Everything You Need to Know About the Arabic Alphabet

Colorful artwork Arabic letters style

Currently, Arabic script is one of the most commonly used writing systems in the world. You can find it utilized as the primary alphabet in many areas of Asia and Africa, as well as in various ethnic communities globally. In addition to Arabic, some of the languages that use Arabic script include Farsi, Urdu, Kurdish, Sindhi, Pashto and Arabi Malayalam.

Most important facts about the Arabic alphabet

  • The Arabic alphabet, called al-abjadīya, has 29 letters. All of them are pure consonants except for three.
  • There is only 3 vowel sounds in Arabic: /a:/, /i:/ and /u:/
  • The sound of each letter is different than the name of the letter.
  • Arabic is written and read from right to left.
  • Arabic letters are made up of a series of strokes and written in a cursive style.
  •  Most letters have four different forms (initial, medial, final and independent) except for 6 letters (ز ـ ر ـ ذ ـ د ـ و ـ ا)  can only be linked to their preceding letter, hence have only two forms, independent and final.
  • Arabic contains vowel diacritics, which are not directly part of the alphabet but used to mark short vowels, and other special symbols. The bulk of Arabic script is written without those vowels, also called ḥarakāt. However, they are commonly used in texts that demand strict adherence to exact pronunciation like the Qur’an and poetry. It is also quite common to add ḥarakāt to hadiths, the Bible, and children’s literature. Moreover, ḥarakāt are used in ordinary texts in individual words when an ambiguity of pronunciation cannot easily be resolved from context alone. In art and calligraphyḥarakāt might be used simply because their writing is considered aesthetically pleasing.

Arabic alphabet table

Letter nameLetter name in ArabicTransliterationFinal formMedial formInitial formIndependent
ʾalifأَلِفāـاا
bāʾباءbـبـبـبـب
tāʾتاءtـتـتـتـت
thāʾثاءth / ṯـثـثـثـث
jīmجيمjـجـجـجـج
ḥāʾحاءـحـحـحـح
khāʾخاءkh / ẖـخـخـخـخ
dālدالdـدد
dhālذالdh / ḏـذذ
rāʾراءrـرر
zāyزايzـزز
sīnسينsـسـسـسـس
shīnشينsh / šـشـشـشـش
ṣādصادـصـصـصـص
ḍādضادـضـضـضـض
ṭāʾطاءـطـطـطـط
ẓāʾظاءـظـظـظـظ
ʿaynعَيْنʿـعـعـعـع
ghaynغَيْنgh / ġـغـغـغـغ
fāʾفاءfـفـفـفـف
qāfقافqـقـقـقـق
kāfكافkـكـكـكـك
lāmلامlـلـلـلـل
mīmمِيمmـمـمـمـم
nūnنُونnـنـنــنـن
hāʾهاءhـه‎ـهـ‎‎هـ‎ه
wāwواوw / ūـوو
yāʾياءy / īـيـيـيـي
hamza (the hamza doesn’t have any proper sound it’s more like a glottal stop)هَمْزةʾء\ئ\أ\ؤئـ\أ\ؤ\ءأء

Arabic alphabetical order

There are two main collating sequences for the Arabic alphabet, both read from right to left:

Abjadī

The ʾabjadī lettering system is ultimately derived from the Phoenician alphabet. Therefore, it shares similarities with other Phoenician-based alphabets, such as the Hebrew alphabet. With this system, letters double as numbers known as Abjad numerals. It is usually vocalized this way:

ʾabjad hawwaz ḥuṭṭī kalaman saʿfaṣ qarashat thakhadh ḍaẓagh.

ءغظضخذثتشرقصفعسنملكيطحزوهدجبا
ʾghkhdhthtshrqfʿsnmlkyzwhdjba

Hijāʾī

The hijā’ī order groups letters by similarity of shape and is used in places where lists of names and words need to be sorted, such as phonebooks, classroom lists, and dictionaries. However, the newer hijāʾī order is what modern dictionaries use for alphabetical sorting; this is because it allows forletters to be partially grouped together based on similarities in shape. Additionally, the hijāʾī order can never be used as numerals.

ءيوهنملكقفغعظطضصشسزرذدخحجثتبا
ʾywhnmlkqfghʿshszrdhdkhjthtba

Sun and moon letter

The concept of sun and moon letters is directly bound to letters’ relationship with the definite article ال /al/ attached at the beginning of a word.

Half of the Arabic letters are what we call ‘sun letters‘ while the other half are ‘moon letters‘.

Sun letters / الحُرُوف الشّمْسِيّة ☀️

Named after the first letter of the Arabic word for ‘sun’ شَمْس (shams) – ‘sun letters’ are those that have an assimilating quality, such as ش /sh/. They cause the sound لـ /l/, of the definite article, to blend in with it.

For example: ‘the sun’ written al-shams would be pronounced ash-shams.

As a compensation you’ll have to double up on the initial consonant by adding a shadda (  ّ ) above it. In transliteration processes though, both these changes are left unnoticed.

شسزرذدثتنلظطضص
shszrdhdthtnl

Moon letters / الحُرُوف القَمَرِيّة 🌙

The other fourteen letters are called moon letters, because the first letter, ق /q/, of the Arabic word for ‘moon’, قَمَرٌ (qamarun), represents the class of non-assimilating letters. In other words as opposed to ‘sun letters’ they do not cause the sound لـ /l/, of the definite article, to blend in with it.

For example: ‘the moon’ written al-qamar would be pronounced the same way (al-qamar and not aq-qamar). Same goes with any other ‘moon letter’.​​

يوهمكقفغعخحجبأ
y/īw/ūhmkqfghʿkhjbā

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  1. Merci pour ce très bel article. Avez-vous des informations sur la lettre Hamza ? Il me semble que c’est un son qui est devenu une lettre au moment de la transcription du Coran.