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Chapter 1
I Say It How? Speaking Arabic
In This Chapter
▶ Discovering English words that come from Arabic ▶ Figuring out the Arabic alphabet ▶ Practicing the sounds
MarHaba (mahr-hah-bah; welcome) to the wonderful world of Arabic! In this chapter, I ease you into the language by showing you some familiar English words that trace their roots to Arabic. You discover the Arabic alphabet and its beautiful letters, and I give you tips on how to pronounce those letters.
Part of exploring a new language is discovering a new culture and a new way of looking at things, so in this first chapter of Arabic Phrases For Dummies, you begin your discovery of Arabic and its unique characteristics.
Taking Stock of What’s Familiar
If English is your primary language, part of grasping a new lougha (loo-ghah; language) is creating connections between the kalimaat (kah-lee-maht; words) of the lougha, in this case Arabic and English. You may be surprised to hear that quite a few English words trace their origins to Arabic. For example, did you know that “magazine,” “candy,” and “coffee” are

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actually Arabic words? Table 1-1 lists some familiar English words with Arabic origins.

Table 1-1
English admiral alcohol
alcove algebra almanac arsenal azure candy coffee cotton elixir gazelle hazard magazine
ream saffron Sahara satin
sherbet sofa sugar zero

Arabic Origins of English Words

Arabic Origin

Arabic Meaning

amir al-baHr

Ruler of the Sea


a mixture of powdered antimony


a dome or arch


to reduce or consolidate


a calendar

daar As-SinaaH house of manufacture


lapis lazuli


cane sugar






philosopher’s stone






a storehouse; a place of storage


a place where things are thrown


a bundle






Arabic name for a Chinese city


to drink


a cushion





Chapter 1: I Say It How? Speaking Arabic 7
As you can see from the table, Arabic has had a major influence on the English language. Some English words such as “admiral” and “arsenal” have an indirect Arabic origin, whereas others, such as “coffee” and “cotton,” are exact matches. The influence runs the other way, too, especially when it comes to relatively contemporary terms. For example, the word tilifizyuun (tee-lee-fee-zee-yoon; television) comes straight from the word “television.”
Discovering the Arabic Alphabet
Unlike English and other Romance languages, you write and read Arabic from right to left. Like English, Arabic has both vowels and consonants, but the vowels in Arabic aren’t actual letters. Rather, Arabic vowels are symbols that you place on top of or below consonants to create certain sounds. As for consonants, Arabic has 28 different consonants, and each one is represented by a letter. In order to vocalize these letters, you place a vowel above or below the particular consonant. For example, when you put a fatHa, a vowel representing the “ah” sound, above the consonant representing the letter “b,” you get the sound “bah.” When you take the same consonant and use a kasra, which represents the “ee” sound, you get the sound “bee.”
All about vowels
Arabic has three main vowels. Luckily, they’re very simple to pronounce because they’re similar to English vowels. However, it’s important to realize that Arabic also has vowel derivatives that are as important as the main vowels. These vowel derivatives fall into three categories: double vowels, long vowels, and diphthongs. In this section, I walk you through all the different vowels, vowel derivatives, and vowel combinations.
Main vowels The three main Arabic vowels are:

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✓ fatHah: The first main vowel in Arabic is called a fatHa (feht-hah). A fatHa is the equivalent of the short “a” in “hat” or “cat.” Occasionally, a fatHa also sounds like the short “e” in “bet” or “set.” Much like the other vowels, the way you pronounce a fatHa depends on what consonants come before or after it. In Arabic script, the fatHa is written as a small horizontal line above a consonant. In English transcription, which I use in this book, it’s simply represented by the letter “a,” as in the words kalb (kah-leb; dog) or walad (wah-lahd; boy).
✓ damma: The second main Arabic vowel is the damma (dah-mah). A damma sounds like the “uh” in “foot” or “book.” In Arabic script, it’s written like a tiny backward “e” above a particular consonant. In English transcription, it’s represented by the letter “u,” as in funduq (foon-dook; hotel) or suHub (soo-hoob; clouds).
✓ kasra: The third main vowel in Arabic is the kasra (kahs-rah), which sounds like the long “e” in “feet” or “treat.” The kasra is written the same way as a fatHa — as a small horizontal line — except that it goes underneath the consonant. In English transcription, it’s written as an “i,” as in bint (bee-neht; girl) or ‘islaam (ees-lahm; Islam).
Double vowels
One type of vowel derivative is the double vowel, which is known in Arabic as tanwiin (tahn-ween). The process of tanwiin is a fairly simple one: Basically, you take a main vowel and place the same vowel right next to it, thus creating two vowels, or a double vowel. The sound that the double vowel makes depends on the main vowel that’s doubled. Here are all possible combinations of double vowels:
✓ Double fatHa: tanwiin with fatHa creates the “an” sound, as in ‘ahlan wa sahlan (ahel-an wah sahel-an; Hi).
✓ Double damma: tanwiin with damma creates the “oun” sound. For example, kouratoun (koorah-toon; ball) contains a double damma.

