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The Arabic Writing System

Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses the Arabic writing system. It begins with linguistic description of the components of Classical and Modern Standard Arabic writing, followed by accounts of their use to represent the language and of the use of the script as art and in technology. The article concludes with summaries of both the past and prospects of the script.

Keywords: Arabic writing, script, linguistic, language, art, technology

18.1 Introduction

The Arabic language has been written with essentially the same script since the Quran first took written shape, and indeed sporadically even before. A few commercial papyri have also survived from the first decades AH (640s–650s CE). The script and orthography of the Quran have been normative for written Arabic of all kinds since the fixing of a canonical, vocalized text by the 5th/11th century.1

This chapter begins with a linguistic description of the components of Classical/Modern Standard Arabic writing, followed by accounts of their use to represent the language and of the use of the script as art and in technology. The chapter is completed by summaries of both the past and prospects of the script.

18.2 What It Is

As in all the ancestral scripts of the West Semitic family, the basic symbols denote only consonants, and they are written in horizontal lines from right to left, the linear skeleton (p. 413) (rasm)2 of most words being written as a unit, without lifting the pen. Largely optional symbols are available for vowels and certain morphophonemic features of the language.

18.2.1 Consonants

The Arabic script has 28 consonant letters and one obligatory ligature that has sometimes been counted as a 29th letter. Presentations of Arabic script customarily show (Table 18.1) that each letter appears in four forms (initial, medial, final, and independent), but this is misleading: the different “forms” of the letters are simply shapes conditioned by their surroundings, and most need not be learned separately. The shapes traditionally called “initial” can be taken as the bases (Table 18.2).

Most of the letters within a word can be written without lifting the pen except to add the dots and the strokes (of The Arabic Writing System, The Arabic Writing System,and The Arabic Writing System) that complete some of the letters. The, shape of a few letters changes to accommodate the stroke connecting it from the preceding letter to the right, most noticeably the two letters The Arabic Writing System (or better, this one shape) 〉 The Arabic Writing System, and The Arabic Writing System unwinds to The Arabic Writing System or sometimes the alternative form The Arabic Writing System. Exceptions to joining are The Arabic Writing System, and The Arabic Writing System;these six letters (or better, these four shapes) do not connect with any letter that follows them on the left. The succeeding letter within the word then appears in the base shape. At the end of the word, several of the shapes receive decorative flourishes: The Arabic Writing System become a shallow bowl (the dots move off the tooth [sometimes called a minim] but not off the loop): The Arabic Writing System become a deeper bowl: The Arabic Writing System and The Arabic Writing System takes an “oil lamp” shape: The Arabic Writing System. The 3The Arabic Writing System and The Arabic Writing System shapes acquire a (p. 414) graceful curve (clockwise following a minim, counterclockwise otherwise): The Arabic Writing System. The The Arabic Writing System adds a miniature of itself: The Arabic Writing System. The letters The Arabic Writing System and The Arabic Writing System reach below the baseline: The Arabic Writing System. Final The Arabic Writing System has the distinctive shape The Arabic Writing System, and when it is unconnected to the right or left, The Arabic Writing System. These ten shapes (amounting to 20 or 21[The Arabic Writing System 18.2.3] letters; the rest are the six noncon nectors plus The Arabic Writing System and The Arabic Writing System) account for most word-ending characters, so there is little need for extra space between words in Arabic-script texts.

Table 18.1 Excerpt from traditional presentation of the Arabic script






The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System


The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System


The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

Table 18.2 The letters of Arabic (read right to left)

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System

The Arabic Writing System






















a. In Maghribi (northwest African) writing, f is The Arabic Writing System and q is The Arabic Writing System.

Because the letter that originally denoted the glottal stop /ʔ/ is no longer used for that purpose (see, a character not counted as a letter—but not omissible—has been introduced: The Arabic Writing System (hamza; see

In handwriting and in careful typography (a standard that has only recently been approached in computer Arabic typesetting; 18.3.3), numerous ligatures (distinctive combinations of adjacent shapes—in which the separate letters can sometimes be hard to distinguish) have developed, but only one is obligatory: the sequence The Arabic Writing System then The Arabic Writing System appears as The Arabic Writing System. The name Allāh is condensed to The Arabic Writing System.

18.2.2 Vowels

The three vowel phonemes of Classical and Modern Standard Arabic are notated optionally with The Arabic Writing System (fatḥa) – i (kasra), and The Arabic Writing System (ḍamma). The marks are placed above or below the letter for the consonant that precedes. A further mark, The Arabic Writing System (sukūn), is placed above the letter for a consonant followed by no vowel.

18.2.3 Other Points

A number of other points can be considered morphophonemic. A triplet of signs that indicate the pronunciation of a consonant n not written with a letter is The Arabic Writing System (tanwīn), effectively doubling the vowel signs, to mark indefiniteness with each of the case endings –an, -in, and un, respectively. Consonant length (“doubling”) is marked with The Arabic Writing System (šadda);4 in generally unpointed text, this is the mark that is most likely not to be omitted. Where kasra is used with šadda, it can appear below it rather than below the consonant: قَتَّل qattila, as if the šadda itself were a second consonant. The feminine ending -t that is pronounced in context but omitted in pause combines the letter The Arabic Writing System h with the dots of The Arabic Writing System t: The Arabic Writing System (tā marbūṭah).

