September 2, 2009 | Arabic

Written Arabic: Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No.

Arabic looks nearly impossible, but it's not.

One thing I did not know about Arabic before starting this project, that I feel I should have known, is that vowels are not written. Oh my god! Instead, you have long strings of consonants. If vowels are indicated, which is not the norm, it is by means of dots and other marks over and under the surrounding consonants.

Another thing I didn’t know: depending on where a given Arabic letter falls in a word, you may have to write a different version of it. Arabic letters have isolated forms, for when they are standing on their own, but can also have initial, medial, and final forms depending on whether they appear at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Wikipedia has an Arabic alphabet table (just scroll partway down the page and you’ll see it). I am going to have to do a lot of practicing.

Clockwise from upper left: restaurant, house, door, bridge, desert, river

Arabic is written right to left. I thought that would be really hard to get used to, but it’s actually not bad! And it’s pretty. At left are a few flashcards from the book Your First 100 Words in Arabic, published by Passport Books.

One gripe: the Nicholas Awde/Putros Samano alphabet book I mentioned yesterday (book excerpts are available online) has way too much religion in it. I am currently practicing writing words like “minister,” pronounced waziir, and “religion,” pronounced diin.

This is a category of word I do not use much in writing and speech; I’d prefer to spend more of my time on vocabulary relating to books, or maybe food.

In spite of these obstacles, things are going surprisingly well. I had no idea I’d be able to grasp some of the basic principles of writing Arabic so quickly. From a distance, it seemed impossible. But that’s a stupid American attitude.

Comments (4)

James • Posted on Wed, February 09, 2011 - 5:56 pm EST

وزير, or Waziir, actually means minister in the sense of a Minister of Defense or Secretary of state. It doesn’t have anything to do with religion. It’s also important to note how important religion is to common expressions, and how religion occupies an important part of public debate. I doubt that the book included too many religious words, but it might have introduced them out of proportion at the beginning.

However, know that many people study Arabic only to come closer to the language of the Quran, and the other purposes fall by the wayside. It is likely that the writers had considered some of the needs of this audience as well.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, February 09, 2011 - 6:10 pm EST

Thank you, James. I really appreciate this very helpful and informative comment.

Olly Richards • Posted on Fri, July 12, 2013 - 6:26 pm EST

I’ve also been struck by how many people around me are learning Arabic for the sole purpose of being able to read the Quran. It was interesting to discover this because my first priority in learning a language is always speaking, but when I suggested to my classmates that we get together to practice our speaking I was met with a distinct sense of apathy! It’s been a reminder for me to always pay attention to the sociocultural context of what and where I’m learning.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, July 13, 2013 - 12:32 pm EST

Interesting, Olly! Thank you for posting this.

Cultural context definitely matters. Over the past four years, all kinds of reasons have contributed to how hard or easy it has been for me to find people to practice different languages with.

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