Arabic Grammar – 30

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Arabic is an Afro-Asiatic language. A common feature of this language family is to have many contrasting consonant sounds, but few contrasting vowel sounds. This is perhaps the primary reason why the Semitic alphabets (which are of ultimate Egyptian origin) represent only the consonants but not the vowels. The vowels in Afro-Asiatic speech are not as important as the consonants.

Most of the 28 Arabic consonant sounds are easy to pronounce for English-speakers. French and German-speakers (among others) may find it difficult to pronounce the two interdental sounds θ ث and ð ذ , but English-speakers will have no problem with these.

What follows are the Arabic consonant sounds that are likely to be difficult to pronounce for English-speakers.


The Arabic letter r ر does not sound exactly the same as the English r. The sound of r in Arabic, as in other Mediterranean languages, is a trill sound. You can hear it on this Wikipedia page. If you are familiar with the sound of r in Spanish, Italian, or Greek, then you know it already.


The voiceless velar fricative x خ is almost the sound of ch in the German Bach or the Scottish loch.

The voiced velar fricative ɣ غ is somewhat close to the the sound of the Parisian r, in French.

The Arabic fricative sounds in general are stronger than the European ones. That is, there is a lot of noise (air turbulence) when they are made. You will notice this when you hear native Arabic speakers. Until then, you can listen to the weaker fricative sounds provided in this Wikipedia page. Those sounds are close enough to the Arabic ones.


The four pharyngealized Arabic consonants ط , ض , ð̣ ظ , and ص are known as the ’emphatic’ consonants. These consonants share the place and manner of articulation with the plain t ت , d د , ð ذ , and s س , but the difference is that they are pronounced with an additional, ‘secondary’ articulation, which is pharyngealization, or constriction of the pharynx.

The best way to pronounce the emphatic consonants is to start with their plain equivalents. For example, try pronouncing ص as s س . Now try to make the same sound, but as if your mouth was full of cotton wool, so that you have to say s with your tongue drawn back. The sound produced should have a sort of ‘dark’ quality. This is the sound of ص .


The uvular sound q ق may be thought of as an emphatic version of the velar k ك . This sound usually gives European speakers a hard time. It sounds a bit like k ك , but it is pronounced very far back in the throat.

When you say k ك , you touch the roof of your mouth with more or less the middle of your tongue. When you say q ق , you touch the very back of your tongue to the soft palate in the back of your mouth.


The Arabic letter ʔalif أَلِفٌ has two forms in writing, a form that denotes a glottal stop consonant ʔ أ , and a form that denotes a long open vowel ȃ ا . Both of these forms are called ʔalif, but they are very different sounds phonetically. The word hamza·t هَمْزَةٌ (in Latin ʔalif hamzatum) is a specific name for the glottal stop ʔ أ .

Like any other Arabic consonant, the hamza·t can appear both at the beginning and end of syllables. English does have the glottal stop sound at the beginning of syllables, but it is not perceived as a letter (phoneme). The glottal stop sound becomes noticeable in English when it separates between successive syllables, as in the exclamation “uh-oh,” in the sequence “an aim” as opposed to “a name,” or in “grade A” as opposed to “gray day.” The glottal stop is the little “catch” in the voice at the beginning of each syllable.

The real problem for English-speakers (and many others) is the syllable-terminal glottal stop, that is, a glottal stop not followed by a vowel. This sound does not exist in English, but it is common in Arabic. My suggestion is to try pronouncing it like an extremely short vowel in a separate syllable of its own. Basically, you need to say this syllable and terminate it before it has left your throat.


The sound ʕ ع is usually very hard for European speakers to make. Unfortunately, it is a common sound in Arabic.

The sound ʕ ع is a voiced pharyngeal fricative. That means that the sound is made by constricting the muscles of the pharynx so that the flow of air through the throat is partially choked off. One eminent Arabist once suggested that the best way to pronounce this sound is to gag. This sound has been compared to the bleating of a lamb, and to the sound you make when you are being strangled. It has also been described as a swallowed “ah”.

Perhaps the best way to make this sound is to listen to Arabic speakers and try to imitate them. It appears that the audio samples of the pharyngeal sounds in this Wikipedia page are made by native Arabic speakers.


The sound ħ ح may be thought of as an emphatic h هـ . Imagine that you have just swallowed a spoonful of the hottest chilies imaginable: that “haaa” sound that results should be a good approximation of ħ ح .

The sound ħ ح is an unvoiced version of ʕ ع . In other words, it is made just like ʕ ع , except that when you say the latter your vocal cords vibrate, but when you say the former they do not.

Do not worry too much if you cannot get q ق , ʕ ع , and ħ ح right away. Quite a few learned people have struggled for decades with them. As a first approximation, you can pronounce q ق like k ك , ʕ ع like ʔ ء , and ħ ح like h هـ ; but this should be only a temporary measure, more or less equivalent to the Arabic-speaker who says “blease” instead of “please”‘ (as you will have noticed, there is no letter p in Arabic).


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