The Arabic script stands as a pivotal writing system, not just for the Arabic language but for a multitude of languages spanning Asia and Africa. Globally recognized, it’s the second most widespread alphabetic system, only surpassed by the Latin script. Its significance is further highlighted by its adoption rate, making it the second most popular script by nation count and the third by user volume, with only the Latin and Chinese scripts ahead.
Originating as the primary medium for inscribing Arabic texts, its most notable use is for the Quran, the revered book of Islam. The growth and spread of Islam catalyzed its adoption as the chief writing system for diverse languages. This evolution led to the integration of new letters and symbols. Today, languages such as Persian, Malay (Jawi), Uyghur, Kurdish, Punjabi (Shahmukhi), and many others, continue to embrace it. Historically, it even found its place in some Spanish manuscripts until the 16th century and was the script of choice for Turkish prior to the 1928 language reform.
Unique in its flow, the Arabic script is penned from right to left in an elegant cursive style. The letters, while versatile in their forms based on positioning, maintain a consistent foundational shape. A distinguishing feature is its absence of uppercase letters. Primarily, the script captures consonants or a blend of consonants and select vowels, categorizing most Arabic alphabets as abjads. However, certain languages, like Sorani and Uyghur, utilize it as a full alphabet. Beyond its functional use, the script is the cornerstone of the esteemed tradition of Arabic calligraphy.
The roots of the Arabic alphabet can be traced back to either the Nabataean alphabet or, as some believe, directly from the Syriac alphabet. Both these scripts have their origins in the Aramaic alphabet, which also paved the way for the Hebrew alphabet. This lineage begins with the ancient Phoenician alphabet, a script that not only birthed the Aramaic (and consequently, the Arabic and Hebrew scripts) but also the Greek alphabet. This Greek influence subsequently led to the development of both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, the latter being the one used in this very article.
During the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, northern Arab tribes migrated and established a kingdom centered around Petra, Jordan. These settlers, later identified as the Nabataeans (derived from the tribe name, Nabatu), communicated in Nabataean Arabic, a dialect of the broader Arabic language. By the 2nd or 1st centuries BCE, the earliest records of the Nabataean alphabet emerged. Interestingly, these records were penned in the Aramaic language, the prevalent language for trade and communication of that era, but they exhibited distinct Arabic linguistic features. The Nabataeans, in their written records, did not use their spoken language. Instead, they adopted a variant of the Aramaic script. Over time, this script evolved into two distinct styles: the “monumental Nabataean” used for inscriptions and a more fluid, cursive style for papyrus writings. This cursive rendition gradually influenced and transformed the monumental form, eventually evolving into what we recognize today as the Arabic alphabet.
The Arabic script, renowned for its elegance and fluidity, extends its influence beyond just the Arabic language. It has been tailored to accommodate a plethora of languages, including non-Semitic ones like Persian, Malay, and Urdu. These customizations often introduce new or modified characters to articulate phonemes absent in Arabic. A notable example is the [p] sound, a voiceless bilabial plosive missing in Arabic. Various languages have incorporated their unique characters to denote this sound, with the specific adaptation differing across languages. Commonly, Indian and Turkic languages using the Arabic script lean towards the Persian modifications, while Indonesian languages often mirror the Jawi script. This Persian-adapted Arabic script is academically referred to as the Perso-Arabic script.
In certain languages, such as Serbo-Croatian, Sorani, Kashmiri, Mandarin Chinese, and Uyghur, the representation of vowels in the Arabic script becomes essential. This flexibility allows the Arabic script to function both as a comprehensive alphabet and an abjad. However, its predominant association with Arabic often mistakenly confines it to being perceived mainly as an abjad.
The embrace of the Arabic script in West African languages, particularly in the Sahel region, coincided with the proliferation of Islam. The script’s style and application in this region often mirror those of the Maghreb, evident in the placement of dots in letters like fāʼ and qāf. To cater to sounds not native to Arabic, additional diacritics have been integrated. The term ʻAjamī, derived from the Arabic root signifying “foreign”, is attributed to Arabic-inspired orthographies in African languages.
|أ||Alif||Represents the “a” sound.|
|ب||Bāʼ||Represents the “b” sound.|
|ت||Tāʼ||Represents the “t” sound.|
|ث||Ṯāʼ||Represents the “th” sound, as in “think”.|
|ج||Jīm||Represents the “j” sound.|
|ح||Ḥāʼ||Represents the “h” sound, but deeper in the throat.|
|خ||Ḫāʼ||Represents the “kh” sound, as in German “Bach”.|
|د||Dāl||Represents the “d” sound.|
|ذ||Ḏāl||Represents the “dh” sound, as in “that”.|
|ر||Rāʼ||Represents the “r” sound.|
|ز||Zāy||Represents the “z” sound.|
|س||Sīn||Represents the “s” sound.|
|ش||Shīn||Represents the “sh” sound.|
|ص||Ṣād||Represents a heavy “s” sound.|
|ض||Ḍād||Represents a heavy “d” sound.|
|ط||Ṭāʼ||Represents a heavy “t” sound.|
|ظ||Ẓāʼ||Represents a heavy “dh” sound.|
|ع||ʿAyn||A unique sound, a voiced pharyngeal fricative.|
|غ||Ġayn||Represents a voiced velar fricative, similar to French “r”.|
|ف||Fāʼ||Represents the “f” sound.|
|ق||Qāf||Represents a “q” sound, deeper in the throat.|
|ك||Kāf||Represents the “k” sound.|
|ل||Lām||Represents the “l” sound.|
|م||Mīm||Represents the “m” sound.|
|ن||Nūn||Represents the “n” sound.|
|ه||Hāʼ||Represents the “h” sound.|
|و||Wāw||Can represent the “w” sound or a long “u” sound.|
|ي||Yāʼ||Can represent the “y” sound or a long “i” sound.|
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