Arabic Grammar – 35

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►II.4. THE VOWELS

There are six vowels in Arabic, three short vowels a, u, i and three long vowels ā, ū, ī. Only the three long vowels are written with the alphabet. The three short vowels are usually not indicated in the written text—readers must guess them on their own.

In the Arabic linguistic tradition the long vowels are considered letters, but the short vowels are not. When I use the word ‘letter’ on this website I mean by it the consonants and the long vowels, but not the short vowels.

►II.4.A. EXTENSION LETTERS

The three long vowels are indicated with the following alphabet letters:

Extension Letters (litterae extensionis)
Name Letter Transliteration Sound

أَلِفُ اَلْمَدِّ

ʔalifu ʔ·al-maddi

ʔalif of extension

ʔalif extensionis

ا ȃ

وَاْوُ اَلْمَدِّ

wȃwu ʔ·al-maddi

wȃw of extension

wȃw extensionis

و ȗ

يَاْءُ اَلْمَدِّ

yȃʔu ʔ·al-maddi

yȃʔ of extension

yȃʔ extensionis

ي ȋ

Note: In a few Arabic words the long vowels are not indicted with letters (see §II.13.). I will transliterate such vowels with the symbols ā, ū, ī.

The three letters that indicate the long vowels are called in Arabic the extension letters حُرُوْفُ الْمَدِّ . Another name applied to them sometimes is the matres lectionis (“mothers of reading”).

The letters ʔalif ا / أ , wȃw و and yȃʔ ي are called the weak letters (litterae infirmae) حُرُوْفُ الْعِلَّةِ . The other letters are called the sound letters (litterae firmae) حُرُوْفُ الْصِّحَّةِ . One characteristic of the weak letters is that they can be extension letters, i.e. denote long vowels.

The letter ʔalif is unambiguous, it has a specific written form ا when it indicates the vowel ȃ. The letters wȃw و  and yȃʔ ي  are ambiguous because they can denote either the vowels ȗ and ȋ or the semivowel consonants w and y.

►II.4.B. VOWEL DIACRITICS

The short vowels are called in Arabic the “moves of the letters” حَرَكَاْتُ الْحُرُوْفِ .

For educational and other special purposes, the short vowels or the “moves” are sometimes indicted with diacritical marks. These diacritics appear above or below the letter preceding the short vowel.

In the following table, the short-vowel diacritics are placed on the letter b ب to show you how they work:

Short vowel diacritics
Name of the vowel Letter with diacritic Transliteration & Sound

فَتْحٌ

fatħuṋ

“opening”

َب ba

ضَمٌّ

ḍammuṋ

“joining”

ُب bu

كَسْرٌ / خَفْضٌ

kasruṋ/xafḍuṋ

“breaking/lowering”

ِب bi

سُكُوْنٌ

sukȗnuṋ

“stillness”

ْب b

►II.4.C. VOWEL PRONUNCIATION

§a. You might have noticed that Arabic lacks the mid vowels o and e. Those mid vowels do actually exist in Arabic speech, but they are merely variants (allophones) of the three main vowels a, u, and i.

The pronunciation of the Arabic vowels varies a great deal from dialect to dialect, and even within the same dialect in different words. Some Arabic-speakers (like myself) never pronounce the real a, u, and i. In my speech the sounds u and i are pronounced more like o and e, but this is only my speech (the dialect of Aleppo, Syria). Other Arabic-speakers do say the real u and i (for example, in Idlib, Syria, which is a short distance from Aleppo).

In some sources you may find exact details on how to pronounce the vowels of Modern Standard Arabic, with symbols such as [æ] and [ɑ] being used for great detail. However, the truth is that there is no exact standard for the pronunciation of Modern Standard Arabic vowels.

In Arabic it does not matter much if you say o instead of u, e instead of i, or either of o or e instead of a. Arabic-speakers will understand you anyway. They may just think that you speak a different dialect from their own. What matters much in Arabic vowel pronunciation is not the quality of the vowels but the quantity, that is, the length. If you say ȗ or ō instead of the short u this may change the meaning of the word you are trying to say, and so it may cause Arabic-speakers to not understand you or misunderstand you.

§b. In modern spoken Arabic there are no terminal long vowels. Terminal vowels that are written long ȃ, ȗ, ȋ  are pronounced short a, u, i. It is probable that this was also true in most dialects of Classical Arabic (more in §II.12. & §II.19.).

►II.4.D. DIPHTHONGS

Standard Arabic is often said to have the two diphthongs aw and ay, but these sounds should probably not be called diphthongs. A true diphthong is a combination of two vowels (e.g. au, ai). The Arabic sounds aw and ay are probably combinations of a vowel and a semivowel (a semivowel is a type of consonant. It is also called a glide, and the most correct term is an approximant). Arabic continuant sounds are in general tighter than their European counterparts. If ai and ay are phonetically equal in European languages, the same is not necessarily true in Arabic. According to the Classical linguists, some people in Arabia would say ʔamsaǵtu أَمْسَجْتُ instead of the usual form ʔamsaytu أَمْسَيْتُ for “I spent a night.” This kind of sound shift is easier to understand if we were talking about the sequence ay, where y is a stronger sound than a brief i.

It is likely that Arabic (like Proto-Semitic) lacks any true diphthong phonemes. When diphthongs are heard in the speech of some Arabic-speakers nowadays, they are merely allophones of long monophthongs.

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