English Arabic translation requires a very sound knowledge of the pronunciation and usage of the Arabic letters. This statement especially holds true with Arabic language as it is a very phonetic language.
In this and a series of next articles, we will discuss in detail the basic alphabets and symbols of the Arabic language. We recommend that you begin by reading the first article we have written, which clearly explains the basic principles of Arabic language and how Arabic script largely differs from English script.
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Alif is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet system. The letter alif has two main functions. Its first function is to represent a long vowel and the second main function is to represent a consonant.
The pronunciation of alif when used as a long vowel represents the sound which resembles the sound of letter 'a' as in father. However it can also represent the sound of letter 'a' as in the English word bad. This difference in usage is very common and can be the result of either the surrounding consonants or because of the differences in regional dialect. Generally people of the Gulf region pronounce the letter alif as the alphabet 'a' in father, whereas people in the Mediterranean area, which lies farther west, pronounce 'alif' like the alphabet 'a' in bad.
Whatever the case, the letter alif is a long vowel and should be clearly distinguished from its shorter counterpart, fatHa, which is a short vowel. As a rule of thumb, the length of a long vowel during pronunciation should at least be double the length of a short vowel. The sound of fatHa is similar to English alphabet 'e' as in bed. Just like alif, fatHa is also pronounced differently, however not depending on the regional dialect but just on the consonants surrounding it. It too can range from frontal to deep variants of tongue. Whereas the frontal pronunciation of fatHa sounds like the English letter 'e' as in bed, the deep fatHa sounds like English 'u' as in but. Below is the image of the short vowel fatHa.
The second main function of the alphabet alif is to represent the consonant "hamza". When the letter "alif" occurs at the beginning of a word it can represent a consonant sound called "hamza". Hamza is written, either, as just the letter "alif" or a shape on top of "alif" like shown in the picture below. In this case the alif is considered to be the seat of the hamza.
The letter alif never connects to next letter which follows it. Depending on the position of alif in a word, the shape of alif can vary in between its two variants. When used independently or at the beginning of a word, alif is written as a single stroke, generally drawn from top to bottom as shown in the picture below.
When alif is the final or medial letter in a word, it is written from bottom to up, like shown in the image below. As previously mentioned alif does not connect to the letter which follows it and the next letter is started as if it were the beginning of a new word.