18.2.4 Excursus on Terminology

The writing system under discussion is traditionally called the Arabic alphabet. However, considerations based in the historical typology of writing (Daniels 1992) (p. 415) suggest that the term alphabet should be restricted to writing systems in which consonants and vowels are represented on an equal footing (like the Greek or Latin alphabets), with the term abjad5 used for systems in which only consonants are represented.6

The dots that distinguish consonants are often called diacritics (e.g., Revell 1975). But since the dots are (now) integral parts of the letters, as much so as the dot on 〈i〉, they should not be given that label in synchronic description. (The term could perhaps be used of the vocalic and morphophonemic pointing, but it seems unnecessary because of the term pointing.)

A term that has found new life in phonological theory is mora, used to account for “heavy” and “light” syllables. It was first used in modern linguistics to label the units of the Japanese writing system (McCawley 1968), where each symbol denotes either a CV syllable, vowel length, or consonant length [Hellmuth, “Phonology”]. In an influential but unpublished paper, Poser (1992) is said to have claimed that virtually all “syllabographies” are actually “moraographies,” but elsewhere7 we learn that, for him, “a syllabic writing system is one in which each syllable is represented by a distinct graph”—that is, the speech stream is fully analyzed and represented; whereas in traditional usage, in a syllabary each graph represents a distinct syllable, even if some segments go unrepresented. Poser’s definition is also at odds with phonological theory, where the initial C of any syllable is not included in any mora at all (cf. Watson 2002).8 If, however, we revert to the original Japanese-style sense, then Standard Arabic orthography—unpointed except for šadda—is a pure moraography (even in Poser’s sense), with a symbol for each CV syllable, each added V, and each added C. For fuller discussion, see Daniels in press a.

The term grapheme has been used in a variety of senses in writing-systems studies, perhaps most often to refer to a unit of correlation between sound and spelling (thus English 〈ee〉, 〈ea〉, and 〈e–e〉 for [ij] would be three different graphemes), though the extension of “emic” analysis to properties of the consciously devised phenomenon of writing is problematic (Daniels 1991b).9 However, it has recently been found among nonlinguists as the label for the 18 different linear shapes of the Arabic script (Massey 2003: 472b; Blair 2006: 8; Gacek 2009: 130a). This should be discouraged.

The traditional account of the triliteral Semitic root is just that: an account by lexicographers based in the writing system. It is doubtful that grammarians of any tradition, including the Arabic, would have come up with the notion of a CCC unit of language (as opposed to a pronounceable CCVC unit, say, as in Gray 1934), if it were not exactly what they saw written in virtually every word. Significantly, when the existing Syriac (p. 416) grammatical tradition began to be influenced by the nascent Arabic grammatical tradition, a notion that was not imported was the triliteral root (Bohas 2003, 2004; [Ratcliffe, “Morphology”]).10

18.3 How It Is Used

18.3.1 Orthography

Classical/Standard Arabic orthography is quite straightforward. Each consonant (short/‘single’ or long/‘double’) and long vowel ( is written with one letter, right to left in sequence. In addition there are various conventions associated with particular signs.11 Alif

An alif is added after the wāw of the e 3PL verb suffix: The Arabic Writing System katabū “they wrote”, The Arabic Writing System ramaw “they threw” (alif al-wiqāya). It is also added to support the The Arabic Writing System (except after The Arabic Writing System and The Arabic Writing System): رَجُلا raǧulun The Arabic Writing System raǧulan “a man (nom., acc.)”; The Arabic Writing System madīnatan “a town”; The Arabic Writing System samāʾ an “(a) heaven.” Final ā is usually written with alif curling below the line, resembling a ʾ without the dots: The Arabic Writing System ramā “he threw” (alif maqṣūra). The exception is IIIw roots: The Arabic Writing System da ‘a “he summoned” (and after The Arabic Writing System). It does not change for The Arabic Writing System: هُدىً hudan “right guidance.” Matrēs Lectionis

The use of certain consonant letters to indicate the presence of vowels is characteristic of Aramaic orthography. Such letters are called matrēs lectionis “mothers of reading” (Lat.; sg. mater lectionis). In Arabic, every long vowel is marked with the letters The Arabic Writing System for ā, The Arabic Writing System for ī, and The Arabic Writing System for ū. There are a few lexically determined exceptions, common words like The Arabic Writing System hāḏa “this” and The Arabic Writing System ḏālika “that”—and The Arabic Writing System Allāh—in which when the text is pointed, the dagger alif is used for ā. In pointed texts, the appropriate vowel point for a long vowel or a diphthong appears on the consonant preceding the vowel, and when the text is very carefully pointed, the vowellessness mark is added to the following mater or diphthong-closing letter. Hamza

