The Arabic “Alphabet”

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

What is an Abjad?

Arabic through Abjad

It all starts with the abjad – not the alphabet – and learning a new way of thinking about reading and writing based on patterns of consonants.

An abjad is a writing system comprised of consonants. The vowels can be marked in writing, but are usually not. Arabic and Hebrew are the most common examples of languages that use abjads.

An abjad is defined as a writing system in which consonants are marked primarily and vowels only secondarily

If English were written with an abjad, it would look like this: wht wrds cn y rcgnz? You can probably recognize most of the words here. If you were to learn English this way, though, it would be a lot more difficult.

Arabic abjad consists of 28 canonical letters, three of which represent long vowels (ا alif, و waw, and ي yeh). The second two of these can function consonantally as [w] and [j] respectively. Apart from these three, no vowels are normally marked in modern writing. In the Quran, however, vowels are supplied by the addition of diacritics above and below the letters of the abjad. This is called tashkīl. The addition of vowel diacritics is called harakāt, and forms a portion of tashkīl. Without such diacritics, it’s very difficult for the learner to tell how a word should be pronounced without already knowing its pronunciation.

What does this mean for learning Arabic? Well, two things:

  1. The writing system and vocabulary must be learned in conjunction with sound

  2. Understanding morphology will crack open the language for you.

On the first point, the best way to learn to read and write is practice reading words in conjunction with their pronunciation. Reading is otherwise almost impossible at first. This is one of the reasons we pair text and audio carefully

When taught correctly and pay attention to it, you willbegin to recognize more words and their correct pronunciations, you will begin to develop a sense for the shapes and mutations of Arabic words. The entire Arabic language is based on consonantal root clusters — usually 3 consonants grouped together — that carry a particular sphere of meaning. Changing the vowels and adding other letters according to regular patterns changes that root into various types of verbs, nouns, adjectives,

The most common example is the verb to write: ﻛﺘﺐ. This verb consists of three consonants [k], [t], and [b]. It can be mutated in the following ways:

  • ﻛﺘﺐ – kataba – to write

  • ﻛﺘﺎب – kitāb – book

  • ﻛﺘﺐ – kutub – books

  • ﻣﻜﺘﺐ – maktab – office

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