Arabic/Some history

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The Arabic alphabet consists of 17 shapes. The Arabic alphabet represents 28 constanants. In order for Arabic writing to represent 28 consonants with 17 shapes without ambiguity, dots are used. Later foreign languages took Arabic shapes, and added dots to make letters needed to represent their language correctly.

Early Arabic writing included no dots. The dots found today in Arabic writing were one of the first innovations that came after the spread of Arabic (after Islam). These dots make it clear what consonant is to be pronounced. Before the dots, people read the text without any dots. They could do this through experience, and using context to differentiate between words that sound different and look the same. Arabic Writing has been using dots since the dotting system was first invented.

A need for a rigid orthography (writing system) with no ambiguity arose in the early days of Islam. This was due to the influx of non-native speakers trying to read the language. With new converts unused to reading Arabic, they made mistakes while reading texts. Thus they would learn to pronounce a word incorrectly.

  • Example: kitaab AND kutaab are not differentiated without the vowel marks. (which are not usually used)
  • Example: bint AND bayt are not differentiated in writing without using the dots (which are always used today)

To ensure the language remains intact, as well as keeping the pronunciation of religious text correct, rulers introduced the Dotting whereby dots and indicators were added to individual letters to help with pronunciation and to differentiate them from those based on the same form. First the dots were added, later on signs to indicate vowels were introduced in the same manner and for the same reasons.

Modern Arabic books and print media usually do not indicate the vowelling in the text. However, they do indicate the consonants (they are all fully dotted (not dotting a text correctly is considered a spelling mistake)). Educated and fluent speakers do not need the indication of the short vowels and are used to reading text without it. The short vowels are indicated to some extent in Children's books, when children learn to read.

As you begin to feel more comfortable with the script and text, your need for pronunciation indicators diminishes. All modern Arabic texts include the dotting of the forms which indicates what consonant is pronounced, but do not fully indicate the vowels.

The Qur'an provides an ideal text to practise your pronunciation of various letters and words. The feeling of intimidation when you first see an excerpt of the text is understandable. Should you experience this, there are a plethora of books that explain the concepts in easy step by step lessons.