The Arabic “Alphabet” – What is an Abjad?

A lot of people have asked me about learning the “Arabic Alphabet,” but this is actually impossible. Arabic does not have an alphabet; it has an abjad.

The distinction is more than technical. Understanding what an abjad is and how it differs from an alphabet will not only help you learn to read and write Arabic faster, it will help you understand how the entire language works.

An alphabet is defined as a writing system in which each grapheme (written character) represents one phoneme (unit of sound). Common examples include Roman, Greek, and Cyrillic.

An abjad is defined as a writing system in which consonants are marked primarily and vowels only secondarily (and not necessarily). In simple terms, an abjad is a writing system comprised of consonants. The vowels can be marked in writing, but are usually not. Arabic and Hebrew are the most common examples of languages that use abjads.

If English were written with an abjad, it would look like this: wht wrds cn y rcgnz? You can probably recognize most of the words here. If you were to learn English this way, though, it would be a lot more difficult!

The Arabic abjad consists of 28 canonical letters, three of which represent long vowels (ا alif, و waw, and ي yeh). The second two of these can function consonantally as [w] and [j] respectively. Apart from these three, no vowels are normally marked in modern writing. In the Quran, however, vowels are supplied by the addition of diacritics above and below the letters of the abjad. This is called tashkīl. The addition of vowel diacritics is called harakāt, and forms a portion of tashkīl. Without such diacritics, it’s very difficult for the learner to tell how a word should be pronounced without already knowing its pronunciation.

What does this mean for learning Arabic? Well, two things:

  1. The writing system and vocabulary must be learned in conjunction with sound
  2. Understanding morphology will crack open the language for you.

On the first point, the best way to learn to read and write is practice reading words in conjunction with their pronunciation. Reading is otherwise almost impossible at first. This is one of the reasons we pair text and audio so carefully in all our videos and particularly in our video reviews where the audio is presented at varying speeds for maximum absorption and retention. One of the nice things about this is that you are free to develop your pronunciation of Arabic vowels without as many preconceptions from English, since there are no vowels to read out.

If you are taught correctly and pay attention to it, as you begin to recognize more words and their correct pronunciations, you will begin to develop a sense for the shapes and mutations of Arabic words. The entire Arabic language is based on consonantal root clusters — usually 3 consonants grouped together — that carry a particular sphere of meaning. Changing the vowels and adding other letters according to regular patterns changes that root into various types of verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc.

The most common example is the verb to write: ﻛﺘﺐ. This verb consists of three consonants [k], [t], and [b]. It can be mutated in the following ways:

  • ﻛﺘﺐ – kataba – to write
  • ﻛﺘﺎب – kitāb – book
  • ﻛﺘﺐ – kutub – books
  • ﻣﻜﺘﺐ – maktab – office
  • etc.

While at first, there are so many of these mutations that they may seem completely irregular, they are in fact remarkably regular. When you pay attention to word shapes and mutation patterns, you will begin to be able to tell what vowels to supply to words you’ve never seen before based on analogy to other patterns you already know. You might not always get it right, but you’ll be in the ballpark. This is one of the reasons our map of Arabic is going to be so amazing: everything is presented grouped according to pattern so you can quickly get a sense for the entire language and how it works.

It all starts with the abjad – not the alphabet – and learning a new way of thinking about reading and writing based on patterns of consonants.

You can check out our course in Modern Standard Arabic by clicking here.