Chapter 1: I Say It How? Speaking Arabic 9
✓ Double kasra: tanwiin with kasra makes the “een” sound, as in SafHatin (sahf-hah-teen; page).
Long vowels
Long vowels are derivatives that elongate the main vowels. Think of the difference between long vowels and short (main) vowels in terms of a musical beat, and you should be able to differentiate between them much more easily. If a main vowel lasts for one beat, then its long vowel equivalent lasts for two beats. Whereas you create double vowels by writing two main vowels next to each other, you create long vowels by adding a letter to one of the main vowels. Each main vowel has a corresponding consonant that elongates it. Here are a few examples to help you get your head around this long-vowel process:
✓ To create a long vowel form of a fatHa, you attach an ‘alif to the consonant that the fatHa is associated with. In English transcription, the long fatHa form is written as “aa,” such as in kitaab (kee-taab; book) or baab (bahb; door). The “aa” means that you hold the vowel sound for two beats as opposed to one.
✓ The long vowel form of damma is obtained by attaching a waaw to the consonant with the damma. This addition elongates the vowel “uh” into a more pronounced “uu,” such as in nuur (noohr; light) or ghuul (ghoohl; ghost). Make sure you hold the “uu” vowel for two beats and not one.
✓ To create a long vowel form of a kasra, you attach a yaa’ to the consonant with the kasra. Just as the ‘alif elongates the fatHa and the waaw elongates the damma, the yaa’ elongates the kasra. Some examples include the “ii” in words like kabiir (kah-beer; big) and Saghiir (sah-gheer; small).
The Arabic characters for the long vowels are shown in Table 1-2.

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Table 1-2

Arabic Vowel Characters


Name of the Explanation Character


To create a long vowel form of a fatHa

waaw yaa’

To create a long vowel form of a damma To create a long vowel form of a kasra

Diphthongs in Arabic are a special category of vowels because, in essence, they’re monosyllabic sounds that begin with one vowel and glide into another vowel. A common example in English is the sound at the end of the word “toy.” Fortunately, Arabic has only two diphthong sounds used to distinguish between the yaa’ and the waaw forms of long vowels. When you come across either of these two letters, one of the first questions to ask yourself is: “Is this a long vowel or a diphthong?” There’s an easy way to determine which is which: When either the yaa’ or the waaw is a diphthong, you see a sukun (soo-koon) above the consonant. A sukun is similar to the main vowels in that it’s a little symbol (a small circle) that you place above the consonant. However, unlike the vowels, you don’t vocalize the sukun — it’s almost like a silent vowel. So when a waaw or yaa’ has a sukun over it, you know that the sound is a diphthong. Here are some examples:
✓ waaw diphthongs: yawm (yah-oom; day); nawm (nah-oom; sleep); Sawt (sah-oot; noise)
✓ yaa’ diphthongs: bayt (bah-yet; house); ‘ayn (ahyen; eye); layla (lah-ye-lah; night)
All about consonants
Arabic uses 28 different consonants, and each consonant is represented by a different letter. Because the Arabic alphabet is written in cursive, most of the letters connect with each other. For this reason, every single letter that represents a consonant actually can be written four different ways depending on its position in a word — whether it’s in the initial, medial, or final position, or whether it stands alone. In English transcription of the Arabic script, all letters are case-sensitive.

Chapter 1: I Say It How? Speaking Arabic 11
Thankfully, most of the consonants in Arabic have English equivalents. Unfortunately, a few Arabic consonants are quite foreign to nonnative speakers. Table 1-3 shows all 28 Arabic consonants, how they’re written in Arabic, how they’re transcribed in English, and how they sound.

