A Brief Guide to the Arabic Chat Alphabet, 'Arabizi'
By Emily Tain/Arab America Contributing Writer
English, for the most part, is solely written in the Latin alphabet. Romance languages, like French and Spanish, also use the Latin alphabet with a few additions. The farther you stray from the US and UK, the more alphabets there are: Greek, Cyrillic, and Hebrew are just a few. The Arabic alphabet, for example, is also used with languages other than Arabic (Urdu, Farsi, etc.). Languages, however, are not constrained to a single alphabet; transliteration is a method used to “translate” words from one alphabet phonetically into another.
This is used for a multitude of reasons, like when one wants to practice using a new alphabet or when a word does not exist in one language but does in another. Take, for example, “التيليفون” which means telephone in Arabic. When sounded out, the word is just telephone in French using Arabic letters. It is not outlandish, then, to think that Arabic words can be transliterated into the Latin alphabet. Words like these are all around us. For example, hijab is an Arabic word used more often than any English equivalent because it has such a specific meaning.
Arabizi, more formally known as the Arabic Chat Alphabet, is a system of writing Arabic in Latin letters. This article serves to explain how transliteration works and how Arabizi deals with sounds that appear in one language but not the other.
The Arabic alphabet has some distinct differences from the Latin one, most specifically in letters and sounds. While English has 26 letters, the Arabic alphabet has 28. Some English letters do not have direct equivalents in the Arabic alphabet (c, g, x, etc.), and even more Arabic letters do not have equivalents in the Latin alphabet. Because of this, in tandem with the rise of the internet and social media, the Arabic Chat Alphabet (more widely known as Arabizi) was created. In this article, I will be laying out the overall Arabic Chat Alphabet system and more specifically the use of numbers as letters when transliterating from Arabic to English.
Many Arabic letters and sounds have equivalents in the Latin alphabet. For example, “alhamdulillah,” meaning “thanks be to God,” can be easily transliterated. Other words, however, have a limitation: there is no suitable replacement for the Arabic letter. In response to this issue, a system involving numbers as letters was created. Below, I will list every letter without a Latin equivalent and its numerical substitution.
Numbers as Letters
This letter seems very similar to the English “h,” but is airier than how English speakers usually use it. For most letters, I will be providing a link to a video with its pronunciation. Its equivalent is the number 7. Example: “7ayah” means hot (Arabic: حياة)
This letter is most efficiently pronounced as “kh” in English and is very similar to the chi (χ) in Greek (think Bach). Its pronunciation can be found in this video. Speakers often use 5 to represent this letter. Example: “5amsa” means five (Arabic: خمسة)
Ayn is a letter that many native English speakers find difficult to pronounce because it has no real English pronunciation. This video gives a brief introduction to pronouncing this letter. In Arabizi, this letter is 3. Example: “3arab” means Arab (Arabic: عرب)
This letter is slightly more familiar for English speakers but mainly through exposure to French. Some unable to pronounce this letter will use “gh” as a replacement, but it is best pronounced like the r in Paris when speaking French. Here is a video on how to pronounce this letter. Speakers use 8 to represent this letter. Example: “lou8a” means language (Arabic: لغة)
This letter is very similar to the English “s” but is heavier in pronunciation, almost like an “o” always follows the letter. A video on how to pronounce this letter can be found here. When learning the Arabic alphabet, we often refer to this letter as “sod.” The number 9 is usually used to represent sod. Example: “9aba7” means morning (Arabic: صباح)
Similar in form to sod, this letter is a heavier version of the English “d” and is referred to as “dod.” Here is a video on how to pronounce this letter. Like the preceding patterns, dod is transliterated as 9’. Example: “9’bab” means fog (Arabic: ضباب)
Following the theme of deeper versions of English letters, this letter is pronounced as a heavier “t” and is referred to as “taw” in many classrooms. A pronunciation video can be found here. The number assigned to this letter is 6. Example: “6ama6im” means tomato (Arabic: طماطم)
By slightly modifying “taw,” one creates a letter harder to equivocate in English but is sometimes transliterated to “z,” “th,” or “dh.” This video demonstrates how to pronounce this letter. Not surprisingly, this letter is 6’ in Arabizi. Example: “6’arf” means envelope (Arabic: ظرف)
This letter can be hard for English speakers to distinguish from our “k” sound but is distinctively different in Arabic. While it is easiest to call it “q,” this can become confusing for English speakers who are used to u following q. Here is a video showing how to pronounce this letter. This letter is equally as hard to pin down in Arabizi, as it can be represented by 2, 8, 9, g, or q. Example: “da2e2a” means minute (Arabic: دقيقة)
Last is hamza, which is overall a very hard letter to describe in English. A video talking about how it is used in Arabic can be found here. In Arabizi, this letter is represented by 2. Example: “2ustad” means teacher (Arabic: أستاذ)
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