Arabic/Arabic sounds

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Sounds in both English and Arabic[edit]

Most of the sounds in Arabic are also in English, and vice-versa. For example, the Arabic ba (ب) sounds exactly like the b in English, the Arabic zay (ز), sounds just like the z in English and the Arabic versions of k (ك), m (م), n (ن), f (ف), and j (ج) are all just the same.

The counterpart of l (ل) in Arabic known as laam, is not exactly the same sound as the English one (the Arabic one is pronounced with the tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth a bit farther back). And the counterpart of r (ر) in Arabic known as raa, is completely different from English r, because the Arabic one is trilled (it is a "rolled r").

In addition to the above, the following Arabic sounds also exist in English:

-Thâ (ث) makes the sound "th" (voiceless) as in thin or thick or through.

-Dhâ (ذ) makes the sound "th" (dh) (voiced) as in them or there or the.

-Shîn (ش) makes the sound "sh" as in shoot or shin.

-Tâ marbûta (ة) is usually silent in modern Arabic. In classical Arabic it is pronounced t, the same as the letter tâ.

-Hamza (ء) represents the glottal stop. It is pronounced by stopping the flow of breath at the back of the mouth cavity (the glottis). We make this sound when speaking English; we just don't have a symbol for it in our alphabet. Think of the dash in uh-oh, or the Cockney way of saying British as Bri-ish. However, hamza is also written as a diacritic.

-Yâ (ي) acts just like a y. It can be a vowel (always a long vowel) at the end of a word sounding like î (the "ee" in beet), or it can be a consonant (y). It can be a consonant (as in the y in yes) or a vowel (like the "ee" in beet) in the middle of a word.

Sounds in Arabic only[edit]

There are sounds in Arabic which are hard for English speakers to tell apart. Let's look at what makes them different.

k-like ق ك
s-like س ص
h-like ح خ هـ
t-like ط ت
d-like ض د
th-like ذ ظ

Like "k" (ك vs ق)[edit]

In Arabic the corresponding letter to q (ق) makes a different sound than the corresponding letter to k (ك), whereas in English they are redundant. The q is further back in the throat, while the k is as in English. Kuwait starts with a k. Qatar with a q. Listen around to the difference.

Like "h"[edit]

The most significant sound that English speakers hear in Arabic are the three corresponding letters to h. The first (ه) is exactly equivalent to the h, and is thus very light, almost not heard at all. The noise comes from friction in the upper throat. The second (ح) comes from deep down in the throat, from actual friction from the vocal cords themselves. It sounds a little like blowing warm air on your cold hands or very fine sandpaper. The third (خ) is very rough, almost like collecting phlegm. It is very similar to the last sound in "Bach."

Note: none of these three sounds have any humming or vowel sound (known as vocalization). They are all like a whisper; your vocal cords do not vibrate.

Like "h" but vocalized[edit]

The ayn (ع) may be difficult to hear and produce because, though a consonant in Arabic, it sounds most like the English a, as in water. It is produced like the y in you, but the constriction is made down in the throat instead of the mouth. It is a little like the sound a doctor asks to hear when looking down your throat. While saying "aaah" pull the back of your tongue back into your throat a bit, with a little squeeze. Similar to the ain is the ghayn (غ) which is a rougher version with more of the ch from "Bach", only with vocal cords vibrating. The difference between the last sound in the previous paragraph and the last sound in the first paragraph should be very clear. They are both rough, but one has no vibrating vocal cords, while the other has them.

Letters that come in hard and soft varieties[edit]

Arabic has hard and soft versions of s, t, d, and th (as there, not thin). Arabic speakers often refer to their language as the language of Dod (hard d) because it's so hard for foreigners to say it right. It can be easier for English speakers to think of the hard sounds as lower pitched and the soft sounds as higher pitched. What complicates matters is that for English speakers the hard s and soft s sound the same, but the vowels before and after them are affected by the consonant. To the English speaker the vowels are different and the consonant is the same. To the Arabic speaker the vowels are the same and the consonant is different. Some of this is because Arabic has very few recognized vowel sounds. An a and an e to an Arabic speaker are usually the same (this depends on dialect). It is one letter pronounced differently depending on what letter comes before or after it.

Also to note, the hard letters can be hard for even native speakers to say, and they are often changed in local colloquial Arabic to something else. For example the hard d in many areas is pronounced exactly like the z, but this is not formal proper Arabic.

