Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Seen is not heard

The second part in a series of Ramadan reflections on the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, from Ibn Manzour's Lisan Al-Arab
THULUTH script
a 1948 composition in thuluth script by renowned calligraphy artist Sayed Ibrahim
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Daal is the softer of the two d sounds; it is also the more versatile, being one of those letters that manage to penetrate a word at any given point without changing shape. But it is appreciated most for the close relationship it has with the root verb letters daal-laam-laam, which together refer either to the act of pointing to, pointing out, indicating, revealing (metamorphosing variously into such entities as "guide" and "evidence"), or to the act of spoiling and being spoilt.

Zaal shares a lot with daal, so much so that they always go together. The equivalent of an English th sound as it occurs in "this" rather than "things", it has dropped from most spoken usage, to be replaced by a simple z (zayn) sound. When followed directly by one of the three long vowels, it can form a sharp little conjunction meaning "the owner of" or "the possessor of". The feminine form of this conjunction, zaat, is also an uncommon Egyptian female name.

Raa is a peculiarly Arabic rolled r that is closely affiliated with the verb to see, which is in turn related to the word for viewpoint or opinion, ra'y, the west Algerian form of which, rai, is also a musical tradition which has more recently come to be one of the most popular worldwide. On a lighter and more sensual note, raa and its twin letter zay (or zain as it is often pronounced) are among the Arabic alphabet's most frequently recurring curves, suggesting, in their smooth simplicity, the slopes of the hills and sand dunes making up the Arab Saharas.

With seen and saad, Zayn occupies one phonetic ha'iz, a framework or domain, in this case characterised by a sense of speed, urgency and sharpness. The meaning evoked by the letters making up the word for this letter, zay, concerns appearance, costume or aspect. Perhaps this is why the colloquial Egyptian word for "like, as" is zayy rather than the normal mithl or one of its derivatives used by the rest of the Arabs.

Seen is not the only s sound in the language. In its ha'iz it occupies the middle position, mediating between the sharply nasal qualities characterising the saad and that peculiar buzz-like vibrations of the zayn. Prefixed to present-tense verbs, it transforms them into the future tense; as a result, it invariably evokes a sense of change and expectance. It is also an abstract stand-in for a forgotten or unknown name, so that you say for example, "nimble of seen" instead of "nimble of limb"; or "seen proposes such and such an idea", instead of "he proposes".

Sheen is the sh sound which, unlike its English and French counterparts, constitutes a letter in its own right. As a word, it is synonymous with 'aib, the sense of shame and/or wrong-doing. It is thus that comes to open directly on a whole vista of unpleasant adjectives: "ugly", "shameful" etc.

Saad is a uniquely Arabic s sound which ranks supreme in the s-z ha'iz. It is impossible to combine it with either seen or zain, which also do not combine with each other. But unlike other members of its ha'iz, it cannot enter the same word as its twin letter, daad. As a verb, it means to hunt or fish, and there is certainly something of the dignity of the hunter about it, prompting foreign students of Arabic to dismiss it as too arrogant, romantically heroic a letter.

Samir Sobhi

The writing on the wall
Should the art of calligraphy be seen as the repository of our cultural identity? Rania Khallaf cracks the case of the unwanted trunk


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