Islamic design
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Glossary addendum
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The Arabic alphabet, transliteration and Arabic numbering

A petroglyph at Jabal Fuwairat

Just as with the Arabian oryx on the glossary page, these petroglyphs, photographed at Jabal Fuwairat in the nineteen seventies, are placed here as I have yet to write anything about them on the other pages. They, like the oryx, are an important part of the history of the peninsula. They are believed to be representative of ships and board games and some are thought to have been carved in the rocks up to six centuries ago. Note the pronunciation of the word ‘jabal’ immediately below.


Arabic is transliterated by a number of different methods, but the various systems all seem to produce arbitrary pronunciations. This is particularly true when looking at pronunciation within the Arabian Gulf. Where I have used transliterated Arabic words I have aimed for an approximation in English of the way in which I have heard it spoken by Gulf Arabs.

For instance, Egyptians pronounce the letter ’jim’ or ’jeem’ – ’j’ – hard as in the word for hill, ’gebel’, whereas Gulf Arabs pronounce it softly as in ‘jabal’, or even ‘jebel’. Bear in mind that it is written in Arabic, ’jabal’.

Some of the words have been given me by Arabs from other areas and it is likely that there may be a number of irregularities because of this. In one area there is a particular difficulty which looks illogical on paper: this is the manner in which the indefinite pronoun 'the' is written and pronounced.

Although the two transliterated letters which make up the Arabic form of ‘the’ are always written in the same way – ‘al’ – their pronunciation differs according to the first letter of the following noun. These initial letters are sometimes called ‘sun and moon’ letters; the ‘sun’ letters causing the ‘l’ of ‘al’ to be dropped and the pronoun elided with the noun. Hence ‘al shams’ is actually pronounced ‘ash-shams’ with no effective break between the two words. This rule applies to the following Arabic letters:

Arabic letter



d as in ad-doha bay
l al-liwan covered terrace
r ar-raml sand or dust
s as-seqf ceiling
sh ash-shams sun
t at-tabiq storey
th ath-thulaja refrigerator
z az-zulij mosaics

Words are normally written or printed in their consonantal form only. The diacritics – the signs which give the vowelling – are omitted, and it is up to the reader to assume the correct understanding within the given context. This can cause difficulties. For instance a man and a foot are represented by the same three consonants: ’r’,’j’,’l’, – but are pronounced respectively, rajuland rijl. The three vowels are the equivalent of the English ‘a’, ‘i’ and ‘u’. There is also a written device – the shedda– which doubles consonants.

In Arabic there are neither of the English vowels, ’e’ or ’o’, nevertheless you will see that I have transliterated a number of words as having those vowels, as that appears to be how I have heard them spoken.

To complicate matters the form of the letters of the Arabic alphabet have rules governing their appearance when connected to letters on each side of them – remember to read from right to left:

the four versions of the letter sheen the four versions of the letter sheen

some letters can be attached to the letter that precedes them but not to the ones in front of them, such as –

and some can be attached both to the letters in front and the letters behind – assuming this is not disallowed by the above rules:

Because of the difficulties of representing Arabic in English I have elected to simplify where possible, assuming that a person using the glossary will have heard the word in Arabic and will be looking for its meaning without knowledge of the letters of the Arabic alphabet, or the structure of its language.

Finally it should be noted that the printed and written forms of Arabic are different as they are, in fact, in English.

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Arabic alphabet

The letters of the Arabic alphabet, but with no reference to a base line, are:

Arabic letter





alif alif a or aa
ba ba b
ta ta t (soft)
tha tha th
jeem jim j
ha ha voiceless pharyngeal fricative h (hard)
kha kha voiceless uvular fricative kh
sin shin s (soft)
shin shin sh
dal shin d
dhal shin dh
ain shin glottal stop a’ or ’
ghain shin voiced uvular fricative gh
ta shin t (hard)
dha shin voiced alveolar fricative dh
fa shin f
qaf shin voiceless uvular stop q
rim shin r
zad shin z
sad shin s (hard)
dhad shin voiced alveolar stop dh
kaf shin k
lam shin l
mim shin m
nun shin n
wow shin w
ya shin y

In addition there is the silent Arabic ‘t’ which is the equivalent of the ‘h’ and features as a feminine singular suffix, as does a form of ‘y’ pronounced in the same way as the vowel ‘a’.