The glottal stop marker usually appears in conjunction with a “seat of the hamza.” If ʔ is preceded or followed by ī, then it appears on The Arabic Writing System (without dots): The Arabic Writing System biʾ run “a well”; The Arabic Writing System qāʾimun “rising.” If it is preceded or followed by ŭ but not ĭ, then it appears on The Arabic Writing System raʾufa “he showed mercy.” If it is preceded and/or followed by ӑ, then it appears on The Arabic Writing System: The Arabic Writing System raʾsun “a head”; The Arabic Writing System ʾarʾasu “most important”; The Arabic Writing System saʾala “he asked”; The Arabic Writing System qaraʾa “he read.” After a long vowel or a consonant, it appears with no seat: The Arabic Writing System samāʾun “(a) heaven”; (p. 417) The Arabic Writing System barīʾun “innocent”; The Arabic Writing System sūʾun “a misfortune”; The Arabic Writing System sāʾala “he questioned”; The Arabic Writing System masʾalatun “a question.”12 The sequence ʔā is spelled The Arabic Writing System (alif madda) rather than The Arabic Writing System: The Arabic Writing System al-qurʾānu “the Quran.” Initially, if ʔ is followed by a or u, then it appears above alif:The Arabic Writing System ʾamrun “a command”; The Arabic Writing System ʾuxtun “a sister,” and if it is followed by i, then it appears below alif: The Arabic Writing System ʾibilun “camels.”

When the glottal stop is not a “real” consonant but introduces a phrase-initial prothetic vowel (a in the definite article: The Arabic Writing System al-kitābu “the book”; u in Form I imperatives The Arabic Writing System uqtul; i in nonimperfect CC derived forms and a few short words: The Arabic Writing System inqatala, ibnu “son”; but excluding the Form IV prefix ʾ a The Arabic Writing System aqtala), it is not written; phrase internally, where the prothetic vowel is replaced by the final vowel of the preceding word, in pointed text the alif is “elided” with waṣl The Arabic Writing System: The Arabic Writing Systemabdu l-maliki “the king’s servant.”

18.3.2 Calligraphy

Calligraphy is “beautiful writing.” In this era when print rather than handwriting represents the norm, the term can refer to just about any neatly written manuscript; it is this sense that enables Healey (1990–1991) to mention in this connection that early Arab scribes were exposed to carefully written manuscripts in both Syriac and Nabataean13 (though Déroche 2003: 258a points out that even the earliest Quran fragments are written in long lines while other Near Eastern manuscript traditions used columns). But the more pertinent distinction is brought out by Blair (1998: 8): “The inscriptions … were designed for clarity and immediate comprehension, the [calligraphy] was designed for aesthetic impact”; “The symbolic importance of many inscriptions is underscored by the fact that some are nearly unreadable and were meant to affirm symbolically the presence of the ruler” (ibid., 42).

Why should calligraphy have become the principal means of artistic expression in Islamic civilization? The facile answer is the prohibition in some circles of representational art, but similar strictures operated in Judaism and no similar efflorescence of calligraphic art involving Hebrew script ensued. Hoyland (2002: 25) mentions the precedent in Mesopotamian and Classical civilizations of using inscription as a major part of the decorative program of public buildings, but again this did not result in calligraphic freedom in cuneiform, Greek, or Latin scripts. Blair’s (2006: 6–16) observation that the many tall verticals of alif and lam that lent themselves to decoration and intertwining might have sowed the seed is valid.14 But what explains the move to ludic use, to visual play, to favoring “aesthetic impact” over legibility? Volov (1966), in an apparently (p. 418) little-known article given prominence by Blair (2006: 12f.), finds at least an impetus to it in the aniconic coinage of the Caliphate (late 1st/early 8th century),15 but art historians seem not to have asked this question.

Traditionally (e.g., Coulmas 1996: 20), Arabic bookhands have been divided into two classes: the angular kufic of the earliest Quranic manuscripts; and the rounded nasx (everything else). But in an extended series of publications beginning with Déroche (1980), the concept of “kufic” has been deconstructed (but in part recuperated by Blair 2007);16 terminology in general is dealt with by Gacek (2009).17 Ory (2001) focuses on the characteristics of the traditional scripts found in Quran manuscripts—though we have the names of the “six scripts” accepted by the calligraphic masters, how they were assigned to the scripts actually used is not always clear. The definitive work is Blair (2006).

18.3.3 Typography

As early as 1485, Sultan Bayazid II forbade printing in Arabic characters by Muslims throughout the Ottoman Empire (Bloom 2001: 214–26); several authors suggest this was the result of lobbying by the scribes’ and copyists’ guilds. 18 Arabic was first printed from movable type19 in 1514 and 1516 in Venice and Genoa, in volumes intended for Arab Christians—though a 1537–1538 Venice Quran printing probably intended for export to Turkey contained errors and the entire edition was destroyed (but for one copy). Thereafter, Arabic was not printed again until 1566 in Rome: these fonts could not be considered aesthetic successes. Not until 1580 was there another attempt at an Arabic font, this time done well—by the distinguished typographer Robert Granjon, whose fonts and fonts modeled on them remained in use through the 20th century (Glass and Roper 2002)—and it was first used in 1584–1585, for “the first printed book to consist entirely of a text from a secular Muslim, rather than a Christian source” (Roper 2002: 138). The printing of Arabic from movable type lagged behind the printing of other “exotic” scripts: “No printer or punch-cutter was likely to invest time and money in perfecting type-faces and composing techniques, unless there was a prospect of continuing (p. 419) demand for books which made use of them …; and the demand for Arabic texts among European scholars was minimal until the Renaissance revival of classical and Hebrew philology eventually extended to Arabic and other oriental languages, and the practical value of studying Arabic scientific texts in the original began to be appreciated” (Roper 2002: 141f.).20

