Learning to read Arabic writing: one of my better ideas

I live in London not far from Paddington, where Arabic writing is often seen:

road

I spent my first few years in the area a bit oblivious to this (shops are shops), but eventually I started to wonder about simple things like: are these all the same language and script, or do they just look similar? And of course: what do they say? Then two years ago I took a gamble on the notion that this might be Arabic, and signed up for Arabic evening classes.

On the first day of the class, we were all asked why we had chosen to study Arabic. Everyone else had a proper explanation – planning to study in an Arabic-speaking country, dispatched to an Arabic-speaking country for business, have a parent who speaks Arabic and want to catch up, etc. I’d like to report that I said “I want to be able to read the shop signs on Edgware Road”, but I wasn’t bold enough, so I just cited curiosity.

I kept up the classes (one evening a week) for a year. Arabic is a difficult language and I didn’t excel. I learned simple introductions, some directions, some colours, a bit of grammar, and that I can’t pronounce the letter ع any better than any other native English speaker can. I learned enough that I can now recognise the odd word when I hear people speaking Arabic, but not enough to join in, and anyway I’ve always been very self-conscious about speaking other languages. But I am now able to slowly read (and write) the alphabet.

Predictably enough, it turns out the signage in Arabic around here usually says the same thing as the Roman lettering next to it. That’s the case for most of the text in the street-view photo above, for example. That could be disappointing, but I find it rather liberating. When people put Arabic text on a sign in this country, they aren’t trying to make things weird for native-English-speaking locals, they’re trying to make it easier for everyone else.

Arabic, the language, has 400-odd million speakers worldwide. Arabic the alphabet serves up to a billion users. Besides the Arabic language, it’s used for Persian and Urdu¹, both of which are quite dissimilar to Arabic. As it turns out, most of the places near me that I was interested in are in fact Arabic-speaking, but there are quite a few Persian places as well and Urdu, being the primary language of Pakistan, is widely used in the UK too.

(I have since had it pointed out to me that, for an English speaker whose main aim is to learn to read the script, going to Persian classes would have been easier than Arabic. Persian is an Indo-European language, it’s grammatically simpler, and the language you learn in classes is a form that people actually speak, whereas the standard Arabic taught to learners here I gather is different from anything spoken on the street anywhere. I have since bought a Persian grammar book, just in case I feel inspired.)

Learning the basics of how to read Arabic gives me a feeling of delight and reassurance, as if I am poking a hole for my brain to look out and find that a previously unfamiliar slice of the world’s population is doing the same stuff as those of us who happen to be users of the Roman alphabet. I recommend it.

Notes for the clueless about the Arabic alphabet

  • It’s written and read right-to-left. This is probably the only thing I did know before I started actively learning about it.
  • It is an alphabet, not a syllabary like Japanese kana or a logographic system like Chinese writing.
  • It is very much structured as a script. Each letter could have up to four shapes (initial, middle, final, standalone) depending on how it joins to the letters around it, so that the whole word flows smoothly. I think this contributes a lot to the sense of mystery “we” have about Arabic. The Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Greek alphabets are not intrinsically any more mysterious, but they are a lot more obviously composed of letters that can be individually mapped to Roman ones.
  • Short vowel sounds are not written down at all. This is unfortunate for the learner, as it means you often can’t pronounce a word unless you already know it. There is a system for annotating them, but it’s not generally used except in the Koran and sometimes in textbooks or Wikipedia where avoiding ambiguity is paramount.
  • There are 28-odd letters, but the number depends on what you’re reading – Persian adds a few over Arabic, but I think it also has some duplicates.
  • Some letters are very distinctive; for example the only letter with two dots below it is the common ي “ya”, which generally maps to an “ee” sound. Others are quite hard to spot because you have to know the joining rules to distinguish them in the middle of a word.
  • You could transliterate any language to Arabic, just as you can transliterate anything to the Roman alphabet. The result might be awkward, but there’s no reason you can’t write English in Arabic letters and have it be just about comprensible. I imagine there must be people who routinely do this.

 

¹ I know no Urdu, but I understand it’s typically written in the Arabic alphabet but with a more flowing script (Nastaliq, نستعلیق) than is typically used for modern Arabic or Persian. An interesting calligraphic distinction between languages. I first heard of Nastaliq through a fascinating article by Ali Eteraz in 2013, The Death of the Urdu Script, which lamented that it was too hard to display it on current devices. The situation has apparently improved since then.

 

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