The Arabic language has a tri-consonantal form and its basic root is the third person singular of the past tense. For instance kataba– he wrote – forms the basis of the vocabulary related to writing. From this are developed kitab, – a book, kuwtub– books, maktoub– a letter, kaatib– a scribe, and ektoub– the imperative, write!

Definite and indefinite pronouns

The indefinite pronoun ‘a’ or ‘an’ is not translated by Arabic into a specific word, but is assumed within the noun it describes. Thus ‘a book’ in Arabic would be kitab. However, the definite pronoun ‘the’ is translated in Arabic by ‘al’, as in ‘the book’ - al kitab.

Noun plurals

Two of a kind are described in Arabic by the addition of the suffix ‘ain’ to the single noun. Hence ‘kitab’– a book, but ‘kitabain’– two books.

A separate form exists for any number from three to ten of a kind but, above that, the noun form returns to the singular. Three books would be ‘thalatha kuwtub’and ten books would be ‘ashra kuwtub’, but eleven would be described as ‘hedashra kitab’, and a thousand books, ‘elf kitab’.

Comparative adjectives

Comparative adjectives are generally described in two forms with the prefix ‘the’ added to the median form to produce the superlative form. Hence big, bigger, biggest is translated as ‘kabir’, ‘akbar’, ‘al akbar’.

There are a number of different standards for the transliteration of Arabic into English. Here I have put the system I have used together with the definition of all the words used in these essays.

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Arabic numbers

By which I mean ‘numbers’ not ‘numerals’. I am referring to the numbers that the Arabs use. ‘Arabic numerals’ are what we in the West use in our numbering system; Arabs use what they call ‘Indian numbers’. We use the term ‘Arabic numerals’ as the numbers were brought to the West by the Arabs, via Persia, from India. I hope that’s clear…

So, here are the principal Arabic numbers. Bear in mind that the writing of Arabic numbers is grammatically quite complicated. What I have put down here is a simplified way in which I have heard it used in the Gulf:



waahid one
ithnayn two
thalatha three
arba’a four
khamsa five
sita six
saba’a seven
thamaanya eight
tisa’a nine
ashra ten

Two of anything is formed by taking the single form and adding ‘ain’ to the end, hence one man is waahid rajul (although the ‘waahid’ is superfluous), but rajulain for two men, then from three to ten, rajul will take the plural form, rijaal– three rijaal, four rijaal and so on.

ihad’ashra eleven
ithna’ashra twelve
thalathat’ashra thirteen
arba’at’ashra fourteen
khamsat’ashra fifteen
sita’ashra sixteen
saba’at’ashra seventeen
thamaanyat’ashra eighteen
tisa’at’ashra nineteen

From 11 to 99 any noun related to a number takes the accusative singular and not the plural form. Hence, eleven rajul, eighty-seven rajul, etc.

ishreen twenty
ahidowishreen twenty-one
thalatheen thirty
arba’aeen forty
khamseen fifty
siteen sixty
saba’aeen seventy
thamanteen eighty
tisa’ateen ninety

From a hundred upwards, numbers can be simply constructed from the foregoing.

maya’ one hundred
maya’tain two hundred
thaltha maya three hundred
alf one thousand
alfain two thousand
thalatha alaaf three thousand
alf alf or milyoon one million

For anything else, and to sort out any problems I have given you, I strongly advise you look at an Arabic grammar and a dictionary relevant to the geographical area you are dealing with.


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