Arabic 101

The Arabic alphabet derives from the Aramaic script (through Syriac and then Nabatean), to which it bears a loose resemblance like that of Coptic or Cyrillic script to Greek script. Traditionally, there were several differences between the Western (North African) and Middle Eastern version of the alphabet—in particular, the fa and qaf had a dot underneath and a single dot above respectively in the Maghreb, and the order of the letters was slightly different (at least when they were used as numerals). However, the old Maghrebi variant has been abandoned except for calligraphic purposes in the Maghreb itself, and remains in use mainly in the Quranic schools (zaouias) of West Africa. Arabic, like all other Semitic languages (except for the Latin-written Maltese, and the languages with the Ge'ez script), is written from right to left. There are several styles of script, notably Naskh which is used in print and by computers, and Ruq'ah which is commonly used in handwriting.


After the definitive fixing of the Arabic script around 786, by Khalil ibn Ahmad al Farahidi, many styles were developed, both for the writing down of the Qur'an and other books, and for inscriptions on monuments as decoration.

Arabic calligraphy has not fallen out of use as calligraphy has in the Western world, and is still considered by Arabs as a major art form; calligraphers are held in great esteem. Being cursive by nature, unlike the Latin alphabet, Arabic script is used to write down a verse of the Qur'an, a Hadith, or simply a proverb, in a spectacular composition. The composition is often abstract, but sometimes the writing is shaped into an actual form such as that of an animal. Two of the current masters of the genre are Hassan Massoudy and Khaled Al Saa’i.


There are a number of different standards of Arabic transliteration: methods of accurately and efficiently representing Arabic with the Latin alphabet. There are multiple conflicting motivations for transliteration. Scholarly systems are intended to accurately and unambiguously represent the phonemes of Arabic, generally supplying making the phonetics more explicit than the original word in the Arabic alphabet. These systems are heavily reliant on diacritical marks such as "š" for sound equivalently written sh in English. In some cases, the sh or kh sounds can be represented by italicizing or underlining them -- that way, they can be distinguished from separate s and h sounds or k and h sounds, respectively. (Compare gashouse to gash .) At first sight, this may be difficult to recognize. Less scientific systems often use digraphs (like sh and kh ), which are usually more simple to read, but sacrifice the definiteness of the scientific systems. Such systems may be intended to help readers who are neither Arabic speakers nor linguists to intuitively pronounce Arabic names and phrases. An example of such a system is the Bahá'í orthography. A third type of transliteration seeks to represent an equivalent of the Arabic spelling with Latin letters, for use by Arabic speakers when Arabic writing is not available (for example, when using an ASCII communication device). An example is the system used by the US military, Standard Arabic Technical Transliteration System or SATTS, which represents each Arabic letter with a unique symbol in the ASCII range to provide a one-to-one mapping from Arabic to ASCII and back. This system, while facilitating typing on English keyboards, presents its own ambiguities and disadvantages. During the last few decades and especially since the 1990s, Western-invented text communication technologies have become prevalent in the Arab world, such as personal computers, the World Wide Web, email, Bulletin board systems, IRC, instant messaging and mobile phone text messaging. Most of these technologies originally had the ability to communicate using the Latin alphabet only, and some of them still do not have the Arabic alphabet as an optional feature. As a result, Arabic speaking users communicated in these technologies by transliterating the Arabic text using the Latin script, sometime known as IM Arabic.

To handle those Arabic letters that cannot be accurately represented using the Latin script, numerals and other characters were appropriated. For example, the numeral "3" may be used to represent the Arabic letter "ع", ayn . There is no universal name for this type of transliteration, but some have named it Arabic Chat Alphabet. Other systems of transliteration exist, such as using dots or capitalization to represent the "emphatic" counterparts of certain consonants. For instance, using capitalization, the letter "د", or daal , may be represented by d. Its emphatic counterpart, "ض", may be written as D.


In most of present-day North Africa, the Western Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) are used. However in Egypt and Arabic-speaking countries to the east of it, the Eastern Arabic numerals (٠.١.٢.٣.٤.٥.٦.٧.٨.٩) are in use. The lowest-valued digit appears on the right, so the order of digits on the page is the same as in Latin script; this reflects the way in which Arabic numbers are traditionally read (i.e. increasing order, so 1234 is "four and thirty and two hundred and one thousand"), though this reading has declined of late. Also sequences of digits such as telephone numbers are read from left to right.

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