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.

 

Sonic Visualiser 3.0, at last

Finally!

(See previous posts: Help test the Sonic Visualiser v3.0 beta, A second beta of Sonic Visualiser v3.0, A third beta of Sonic Visualiser v3.0, and Yes, there’s a fourth beta of Sonic Visualiser v3.0 now)

No doubt, now that the official release is out, some horrible problem or other will come to light. It wouldn’t be the first time: Sonic Visualiser v2.4 went through a beta programme before release and still had to be replaced with v2.4.1 after only a week. These things happen and that’s OK, but for now I’m feeling good about this one.

 

Yes, there’s a fourth beta of Sonic Visualiser v3.0 now

Previously I wrote about the third Sonic Visualiser v3.0 beta release:

“This may well be the final beta, so if you’re seeing problems with it, please do report them while there’s still time!”

Well some very kind people did report problems, and so that was not the final beta. A fourth one is now up for download. Here are the download URLs:

Fixes since the third beta

  • Fix a nasty crash in session I/O in the 64-bit Windows build (this is the main reason for the new beta)
  • Provide more log information about audio drivers to the debug log file
  • Fix a very occasional one-sample-too-short error in resampling audio files during load
  • Fix invisible measure tool crosshairs on spectrogram
  • Fix a possible memory leak in the spectrogram

Keep the bug reports coming!

This one really could be the final beta! So please do report any troubles you have with it. Drop me a line, post a comment below this article, or use the SourceForge bug tracker. And thank you!

 

A third beta of Sonic Visualiser v3.0

Update – 23rd Feb: We have a fourth beta now!

After a short break, we have a third beta of the forthcoming v3.0 release of Sonic Visualiser. Downloads here:

Bugs fixed, and other changes made since the second beta

  • Sonic Visualiser could hang when trying to initialise a transform that refused the first choice of initialisation parameters
  • Error handling for problems in running transforms has been improved in general
  • The Colour 3D Plot layer was sometimes pathologically slow to update
  • The “Normalise Visible Area” option in the Colour 3D Plot layer wasn’t working
  • The visual rendering style of some layers has been improved when viewed on high-resolution screens without pixel doubling
  • A new feature has snuck in, under cover of fixing a rendering offset problem in the spectrum layer: it is now possible (although cumbersome) to zoom the spectrum layer in the frequency axis
  • The process of overhauling the Help Reference documentation to properly describe the new release has begun

Let us know what else you find!

This may well be the final beta, so if you’re seeing problems with it, please do report them while there’s still time!

Drop me a line, post a comment below this article, or use the SourceForge bug tracker.

(This post is a follow-up to “Help test the Sonic Visualiser v3.0 beta” and “A second beta of Sonic Visualiser v3.0“.)

A second beta of Sonic Visualiser v3.0

Update – 9th Feb: There is now a third beta! See here for details.

Here’s a second beta release of Sonic Visualiser v3.0:

Bugs found in the first beta and fixed for the second

  • The peak-frequency spectrogram rendered the entire track into the first 1/8th of its length, and showed nothing after that. (The cause of this might make a marginally interesting technical post in its own right)
  • A similar effect was exhibited by Colour 3D Plot layers, but only at very close zoom levels
  • When the Windows build had been used to view an mp3 file, it would subsequently crash on exit
  • All platforms could hang on startup if certain plugins were installed (the Fan Chirp plugin from the Universidad de la República in Uruguay was one example, though it wasn’t the fault of the plugin)
  • The playback/record level meters were very flickery
  • The source package didn’t build on Fedora Linux

What other problems have you spotted?

Let us know! Drop me a line, post a comment below this article, or use the SourceForge bug tracker.

(This post is a follow-up to “Help test the Sonic Visualiser v3.0 beta“)

Help test the Sonic Visualiser v3.0 beta

A first beta release of Sonic Visualiser v3.0 is now available for download, and we’d love to get your feedback.

Sonic Visualiser v3.0beta1 on Windows

Sonic Visualiser is a free, open-source desktop application for close study and annotation of music audio recordings, developed in the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary, University of London. It’s been available for about a decade now, and v3.0 will be one of the most substantial updates it’s ever had. This should be a really good release, but we need to hear about the problems other people have with the beta versions before we can be sure of that.

Get it here

Update – 17th Jan: These are not the latest links any more: there is now a second beta! See here for details.

The first beta can be downloaded from the Sound Software code site:

There will be Linux binaries as well, but I’m still working on packaging for those. Watch this space. (Update: there is now an Ubuntu package linked above. I’d like to be making more options available, not least because I don’t actually use Ubuntu myself, but this is a start.)

Note that the beta pops up a dialog each time you run it to remind you that it’s a beta. Sorry about that, I know it might be annoying.

What’s changed

Here’s the list of changes since the last release.

Besides some new features and a lot of bug fixes, there are a few interesting internal changes:

  • Everything to do with sample indexing now uses 64-bit offsets, and it’s possible to load very long audio files that wouldn’t have worked in the previous release
  • Audio analysis plugins are now run with process separation so a misbehaving plugin should no longer be able to crash the host
  • It’s now possible to record audio as well as play it, and to select the record and playback devices in the preferences
  • The user interface now adapts fully to hi-dpi (“retina”) displays on all three platforms
  • For the first time the Windows version is natively 64-bit (if your Windows installation is, and almost all Windows installations are nowadays) — while still being able to use any 32-bit Vamp plugins you have installed

I’m quite excited about this release, so now I need to hear all your deflating reports about the things that aren’t working!

What we particularly need feedback on

  • Problems installing or running the application at all!
  • Problems running plugins that worked with a previous version
  • Problems playing or recording audio, glitches, error dialogs with complaints about audio drivers
  • Any crashes or other error dialogs
  • Any unexpectedly slow performance while showing analyses or running plugins

Note for Linux users

I mentioned above that I’m still working on packaging for Linux. That process also includes overhauling the INSTALL-file instructions, which are not quite up-to-date. If you look at the series of commands carried out in the Docker script at deploy/linux/docker/Dockerfile.ubuntu64 in the source tree, you’ll get an idea of what needs to be done to compile as things stand.

How to report problems

Use the venerable SourceForge bug tracker, or for quick reports you could just post a comment below, send me an email, tweet at me, etc.

For any problems that arise when using a specific file (audio or annotation), it’s massively helpful if you can attach an example file that exhibits the problem. In general, listing any steps to take to reproduce a bug (even if it seems to you that the bug must be so obvious that nobody could ever have missed it) is very useful indeed.

If you run into something and you’re not sure whether it’s a bug or you’re just being stupid, please do report it anyway. A program that makes you feel stupid is already wrong on some level, though I’m all too aware that Sonic Visualiser can do that sometimes because it is a bit overcomplicated in places.

Things we haven’t done yet

We had hoped to devise an easier way to obtain and install plugins in time for this release, and recent survey feedback suggested this would be a very welcome thing for many prospective users. Sadly we haven’t been able to do anything in that area yet, but I hope we may be able to soon.