Arabic Script

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Used to represent the Arabic language, as well as certain non-Arabic and non-Semitic languages.

The Arabic script is an alphabet in which each written symbol represents a single sound. It is Semitic and, thus, a near relative of the Hebrew alphabet but also historically related to the Roman alphabet. The Arabic alphabet is second only to the Roman in use today. It is used by over 185 million first-language speakers of Arabic. As the medium in which the Qurʾan was revealed and much Islamic learning was recorded, Arabic is a second or liturgical language for Muslims worldwide. In addition, the Arabic alphabet has been adapted for use in other non-Arabic and non-Semitic languages, among them Persian, Urdu, and Ottoman Turkish.

The Arabic script is written from right to left. It is cursive, so that each letter in a word is joined to the following letter (exceptions to this rule are the letters alif, da-l, dha-l, ra-, za-y, and wa-w ). The alphabet is consonantal, consisting of twenty-eight consonants and semivowels. Other signs or diacritical marks indicate short vowels and other sound changes, but these do not typically appear in written texts. In theory, at least, the lack of written vowels causes a certain ambiguity when it comes to deciphering the written word. To take one example, the word ktb can be read in several ways: kataba, "he wrote"; kutiba, "it was written"; kattaba, "he dictated"; kuttiba, "he was made to take dictation"; ktab, "[the act of] writing"; kutub, "books." In practice, however, context plays a considerable role in clarifying meaning. In a sentence such as "he wrote five ktb on this topic, ktb could only mean "books." Where lack of ambiguity is necessary or desirable, as in the written text of the Qurʾan, in classical Islamic or literary texts, and in writings for children, the diacritical marks are written as a matter of course.

The Arabic alphabet is not simply a vehicle for written communication but is the medium for one of the most highly developed art forms of the Arab and Islamic world, the art of calligraphy. For the Arabic language, calligraphy recognizes two principal types of Arabic script, kufi and naskhi, where the former is generally more square in shape and the latter more rounded. This binary division, however, hardly reflects the tremendous diversity of scripts, from the tiny Turkish ghubari, or "dust," script, to the large jali scripts that decorate the walls of certain mosques, from the severely "squared" kufi, with right angles rather than curves, to the elaborate "tied" scripts, in which the capitals are linked to form knotted arabesques.

In the Arab world and elsewhere, Arabic script is a powerful symbol of ethnic and religious affiliation. Its significance does not make it inviolable, however. The Arabic alphabet was replaced by the Roman alphabet in Turkey in 1928 and by the Cyrillic alphabet in a number of republics in the former Soviet Central Asia, to name two examples. Proposals to Romanize the Arabic alphabet in the Arab world have been advanced since the late nineteenth century. To date, however, only in Malta, which was conquered by the Sicilians in the eleventh century, is any variety of Arabic regularly written in other than the Arabic script.

Elizabeth M. Bergman