Christians in Ottoman lands introduced printing in Quzḥayya, Lebanon, in 1610, and nearly a century later in Aleppo, Syria, the equipment imported from Europe. Napoleon brought a French printing-house to Alexandria in 1798, but it was not until Muhḥammad ‘Ali’s post-Napoleonic modernization attempts in Egypt that Muslims began sacred printing;21 newspapers and books soon followed. Publishing thrived in Beirut, again in Christian Arab hands. Almost as soon as there was printing of Arabic, there were suggestions of how to reform Arabic to make it more convenient to print. Glass (2004) is a comprehensive survey of the contents of one newspaper over decades, and (2004, vol. 2: 479–95) presents the discussion from the 1850s to the 1920s of a variety of reform proposals [Newman, “Nahḍa”]. Smitshuijzen AbiFares (2001: 73–78) 22 shows examples from the 20th century, including a system for simplification that underlay the IBM Selectric typewriter’s Arabic element that was used surprisingly successfully for American pedagogical materials for many years. Blair (2006: 604–11) adds still more examples. Hunziker (1985: 18–20) discusses one in detail but concludes that compromise is unwise. Nemeth (2006) presents the difficulties involved in biscriptal printing and notes that a not unsuccessful approach is to extend the ascenders and descenders of the roman letters (rather than to force Arabic letters to conform to the irrelevant concept of x-height) as is done in John Hudson and Mamoun Sakkal’s (2002) font “Arabic Typesetting” supplied with Microsoft products. Recent developments in electronic font technology allow the machine to substitute ligatures (some quite elaborate) for letter sequences, but satisfactory results remain elusive.

The Quran could not be printed in Muslim lands; after the Venetian failure of 1537–1538, brief excerpts appeared in Europe across the 17th century, in either grammatical or (hostile) theological contexts, capped by complete editions in 1694 (Hamburg; text only) and 1698 (Padua; with translation, commentary, and refutation). Complete Qurans were first printed for Muslim use in St. Petersburg under Catherine the Great after Russia had taken considerable Turkish territory; by 1803, the enterprise had moved to Kazan. The invention of lithography paved the way for printed Qurans from Persia and India and, finally, Istanbul (1850) and Cairo (1864).23 What became the standard (p. 420) European edition of the Quran first appeared in Leipzig in 1834 (typeset); the standard Muslim edition was published in 1924 by al-Azhar in Cairo (lithographed) (Bobzin 2002; Albin 2004).

18.4 Where It Came From

18.4.1 West Semitic Writing

The oldest known direct ancestor of the Arabic abjad is the “Proto-Sinaitic” of Twelfth-Dynasty Egypt (ca. 1800 BCE), which exemplifies the accidental nature of much script innovation (Daniels 2013: 58–60). The letter shapes, borrowed from Egyptian hieroglyphs, depict the objects whose names (Table 18.3) begin with each identified sound of the deviser’s language (words did not begin with vowels, so there are no symbols for vowels; Harris 1932;24 Hamilton 2006), confirming the acrophonic principle of the creation of the abjad.25 This system was used throughout the Levant, changing over the centuries to lose its pictographic character, for Canaanite languages (Phoenician, Hebrew) and then, in more rounded forms, for Aramaic languages, which came to spread throughout the Fertile Crescent and beyond. A signal characteristic of Aramaic orthography is the gradual introduction of matrēs lectionis (Cross and Freedman 1952); in Middle Aramaic (of the turn of the Common Era), virtually every ī and ū was spelled with 〈y〉 and 〈w〉 (Cantineau 1930–1932, vol. 1: 67). Old North Arabic

Tens of thousands of graffiti from almost everywhere in Arabia (Macdonald 2000) in languages closely related to Arabic (Macdonald 2004) are preserved in a South Semitic script notating the 29 consonants that does not use matrēs lectionis (except word-finally in one language). The script is clearly related to the monumental script of South Arabian, though it cannot be said with certainty whether the former is a cursivization of the latter or the latter a formalization of the former.

18.4.2 Nabataean Aramaic

The Middle Aramaic abjad had developed dozens of identifiable local varieties, some of them used by Arabic-speaking peoples who nonetheless kept their records in Aramaic; yet a consistent orthography of Arabic names was in use throughout their territory by the 5th century BCE (Diem 1976: 253). One such people was the Nabataeans, who (p. 421) occupied the rock-cut city of Petra (in southern present-day Jordan) and dominated the Sinai peninsula to the west, up to Damascus in the north, and the northwest of Arabia to the south and east; but they controlled the caravan routes throughout Arabia. Thousands (p. 422) of Nabataean inscriptions are known, from the Jordanian, Syrian, and Sinai deserts (and a few from Petra), dating between the 1st century BCE and the early 4th century CE [Retsö, “Arabic?”]. Cantineau (1930–1932) shows the increasing influence of Arabic on the language of the inscriptions, and eventually (with political developments) writing in Nabataean was abandoned. Healey (1990–1991) and Gruendler (1993) exhibit the changes in Nabataean letter shapes leading to early Arabic; Nehmé (2010) identifies a “transitional Nabataean” script in inscriptions, some previously known but most discovered in a 2004 survey of a northwest Saudi Arabian ancient caravan route, dating between the 3rd and 5th centuries CE.