The soft s, "seen" (س), is pronounced just like the English s (with mouth open, small and weak). The hard S, "sod" (ص) is with the mouth more closed, with a lower pitch, as if you were a big stalwart man. The easiest way to say it is to make the vowels before and after it lower-pitched and deeper.

The soft t, ta (ت) is just like the English t, soft and weak, and the hard T "taw" (ط) is deep and strong.

The soft d, del (د) is even softer than the English d, and the hard D, Dod (ض) is very deep and hard.

The soft dh, dhel (ذ), is just like the th in "the", and the hard DH, DHa (ظ) is deep and strong.


Note on Transliteration[edit]

Note: since Arabic does not use capital letters, when transliterating soft letters are usually written in lowercase, and hard letters in uppercase. Transliterating is not an exact science and is never entirely consistent. You are highly recommended to learn the Arabic alphabet, because studying Arabic from English letters is terrifically frustrating because different people, or the same person ten minutes later, will spell something totally differently in English letters.

`Ayn is usually written as ' (with a 6 shape) in English and hamza as an opposite ' (with a 9 shape). `ayn and hamza are often left out when transliterating, especially `ayn at the beginning of a word (as in `iraaq). ghayn as gh. soft ha as h, khaa (the one in bach) as kh, and hard ha as "H" (capital h) or "7" (number seven).

Sounds in English only[edit]

So you will not think that Arabic has more sounds than English, the following sounds do not exist in Arabic, with the sounds that are usually substituted for them in borrowed words.

v (f)

p (b)

g (j in Egypt, usually gh, q, or k elsewhere in order of descending occurrence)

r is very close, however it is always rolled (similar to Spanish r)

Note: As mentioned above, in Arabic the corresponding letter to q (ق) makes a different sound than the corresponding letter to k (ك).

Conclusion[edit]

Most sounds in English and Arabic correspond perfectly. Give yourself time to recognize the different sounds of h and the hard and soft letters. And learn the alphabet. The book Alif Baa is one of many introductions to the Arabic alphabet. Much better, take a short course, but make sure it is one that teaches the Arabic alphabet. Those 50 hours it takes you to get comfortable with the alphabet will be endlessly worth it. Plus, if you ever want to learn Persian, Ottoman Turkish, Kurdish, Berber, or Urdu, these languages are also written with the same letters. Some of these languages also have a few extra or modified letters in order to make up for the sounds not available in Arabic but that are found in those languages.

Insha'Allah (God willing) you will learn these sounds with ease.


How to Gain Proficiency in the sounds[edit]

Learning and differentiating those sounds is crucial to have a good Arabic accent. First expose yourself to the sounds, as many hours of the day as possible. If you have audio in Arabic, play it again and again, in the background of your life. You can occasionally also listen to it attentively, but you need to listen to how Arabic is spoken in order to be able to speak it.

  1. Do not imitate sounds without an expert at Arabic sounds. You do not want to learn them incorrectly. Learn them from someone who has proper pronunciation.
  2. Because in cartoons, the following letters ح خ ع غ along with others are pronounced very softly, you want be able to pick them up properly. What you need to do is have the sounds pronounced as strongly as possible by an Arabic person, it is much easier to differentiate the sound when the sound is pronounced strongly. (make sure they know how to pronounce all letters properly. In any case all Arabs can pronounce: ح خ ع غ ق ل ر properly), then you will start recognizing the difference. Once you recognize the pronunciation, with the help of an Arabic speaker, pronounce the sounds as strongly {This will give your mouth the ability to pronounce it properly} (but correctly) as possible. Once you have a strong pronunciation, your pronunciation will fall in place and the amount of strength you use to pronounce letters will become less, making you sound perfect.
  3. Listen to more and more Arabic, while learning grammar and vocabulary, and it will all sink in after a while (especially the vowels), and you will إن شاء الله become fluent.

Arabic phonetics[edit]

  Bilabial Inter-
dental
Dental Emphatic
dental
(Alveo-)
Palatal
Velar Uvular Pharyn-
geal
Glottal
Stops Voiceless     t ت t' ط   k ك q ق   ? ءـ 
Voiced b ب   d د d' ض dZ¹ ج        
Fricatives Voiceless f ف T ت s س s' ص S ش x خ   X\ ح h ه
Voiced   D ذ z ز D' ظ   G غ   ?\ ع  
Nasals m م   n ن            
Laterals     l² ل            
Rhotic (trill)     r ر            
Semi-vowels w و     j ي