Table 1-3

Arabic Consonants

Arabic Name of Character the Letter
‘alif (‘a) baa’ (b) taa’ (t) thaa’ (th) jiim (j) Haa’ (H)
khaa’ (kh)
daal (d)

Pronunciation ah-leef bah tah thah jeem hah

Sounds Like . . . Example

Sounds like the ‘ab (ah-b;

“a” in “apple” father)

Sounds like the baab

“b” in “boy” (bahb; door)

Sounds like the tilmiidh

“t” in “table” (teel-meez;


Sounds like the thalaatha

“th” in “think” (thah-lah-

thah; three)

Sounds like the jamiil (jah-

“s” in “measure” meel; pretty)

No equivalent in Harr

English; imagine (hah-r; hot)

the sound you

make when you

want to blow

on your reading

glasses to clean

them; that soft,

raspy noise that

comes out is the

letter Haa’.

Sounds a lot khuukh

like “Bach” (kh-oo-kh;

in German or peach)

“Baruch” in


Sounds like the daar

“d” in dog




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Table 1-3 (continued)
Arabic Name of PronunCharacter the Letter ciation
dhaal (dh) dhahl raa’ (r) rah zaay (z) zay siin (s) seen shiin (sh) sheen Saad (S) sahd
Daad (D) dahd
Taa’ (T) tah
DHaa’ dhah (DH)

Sounds Like . . . Example

Sounds like the “th” in those
Like the Spanish “r,” rolled really fast Sounds like the “z” in “zebra” Sounds like the “s” in “snake” Sounds like the “sh” in “sheep”
A very deep “s” sound you can make if you open your mouth really wide and lower your jaw A very deep “d” sound; the exact same sound as a Saad except that you use a “d” instead of an “s” A deep “t” sound; start off by saying a regular “t” and then lower your mouth to make it rounder Take the “th” as in “those” and draw it to the back of your throat

dhahab (thah-hab; gold) rajul (rah- jool; man) zawja (zahoo-ja; wife) samak (sahmahk; fish) shams (shah-mes; sun) Sadiiq (sahdeek; friend)
Dabaab (dah- bahb; fog)
Tabiib (tah-beeb; doctor)
DHahr (dha-her; back)

Chapter 1: I Say It How? Speaking Arabic 13

Arabic Name of Character the Letter
‘ayn (‘)


ghayn (gh) ghayen faa’ (f) fah qaaf (q) qahf
kaaf (k) kahf

Sounds Like . . . Example

No equivalent in any of the Romance languages; produced at the very back of the throat. Breathe heavily and consistently through your esophagus and then intermittently choke off the airflow so that you create a staccato noise Sounds like the French “r” in “rendezvous”; it’s created at the back of the throat Sounds like the “f” in “Frank”
Similar to the letter “k,” but produced much farther at the back of the throat; you should feel airflow being constricted at the back of your throat Sounds like the “k” in “keeper”

iraaq (ee-rahk; Iraq)
ghariib (ghah-reeb; strange)
funduq (foon-dook; hotel) qahwa (qah-wah; coffee)
kutub (koo-toob; books)


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Table 1-3 (continued)
Arabic Name of PronunCharacter the Letter ciation
laam (l) lahm miim (m) meem nuun (n) noon haa’ (h) haah
waaw (w) wahw

Sounds Like . . . Example

Sounds like the “l” in “llama”
Sounds like the “m” in “Mary”
Sounds like the “n” in “no”
Created by exhaling heavily; very different from the Haa’ earlier in the list. (Think of yourself as a marathon runner who’s just finished a long race and is breathing heavily through the lungs to replenish your oxygen.) Sounds like the “w” in “winner”

lisaan (lee-sahn; tongue) Makhzan (mah-khzan; storehouse) naDHiif (nah-dheef; clean) huwa (hoo-wah; him)
waziir (wah-zeer; minister)

yaa’ (y) yaah

Sounds like the yamiin (yah“y” in “yes” meen; right)

To sound as fluent as possible, memorize as many of the letters as you can and try to associate each letter with the Arabic words in which it appears. The trick to getting the pronunciation of some of the more exotic Arabic sounds is repetition, repetition, and even more repetition!

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