Table 18.3 Numerical values and names of Arabic letters

Numerical value

Arabic lettera

Reconstructed letter name (Hamilton 2006)

Arabic letter name


The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System


“palm of hand”



The Arabic Writing System


“coil of rope”d



The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System




The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System





The Arabic Writing System



The Arabic Writing System



The Arabic Writing System



The Arabic Writing System



The Arabic Writing System



The Arabic Writing System


(a.) “Independent” form.

(b.) Or: “peg.”

(c.) Suggestion of W. F. Albright (1966).

(d.) Or: “oxgoad.”

(e.) Or: “fish.”

(f.) Or: “mouth.”

(g.) Or: “cricket.”

(h.) Or: “tooth.”

(i.) These “added letters” are known as rawādif; sg. perh. ridf (Lane 3:1068b lines 6–7) “what follows.”

Before the discovery of Nabataean inscriptions, it was assumed that the Arabic script developed from the Syriac (Gesenius 1815: 140). But as soon as the inscriptions were deciphered (Beer 1840), they were recognized as the antecedents of Arabic writing (Lewis and Macdonald 2003: 47). This became the standard account (Taylor 1883, vol. 1: 326–32; Giles 1903: 900b = 1910: 730a; 26 though Wright 1890: 40 clung to the earlier view); Taylor already anticipated Healey’s suggestion (18.3.2) of Syriac influence: “the resemblance … may be explained partly by the derivation of both alphabets from a common source, and partly by an assimilation to Syriac forms which seems to have taken place after the Arabs had established themselves in Syria” (ibid., 320 n. 2).27 In 1964, however, Starcky (1966) devotes just a few columns (962–964) to reviving the older notion, expanded on by Sourdel-Thomine (1966). The definitive refutation is provided by Grohmann (1971, vol. 2: 12–21) even without benefit of the discovery of “transitional Nabataean.”28

18.4.3 Paleography

The discussions in Arabic sources of the history of Arabic writing are treated (but not quoted or translated) by Nabia Abbott (1972: 3–17).29 Arabic paleography has long been subsumed in and subordinated to Arabic calligraphy (18.3.2);30 more recently, the traditional paleographic tasks of isolating characteristics useful in dating undated manuscripts and drawing up stemmata of the different bookhands has been pursued (p. 423) by Grohmann (1966: 31 1967, 1971),32 Gruendler (1993), and especially F. Déroche; see the detailed bibliographies in Gruendler (2006) and particularly Gruendler (2001) and Déroche (2003) and the modern treatment by Sijpesteijn (2008). The paleography of “documents” is explored—using photographs of details—by Khan (1992, 27–46). Consonants, Dotting, Pointing

Diem (1979–1983) describes the development of Arabic consonantal orthography out of Nabataean. By the time of the fixing of Arabic orthography, an intricate interplay of dialect difference (the rasm was recorded in Hijazi, a dialect that had lost /ʔ/ entirely) and analogy had resulted in adding the sign The Arabic Writing System (hamza) to the system and using The Arabic Writing System for ā (Diem 1976).

The oldest known Arabic “document” (a sheep delivery receipt from 22/644) already shows sporadic use of the dots that were to become parts of the letters, in the standard positions; thus, the system already existed but was optional. Dots are used not only to distinguish letters whose shapes happen to have grown uncomfortably similar in Nabataean (such as b/n, f/q), for which there was precedent both there and in Syriac (d/r), but also to separate phonemes that had merged in Aramaic but not in Arabic (such as t/t, ’/ġ)—in preference to phonetic similarity, which would presumably have led t to be written as a differentiation from f—showing etymological awareness on the part of the deviser of dotting (Daniels 2013: 64).33

Tradition ascribes the invention of vowel points to Abū l-Aswad al-Du’alī (d. 69/688). Acceptance was slow: “Ibn ’Abī Dā’ūd al-Sijistānī (d. 316) states that vowel signs were to be used only where strictly necessary whereas Al-Dānī (d. 444), writing over a century later, prescribes complete vocalization” (Khan 1990–1991: 57b). The earliest forms were a (red)34 dot above for a, below for i, and on the line for u—it is difficult not to draw the connection with the contemporary Syriac vowel pointing, where “fuller” vowels were marked with a dot above, “slighter” vowels with a dot below35 (Segal 1953: Appendix line II). The modern forms appear in the 3rd/9th century. In that century also, miniature letters, abbreviating suitable words, which became the šadda, madda, waṣl, and so on, began to be used (Gruendler 2001: 141a = 2006: 152b).36

(p. 424) Letter Order and Names

The ancestral Northwest Semitic letter order is known from 12th-century BCE abecedaries excavated at Ugarit on the Syrian coast, and it survives to the present in Hebrew and Syriac.37 It is this order that provides the still occasionally used numerical values of the letters (“’abjad” order; Table 18.3), and it is the basis for the standard Arabic order (Table 18.2), in which letters sharing the same shape have been brought together in the ordinal place of the first one for each shape.

A totally different order was used for South Semitic scripts—it is attested for both South Arabian and Old North Arabic—of which a variant survives as the Ethiopic order.38

The Arabic letter names (Table 18.3) reflect the reconstructed West Semitic names, with alterations resulting from regular change and from the pattern pressure of reciting as a list; they generally have no meaning in Arabic.

