all consonants.
In the table below:
*Note: This figure ( '< ) means a still consonant letter 'alif '. Stillness means that the' sound is not followed by any vowel. Thus, it has an almost zero duration and does not leave the throat. Look in the pronunciation section for more information.
The 28 Arabic letters are all consonants.
However, there are vowels in Arabic of course. There are six vowels; three short vowels and three long ones. Only the three long vowels are written using the alphabet. The three short vowels have special marks which denote them.
The long vowels are letters
but the short vowels are not letters.
Because of this, those letters are called "weak
letters;" we are going to talk about this in the vowels section.
أ ب ج د هـ و ز ح ط ي ك ل م ن ث ع ف ص ق ر ش ت
This common ordering is a hint to the fact that all those alphabets have a common distant ancestor.
In Arabic, as in any language, proper pronunciation is best learned by imitating a native speaker. What follows here is meant to give only a general idea of how the letters sound. By carefully following the instructions here, you can arrive at a good enough first approximation to serve until you are able to listen to Arabs.
Except for the ones discussed below, the consonants are pronounced pretty much as they are in English.
Consonant 'alif ء (hamza(t))
The letter 'alif has two forms: a form that denotes a long vowel ا , and one that denotes a consonant ء . The consonant form ء is called hamza(t) .
Phonetically, the hamza(t) is a "glottal stop". It sounds like a little "catch" in the voice. Although there is no letter representing this sound in English, the sound actually does exist.
It is the catch that occurs between vowels in the exclamation "oh - oh," (as though you're in trouble), or the separation of syllables the second of which begins with a vowel, as in the sequence "an aim" as opposed to "a name," or in "grade A" as opposed to "gray day." You should notice that little catch in the voice at the beginning of each syllable. If you did it properly and forcefully, that little catch in your voice between the two syllables is a perfect hamza(t).
In Arabic, the glottal stop is a full-fledged consonant and can appear in the strangest places: at the end of a word for example.
The traditional way to transcribe the hamza(t) in Roman characters is as an apostrophe'.
However this symbolism may lead some people to ignore it, which is a problem when the letter is not followed by a vowel. I am going to use this novel symbolism : '< for the hamza(t) that is not followed by any vowel; even if it looks funny, it is clearer.
(You may click on the Arabic letter to hear its sound)
Although there is no exact equivalent of them in English, they are not all that difficult to pronounce: it just takes a bit of practice.
The best way to do it is to start with their "unemphatic" equivalents.
For example, pronounce ص s as س S.
Now try to make the same sound, but as if your mouth was full of cotton wool, so that you have to say S with your tongue drawn back. Make the sound more forcefully and shorter in duration than a normal S. The back of your tongue should be raised up toward the soft palate, and the sound produced should have a sort of "dark" quality.
This is the letter Saad ص s .
There is a similar relationship between the following pairs:
ض d and د d
ط t and ت t
ظ z and ذ th
Kh خ (khaa'<)
The letter Khaa'< is a voiceless velar fricative. It sounds like the ch in the Scottish loch or like the ch in the German nacht, but it is slightly more guttural than its Scottish or German counterparts.
Whatever you do, don't pronounce it as an H or a K. It is, better to exaggerate rather than underemphasize the guttural aspect.
R غ (rayn)
This is the the sound of the Parisian R, in French. Or, if you like, the sound you make when gargling.
The common Romanization for this letter is "gh"; but I am going to go here with r .
This sound usually gives European speakers a hard time. It sounds a bit like K, but it is pronounced very far back in the throat.
When you say the letter K, you touch the roof of your mouth with more or less the middle of your tongue. When you say a qaaf, you touch the very back of your tongue to the soft palate in the back of your mouth.
Most Europeans trying to learn Arabic have a lot of trouble doing this, and pronounce qaaf as if it were kaaf ك . Arabs tend to be fairly tolerant of this mistake, and there are not very many words in which the difference between qaaf and kaaf determines a different meaning. Still, it's worth making the effort.
" ع ("ayn)
This is a unique sound that only exist in Semitic languages. It is usually very hard for Europeans to make. Unfortunately, it is a very common letter so it must be mastered.
However, learners of Arabic can make this sound pretty well after practicing for some time. The best way to learn it is to listen to Arabs and to practice incessantly.
This letter is a pharyngeal voiced fricative. That means that the sound is made by constricting the muscles of the larynx so that the flow of air through the throat is partially choked off. One eminent Arabist once suggested that the best way to pronounce this letter is to gag. Do it, and you'll feel the muscles of your throat constrict the passage of air in just the right way.
The sound is voiced, which means that your vocal cords vibrate when making it. It sounds like the bleating of a lamb, but smoother.
Russell McGuirk described this sound in his "A Colloquial Arabic of Egypt" saying " if you sound like you are being strangled you will have mastered the 'voiced pharyngeal fricative." He also says to try to swallow the sound "ah".
An American learner of Arabic explained his technique as follows:
Reduce your air flow by putting pressure on your throat with your hand, or, in essence, choking yourself. Start by saying the sound 'ah' as in father and then hold your open hand out in front of your face with the palm facing the floor -- in other words parallel with the floor. You will be looking at the profile of your index finger and your thumb. Now, while saying the sound 'ah' slowly move your hand towards your throat, above the Adam's Apple or below where the chin meets the neck. When your hand reaches your throat keep pushing (slowly) until it sounds like you think it should. I looked at my profile in the mirror while doing this to try to judge how far I push my hand into my throat, but it is difficult to tell -- maybe anywhere from a half inch to an inch.
Anyway, this is a good exercise just to get you familiar with producing the sound, the muscles that produce it, and what they need to do to produce it. Eventually, with enough practice, one should be able to produce the sound without choking him/herself.
H ح (haa'<)
Strictly speaking, haa'< is an unvoiced version of "ayn. In other words, it is made just like the "ayn, except that when you say "ayn your vocal cords vibrate, but when you say haa'< they don't. (In English, for instance, t and d are exactly the same, except that t is unvoiced and d is voiced: your vocal cords vibrate when you say d, but not when you say t.)
Don't worry too much if you can't get qaaf, "ayn, and haa'< right away. Quite a few learned people have struggled for decades with them.
As a first approximation, you can pronounce qaaf like kaaf, "ayn like hamza(t), and haa'< like haa'< (like an English h). But this should be only a temporary measure, more or less equivalent to the Arab who says "blease" instead of "please"' (as you will have noticed, there is no letter P in Arabic).