There are many common mistakes made in English, like the confusion between there, their and they’re. All three words are pronounced the same, but are very different in spelling and meaning. In spite of that, when someone writes the wrong “there” from this set it doesn’t usually get in the way of understanding.
Like that, many errors in spelling or pronunciation are the easy to overlook and don’t get in the way of communication—but some can still be fatal.
In Arabic, a lot of errors are prevented because of the precision and consistency in the language. The spelling of the word accurately reflects how to pronounce it, and how a word sounds is exactly how it is spelt.1
Arabic only has three vowel2 sounds, each with a long or short version, totalling six vowels:
|u as in book||ū as in boo|
|a as in cat||ā as in calm|
|i as in fit||ī as in feet|
(From the examples above we can see how poorly many English words express their pronounciation… boo involves a long ū sound, but adding a k to it shortens that sound into u!)
Back to Arabic: having just three vowels in two lengths each makes things really simple, and allows for many shortcuts while writing. The biggest shortcut is not writing any short vowels! Short vowels are small, optional diacritical marks placed above or below each letter.
They are usually omitted because it’s easy to read words and sentences only based on consonants and long vowels. (With many exceptions for when clarity is needed, or in writing for beginners of course.) A quick example in English:
Given the consonant letters tnk there is only word possible: tank. No other word can be made from these consonants by adding short vowels. So if the whole world started spelling “tank” as “tnk”, people would save time while keeping things clear.
Looking at another example:
What could this word be? It can’t be anything like bnak, bink, or benk—there are only two possiblities, bank and bunk. That one letter makes a big difference in meaning, so writing the the short vowel becomes important here.3
But this issue doesn’t up much in Arabic—explaining the details of one language using examples from another brings up issues like this. Languages have fundamental differences that cannot be translated. In this case, Arabic words are made using a root letter system of consonants, reducing the impact of short vowels on meaning and preventing issues like the above. (A topic for another day!)
Altogether, while Arabic has few vowels it is rich in consonants:
Arabic has many challenging consonant sounds. But each letter of the alphabet has precise rules and guidelines for pronunciation. Practice and time can help non-natives adjust and pronounce these letters with great confidence and ease.
After learning all that, it is smooth sailing. This is the opposite of English, where just learning the alphabet is not enough to pronounce every word. Learners must focus on many unique consonant sounds produced by combining different letters!
For example, the letter h in English is often combined with another to create a totally different sound, like the letter pairs sh, th, and many others.
In contrast, Arabic has separate letters for each of s ( س ), h ( ه ) and sh ( ش ). Every consonant sound is represented by its own letter, highlighting the exact sounds used by the language. No standard sounds are hidden behind letter combinations.
But that doesn’t mean Arabic letters are easy to learn! Arabic has many consonant sounds that don’t exist in most other languages and so need a lot of practice.
And on the other hand, Arabic doesn’t have some consonant sounds that are popular in other languages, like v or p. This creates unique Arabic ways to pronounce popular, foreign names: Bakistan, Bebsi, and many more.
This article is part of the Welcome to Arabic series, exploring Arabic with fresh eyes.
Though when reading the Quran, there are more rules than usual for pronouncing some letters when they appear in certain situations—all this is part of the science of tajwīd. ↩︎
A quick reminder before we proceed:
- Vowels are sounds that are made with keeping all parts of your vocal system open and lettering air flow, like the letters a, e, i, o and u.
- Consonants are sounds that are made by blocking air flow in the vocal system, including the letters b, f, k and many more.
Though context would almost always clarify what is meant by “bnk” in any given sentence. People don’t sleep in a bank, or open an account at a bunk.
It would be most efficient to always write bnk to represent either word, writing the missing short vowel only in the rare situation where context is not enough to clarify. ↩︎