18.5 Where It Has Gone

18.5.1 The Perso-Arabic Sphere

Wherever Islam has gone, Arabic script has gone, too. Sometimes, as in Iranian lands, it replaced indigenous scripts; sometimes, vernaculars are written for the first time with adaptations of Arabic script. These adaptations have been facilitated by the structure of the consonantary: the regularities of differentiation by dotting ( accommodate fairly well the consonantal inventories of languages with considerably different phonological structure. A complication ensues because (except in the Turkic language Uyghur) the many vocabulary items borrowed from Arabic retain the Arabic spellings, even when characteristically Arabic consonants like ṯ ḏ ṭ ḍ ṣ ẓ ‘ ġ assimilate to native phonology, so that their simple dottings are not available for different sounds in the borrowing language (Daniels 1997).

Vowel notation is a different matter, and languages have devised divergent ways of notating their inventories of more than three vowels, short and long. Some add new (p. 425) points, some devise new consonant shapes to serve as matrēs, and some do both. Vowel pointing is generally optional, as in Arabic.39

The list of languages for which an Arabic script has been adapted over the centuries is long (compiled from several sources and doubtless incomplete):40 Adyghe (West Circassian), Afar, Afrikaans, Albanian, Amharic, Argobba, Asante, Avar, Azerbaijani, Bambara, Bashkir, Beja, Belarusian, Chechen, Chimwiini, Crimean Tatar, Dagbani, Dargi, Djoula, Dunganese (Hui), English, Fulani, Gbanyito, Gonja, Harari, Hausa, Ingush, Kabardian (East Circassian), Kabyle, Kanuri, Karachay-Balkar, Karakalpak, Kashmiri, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Kotokoli, Kumyk, Kurdish, Lak, Lezgian, Maba, Makua, Malagasy, Malay, Malayalam, Mamprule, Mande, Mogofin, Nafusi, Nogay, Nubian, Nupe, Oromo, Pashto, Persian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian, Serer, Silt’e, Sindhi, Siwi, Somali, Songhay, Soninke, Spanish, Susa, Swahili, Tajik, Tamasheq, Tamazight, Tamil, Tarifit, Tashelhit, Tatar (Volga Tatar, Kazan Tatar), Tigrinya, Turkish, Turkmen, Urdu, Uyghur, Uzbek, Wolof, Yoruba, Zanaga, Zerma (Cohen 1958; Diringer 1968; Comrie 1996; Coulmas 1996; Mumin 2009).

18.5.2 The Modern Linguistic Sphere

While vernacular Arabics may have been written for centuries (and even institutionalized in the form of Judeo-Arabic, which used Hebrew script and thus is outside our purview),41 and while colloquial language has begun to creep into published literature, attention is rarely paid to how the orthography accounts for features, primarily phonological, that differ between Colloquial and Standard written Arabic.42 Somekh (1991: 26) observes, “Dialects in the Arab world never developed writing systems of their own, and AM [‘āmmiyya] is normally reduced to the uncongenial orthography of FU [fuṣḥā]. Thus the reader, especially one who is not a native speaker of the dialect in question, faces many difficulties in deciphering them. Moreover, as there is no stable tradition for committing the dialects to writing, texts that employ AM are very often inconsistent in the use of Arabic characters for this purpose.” Holes (1995: 304) notes that the celebrated Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim attempted a “third language” in al-Ṣafqa (The Deal) (1956), “avoiding lexical and syntactic choices which are markedly dialectal on the one hand, and ‘high-flown’ on the other. However, because (p. 426) M[odern]S[tandard]A[rabic] orthography underspecifies the morphophonological realization of words, the text can be performed in something akin to the dialect of any group of actors” [Holes, “Orality”].

In his pioneering study of informal written Arabic, Meiseles (1979: 278–89) describes a number of orthographic deviations43 from Standard Arabic in a rather ill-specified corpus (“from Egypt and the East-Mediterranean area”). These include the occasional use of vowel points to clarify nonstandard verb forms, plene writing (i.e., with matrēs lectionis) even of all short vowels in foreign loans44 and sometimes in pronominal suffixes (the latter confirmed by Belnap and Bishop 2003: 15), numerous inconsistencies in hamza use, and frequent substitutions like The Arabic Writing Systemz for The Arabic Writing Systemḏ and The Arabic Writing System k for The Arabic Writing System q; particularly interesting is The Arabic Writing System ǧ ([g] in Egyptian) for French ẑ. Van den Boogert (1989: 33f.) lists The Arabic Writing System, The Arabic Writing System and The Arabic Writing System for Maghribi Arabic /g/ (without noting whether they are used etymologically) and The Arabic Writing System or The Arabic Writing System for [v] in borrowed French words. Surface-phonological substitutions for morphophonemic spellings include replacement of tanwīn with The Arabic Writing System n (Holes 1995: 77 [for Bahraini dialect]) and of The Arabic Writing System ʾ marbūṭah with The Arabic Writing System t (Holes 1995: 76, probably; Meiseles 1979: 286).

18.6 Research Needs

As noted above (18.4), investigation of the prehistory of Arabic script continues, and continues to make exciting discoveries, while the tens of thousands of surviving “documents” from the early Islamic centuries are only beginning to be studied seriously, particularly concerning their evidence for the history of Arabic script. It may become possible to learn something of the development of Quranic orthography from the trove of pre-standardization manuscript fragments discovered in San’a, Yemen, decades ago (Puin 2011).

