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How to Pronounce Arabic Sounds

5 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Arabic Words and Phrases for Traveling

To be understood in Arabic, you need to recognize and know how to pronounce some distinct sounds that differ from English, or don't exist in English at all. The Arabic sound system isn't as different from English as you may think.

In fact, the Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters, most of which have English equivalents. These letters are pronounced essentially the same as their English counterparts: b, d, f, h, j, k, m, n, s, t, w, y, z. There are also some Arabic sounds that exist in English, although we don't use a separate letter for them: sh, th (as in bath), dh (as in these), l (as in hello).

In Arabic, vowels come in both long and short. However, unlike in English, in Arabic, you actually hold a long vowel twice as long as a short vowel. In addition, Arabic vowel can sound different depending on the consonants around them.

Vowel Sound Example
a short "bet" or "bad"
aa long "father"
I short "bit" or "spin"
Ii long "keep" or "teeth"
U short "foot" or "cook"
uu long "Ruth" or "food"
ay compound "bait" or "shake"
aw compound "cow" or "how"

A number of Arabic consonants have emphatic or hard versions that are pronounced deeper in the throat. Emphatic consonants can make the vowels around them harder and deeper too.

Emphatic Consonant Sounds Like Example
D "d" The word mariiD
H "h"; imagine exhaling a strong and deep breath The word marHaban
S "s" The phrase SabaaH al-khayr
T "t" The word 'aTshaan
DH "dh" sound The word DHuhr
Q Pronounced like "k," but deeper in the throat The phrase ila liQaa'

Pay close attention to the letters in the following table. The consonants here are distinctly Arabic in the way they sound.

Uniquely Arabic Consonant Sounds Like Example
kh The "ch" in "Bach" or "loch"; has a raspy sound The phrase SabaaH al-khayr
r A rolled "r" sound, similar to the Spanish R The word marHaban
gh A "gargling" kind of sound between "g" and "r," produced deep in the throat The word ghaDbaan
' No equivalent in English, produced by contracting the muscles in the throat; sometimes compared to a "choking" sound The word 'aTshaan
' A "glottal stop," found at the beginning of "uh-oh!" The phrase ila liqaa'
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The Essentials of Arabic Words and Phrases for Traveling

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