Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 December 1999
Issue No. 460
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Alif is for apple

This Ramadan, Al-Ahram Weekly offers its readers a series of reflections on the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, gleaned from Ibn Manzour's Lisan Al-Arab
Huwa by Salah Taher
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Alif is known to be so called after the verb alif, to get along with. For, aside from its status as the lettre première of the Arabic alphabet, it lives in harmony with all the other letters, fitting comfortably in almost any combination. With reference to an ambiguous verse of the Holy Qur'an, "Alif laam meem," some have claimed that Alif is one of the Divine Names.


Baa keeps a somewhat lower profile. Among its foremost virtues is that it operates independently as a preposition, whose meaning resides somewhere between the meanings of "with" and "by". Along with faa and meem, it shares the rare distinction of being one of three Arabic letters whose sounds are produced by the lips, unaided by tongue or throat. Like its twin letters, taa and thaa, its shape does not vary much in writing.

Taa is both the feminine letter and the letter of confrontations. Replacing the yaa at the beginning of single present-tense verbs, or suffixed to the end of single past-tense verbs, it indicates that the person or thing undertaking the action is a woman, or at least an object of feminine gender. Depending on context and punctuation, it also shifts the emphasis from second- to third-person, making the anonymous subject of the verb "you" instead of "he". On account of its dual, enigmatic role, the taa is indispensible.

Its twin Thaa, on the other hand, is one of the quietest, most unobtrusive letters in the entire language. Although its sound exists in other languages like English, it dropped from spoken Arabic usage long ago, to be replaced by a seen or a taa. It survives mostly in writing, figures in such marvelously quaint words as tha'tha' (to remove, stop or prevent), and keeps watch over the original meanings of many Arabic names, by persisting obstinately in their spellings.

Jeem is not an Egyptian letter. In Cairo, Alexandria and much of the Delta, where most literate Egyptians live, it is pronounced and practically recognised as geem, a peculiarity of the spoken language shared by no other part of the Arab world, including Upper Egypt. The jeem is nonetheless deeply rooted in the language of the Arabs. As a separate word appearing sporadically in poetry, it could mean either "camel" (the Arab beast of burden par excellence) or "preface, preamble" (a function of Arabic rhetoric).

Haa and 'ayn share a close affinity with the thorax. This makes them particularly difficult to pronounce for foreign students of Arabic. The haa is distinguished from the 'ayn by both its similarity to the softer haa (the equivalent of an English h sound) and, in Egyptian Arabic, its association with the ugly noise made by donkeys (Arabic himeer), which was specifically deprecated in the Qur'an. The lone sound is considered obscene.

In older varieties of Arabic Khaa combines with the word bika/biki/bikum (literally "with you") to mean "hurry up". Regardless of its widespread use, it certainly has a force of urgency and impatience about it. This multi-faceted letter, which also occurs in a significant number of obscenities, bears the same relation to the ghayn as the haa bears to the 'ayn.

By Samir Sobhi

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