A much more pressing need is the investigation of the acquisition of Arabic literacy by young native speakers, a field that has barely been touched. Older surveys like Altomah (1970) and Biesterfeldt (1996) discuss only institutions and materials for teaching reading, not the learning process itself; for a newer summary see Taouk and Coltheart (2004: 33–41). As Share (2008) details, the vast preponderance of English in the study of literacy acquisition is likely to be highly misleading, especially for languages that are not alphabetically written. The English-oriented attention to “phonological awareness” (to the exclusion of attention to other levels of linguistic analysis)45 led the first investigators (p. 427) of Arabic children learning to read to focus on that question, as well as on the specifically Arabic question of diglossia (e.g., Abu-Rabia 2000; Saiegh-Haddad 2003).46 Even in numerous studies of shallow (“vowelized”) versus deep orthography (summarized in Abu-Rabia and Taha 2006: 323–25), Abu-Rabia attributes the greater success afforded by the former to the phonological and not the morphological cues provided. Not yet published work is beginning to turn in these new directions.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Wright, William. 1896–1898. A grammar of the Arabic language. Ed. W. Robertson Smith and M. J. de Goeje. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (*) My thanks to Woodford A. Beach, Tim Buckwalter, Beatrice Gruendler, Elinor Saiegh-Haddad, Clive Holes, Larry Hyman, and Dorit Ravid for valuable assistance and especially to Jonathan Owens for his careful reading and penetrating suggestions.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (1) The authoritative summary from the previous generation is Endress (1982) (and subsequent chapters in the volume), containing even bibliographies for topics not treated in the text. See also Sourdel-Thomine (1978) and especially Moritz (1918).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (2) Traditional Arabic terminology is added where useful.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (3) But not The Arabic Writing System note that The Arabic Writing System has a minim following the loop and does not.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (4) Including the assimilation of the The Arabic Writing System of the definite article to the “sun letters”: The Arabic Writing System -šaddatu “the šadda”; no sukūn on the The Arabic Writing System.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (5) This word is borrowed from Arabic, where ʾabjad denotes the ancestral order of the letters (Table 18.3), still reflected in their rare function as numerals.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (6) In practice, only Phoenician was written with a pure abjad (see

