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Smiles and Wows of Arabic

Week 17, Episode 33

Different kinds of squiggles, dots here, little dashes there — when you first look at it, Arabic text does not seem word-y at all, more like a thing you do trying out a new pen or, maybe, like hieroglyphs. And it gets even harder on the internet because the letters are so close to each other and the additional signs are so tiny that I wonder how even those who know the language can actually figure out what is written. 

I mean, really: .يعمل جدّي في التجارة. (My grandfather works in trade) Don't you wish for a magnifying glass to take a better look so you can distinguish letters there? But this is a great thing about languages: you have to deter yourself from judging every one of them from an angel of the habit you've developed for your native language. Arabic is no English (or Russian, or Italian, or even Finnish). It is Arabic.

Hebrew's "brother", Arabic got its letters from the same parent—Phoenician alphabet—but is written, unlike his square lettered sibling, in cursive style so that all the letters within every word are normally connected one to another. Its texts also go from right to left, unless you're a teen who chats in a latin-spelled version of the language. Take your time to get used to these extravagant shapes (2 minutes):

Yeah, you heard it right: the second to the last letter is Wow :) And there is more: the letter Noon, a letter that looks like a chicken (the last one—Ya) and another one that is an actual smiley face (Taa). Isn't it already full of joy? Taa

When Laam comes before Alif, they form a so-called ligature—one symbol that represents two letters joined together. It is called Laam-Alif and looks like that: لا. Why did that happen? Well, because writing them one after another doesn't really look nice. I'm not joking, that was the reason for creating Laam-Alif. Ah, aesthetics!

The easiest way to remember the letters is to group them according to their similarity in shapes (Maha is there to help you). But beware: Arabic letters are written diffirently at the beginning, at the middle, at the end of a word and when they stand isolated. Wait, don't give up on it just yet, the twists are mostly not that radical and are reduced to a simple adding of a small link, or a horizontal line, to a letter to connect another letters to it. Six letters, though,— و ز ر ذ د ا —cannot be connected to the following letter, so you basically have an isolated and a final form for them only.

Remember niqqud in Hebrew—a system of diacritics to represent vowels or distinguish ways to pronounce a consonant? Well, in the Arabic language there is a funny word with the same idea. Actually, even two words: tashkil—marks to indicate correct pronunciation —and harakat—marks for short vowels.

What are short vowels? These are three vowels—sounds a, i, u —that are not a part of the alphabet (so don't search for them there), also they are often omitted in the texts. Logically, Arabic has long vowels which are corresponding longer sounds and have their letters: Alif (ا), Wow (و) and Ya (ي). To be precise, long vowels can serve as consonants in other words as well, but this happens in English too—you know, the Y letter.

And so with all tashkil and harakat signs you see little circles, tildes (that look like birdies sometimes), diagonal lines, curls resembling nines, short vertical strokes, little "w"s, inverted twos—all mixed and jumping one over another.

In all that craze even commas went nuts and upside-down :) I know, you're not used to and maybe even a bit scared of Arabic lettering, but give it a chance. You will notice that the more you look at and try to understand the letters and the ways words are formed, the more they start make sense.

Don't let these 28 exotic letters and a bunch of twirls intimidate your intention to succeed in one of the most wide-spreaded (6th) languages of the world. See you in the next episode!

في أمان الله (Fee ah-mahn allah) See you! (literally "Within God's safety")

" Oh my! I am such an astonishing article! Like me now! "

Read more about Arabic and other languages at

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