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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Learning the Arabic Alphabet 3: Transliteration, First Written Words

The first thing I wanted to do after getting a chart and listening to the Arabic alphabet was to be able to write my name.  I discovered an online Arabic keyboard here, and this was really the tool that advanced my memorization of the Arabic alphabet, as well as my understanding and recognition of the different forms of the letters (isolated, initial, medial, and final)  When typing letters into this keyboard, you can actually watch the forms change as you stick letters together, put spaces between them, etc.  I played with this keyboard a lot, transliterating a lot of words just for the sake of it.  In this way I absorbed a basic understanding of how Arabic is written very quickly.

As I mentioned, I started with my name, which happens to be Phil.  Looking at my chart, found my equivalent for 'f' for the first letter:


I then added the letter 'ya' (ي) for the 'i' sound in my name, noting how the letters slightly changed as they hooked up to each other:

ف + ي = في

I finished transliterating my name by adding the 'lam' (ل):

في + ل = فيل

And there it was!  I took particular note of how the letter 'ya' (ي) changed once it found itself in the middle of a word.  I moved on to try some others.  My brother's name is Patrick.  This would normally present a bit of a puzzle, because there is no english "p" in Arabic, however I did know already that a 'p' sound is usually turned into either a "b" or an "f" when Arabic borrows an English word.  I decided 'b' (ب) would work best, so I started with that, and added alif (ا) and 'ta' (ت)to complete the first half of my brother's name 'Pat':

ب + ا + ت = بات

I then added 'ra' (ر) and 'kaf' (ك) to round it out into Patrick:

بات + ر + ك = باترك

I noticed how 'alif' and 'ra' did not connect to the letters after them.  This is because these don't have medial forms, they can only ever be isolated or final. At first that seemed wierd and inconsistent, but I quickly learned that this actually helped a lot in identifying these letters.  I kept on fooling around with the online keyboard and my charts, transliterating words and absorbing these little details about how Arabic letters fit together, and after a while decided to try to read some words.  I remembered from learning other languages how the proper names of countries are often similar in different languages, so I decided to test this.  I searched google for a map written in Arabic, and came up with this one:

I used the keyboard and tried to copy what I saw, as I sounded out the letters of the words on this map.  Most of the Arabic names for these countries are roughly the same as in English, and knowing which country I was looking at helped.  For instance, Libya is a direct transliteration, letter for letter: 

ل + ي + ب + ي + ا = ليبيا

I also saw that Sudan is basically a direct transliteration, but as with many country names in Arabic, it has "the," or 'Al' in front of it, thus "The Sudan," or Al Sudan:

ا + ل + س + و + د + ا + ن = السودان

One country whose Arabic name does not resemble its English title is Egypt, which transliterated into English is 'maSr':

م + ص + ر = مصر

Try using the keyboard to decipher the names of other countries on the map!  Try to write the names of people you know, or whatever else in Arabic text.  These exercises will help a lot with memorizing and learning to quickly recognise the letters and their different forms.  From here on, I was able to use my charts and keyboard to figure out how to read and write the Arabic Alphabet.  I found that memorization just came with use.  In the final post in this series, we'll look at a few other markings and characters you will encounter when reading Arabic we haven't yet covered; which aren't considered part of the alphabet.  I will also post a detailed pronunciation guide for the Alphabet.

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