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (7) From the detailed handout accompanying a presentation under the same title three weeks later.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (8) Saiegh-Haddad (2003: 444) found incidental evidence from Arabic-speaking children that the English-based C-V(C(C)) analysis of syllables embodied in modern phonological theory is not universally optimal and that a CV-C analysis better fits the facts.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (9) Grapheme is also often seen used as nothing more than a synonym for “letter” or other unit of a script, with no theoretical content at all.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (10) The psycholinguistics of “roots” is explored in Shimron (2003).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (11) Wright (1896–1898, vol. 1: 10–26) seems not to have contemplated that his students might ever have occasion to write Arabic, as he gives instructions only for reading these and other phenomena. Fischer (2002, 7–13) is followed here.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (12) Word internally, the Classical situation; in more modern texts, the hamza may take a The Arabic Writing System or The Arabic Writing System seat.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (13) Even in Neo-Punic, concern is evidenced for the beauty of inscribed writing (Daniels in press b [1996]).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (14) She also points to the presence of spaces within words as inviting decorative treatment, contrasting them with roman-script words written without a lift of the pen—but surely this contrast is valid only for Western handwriting of recent centuries and not for the formal bookhands of the manuscript era, where not only space-saving ligatures but even individual letters normally required more than one pen stroke.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (15) The far-reaching scope of Volov’s article is belied by its title. Volov in turn borrows a sort of componential analysis of Arabic letters from Flury (1920: 237, n. 2), created about the same time as but independently of Edward Johnston’s calligraphic analysis that I hoped to introduce to paleographers in Daniels (1984).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (16) It is odd to find Blair (2006: 105–16) claiming a conflict between what she calls the “paleographic” and the “art history” approaches to dating manuscripts. The latter, as she shows, incorporates the former.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (17) And in Gacek’s other articles in this work: “Maġribī,” “Muḥ” “Nastaʿliq,” “Nasx,” “Ruqʿa,” “Ṭuluṯ,” with references. Abbott (1941) attempts to sort out the names of scripts in the traditional literature.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (18) Importation of printed Arabic (etc.) books was allowed a century later, and an Arabic printing-house was licensed in 1727. The relevant firmans are translated by Christopher M. Murphy in Atiyeh 1995, 283–85.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (19) Whole texts had been carved on and printed from woodblocks in earlier times (Schaefer 2002); the first Arabic printed in Europe was in one of seven woodcuts accompanying Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam (1486), also the source of the first European view (before any manuscripts had been imported) of the Ethiopic script (Daniels 1991a).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (20) No comprehensive history of Arabic printing has yet been published; the extensive bibliographies in the volume cited here suggest that the time may be ripe for such a survey.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (21) Secular Turkish printing had begun in the 18th century in Istanbul.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (22) Despite the title, this volume is both a survey of Arabic script and an introduction to printing technology. Its timeline of developments in printing Arabic is convenient (Smitshuijzen AbiFares 2001: 44–85), but the author views the question of the parentage of Arabic writing (Nabataean vs. Syriac, see 18.4.2) as no more than a quarrel of British versus French and Arab scholars and opts to follow the latter ( ibid., 26)!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (23) Nothing but contemporary mentions of an 1833 printing ordered by Muḥammad ‘Ali has survived: it is not known whether it was a complete text or excerpts, or whether it was typeset or lithographed (Albin 2004, 269–71).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (24) Summarized in Harris 1936: 11–17.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (25) The objections of Gelb (1952) to the notion of acrophony seem to be based in the absence of evidence at the time he was writing (late 1930s) of intermediate forms between Proto-Sinaitic and Phoenician. See now Naveh 1987, Sass 1988, Cross 2003.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (26) For Giles, see Daniels (2005: 508–511, 513).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (27) Abbott (1939: 19–21) specifies this influence to the centuries immediately around the Hijra, noting that the earliest surviving Christian Arabic manuscripts (to the 3rd century AH) bear a resemblance to Estrangelo Syriac, with later ones looking more ordinary.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (28) It is odd to find Blair (2006: 79) opting for the Syriac connection on the basis of general Gestalt and of mistaken claims by other authors, such as that Nabataean, unlike Arabic and Syriac, suspends letters from a roofline rather than supporting them on a baseline, or that Nabataean, unlike Arabic but like Syriac, merges 〈d〉 and 〈r〉. The lām-alif ligature is identical in Nabataean and early Arabic; Syriac 〈b〉, 〈y〉, 〈n〉, and 〈t〉; 〈g〉 and 〈ḥ〉; 〈r〉 and 〈z〉 show no resemblance.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (29) Semaan (1967) offers a user-friendly integration of tradition and description.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (30) This practice may have been encouraged by Arabists’ habit of dividing the textual material into “manuscripts” (the Quran; literature sacred and secular) and “documents” (everything else) and until recently ignoring the latter (cf. Sijpesteijn 2008: 513).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (31) Grohmann includes all manner of “documents” under “Papyruskunde.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (32) Grohmann’s (d. 1974) 1967 volume treats the history of the subject, and writing materials; the 1971 volume devotes most of its 300+ large pages and 66 plates to inscriptions only.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (33) Diem’s (1980: 75–82) “etymological” explanation for the absence of a reflex of Aramaic The Arabic Writing System (semkaṯ) the Arabic abjad, and its replacement with The Arabic Writing System (corresponding to The Arabic Writing System [šīn]) is vigorously disputed by Macdonald (1986: 149–51 n. 123), who observes that semkaṯ is all but nonexistent in later Nabataean inscriptions anyway; but, his argument relies in part on unlikely assumptions about the phonetic nature of Arabic sibilants (Daniels 2010), a question not to be gone into here.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (34) Dutton (1999–2000) finds that other colors are used systematically in early manuscripts, albeit with differing functions in different manuscripts.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (35) Syriac u has a dot below the letter waw, o a dot above.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (36) In particular, sukūn is a mīm for ǧazm and not, as has been suggested, the numeral 0, which had probably not yet been imported from India. For a recent history of Arabic numerals, see Kunitzsch (2005).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (37) There have been numerous attempts to account for the ancestral letter order. Driver (1976, 179–85, 268–73) discusses and refutes many of them. A proposal by W. C. Watt (JNES 46 [1987]: 1–14) that the Phoenician order resulted from arranging the consonants in phonetically determined columns (more sophisticated than those used by the Sanskrit grammarians a millennium later!) and reading them in arbitrarily assigned rows (with arbitrary gaps in the grid to make them come out right) falls because he was apparently unaware of the preexisting Ugaritic order—and his attempt to repair this (Semiotica 74 [1989]: 61–108) involves the incorporation of even more gaps. Most likely, the letters were simply set down as they came to the mind of the deviser (which could account for associative sequences like *yōd “hand” and *kapp “palm of hand”).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (38) A fascinating, though not entirely persuasive, reconstruction of an Ancient Egyptian letter order from which both the Northwest Semitic and the South Semitic orders can be derived is offered by Kammerzell (2001). The fullest discussion of Arabic letter orders is provided by Macdonald (1986).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (39) In modern African orthographies, however, vowel-point notation is often obligatory (Mumin 2009).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (40) The attribution of a list of “the twelve languages for which the Arabic script has at one time been used” (Macdonald 2010: 22 n. 47) to Daniels (1997) is ludicrous.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (41) Maltese is often called a separate language from Arabic not only because of heavy Italian influence but precisely because it is written with an expansion of the roman alphabet (e.g., Kaye and Rosenhouse 1997: 263).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (42) Thus, Rosenbaum (2000) presents seven passages with the code switching between fuṣḥā (“eloquent”) and ʿāmmiyya (“popular”) but does not disclose the criteria for distinguishing the two registers; the promised publication of the dissertation in which they may have been set forth has apparently not occurred. Davies (2006) says not a word on the topic.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (43) Meiseles’s article is marred by the use of such terms as “substandard” and “mere vulgarism.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (44) The spelling of English loanwords in Arabic has been investigated by Odisho (1992) and Weninger (2001).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (45) But Sandra (2011) shows that many studies ostensibly of the relationship of “phonological awareness” to literacy acquisition also showed the relevance of the morphological and other linguistic levels as well.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      (46) There is apparently a universal belief that fuṣḥā is “too difficult” for young children, so that their first encounter with writing is also their first encounter with the standard language.