When you first start to learn Arabic, you might have the same question that has been asked by many who came before you: “Why does Arabic have many forms of the same letter?” Well, the answer to that question is really quite simple.

The Arabic alphabet is always written in cursive, and as a result, the shapes of each letter may differ depending on its location within a word. I say “may” differ because some letters can have up to four separate forms corresponding to an initial, medial (middle), final, or isolated position while others remain almost identical across all four positions. To understand that a little bit more, look at the table below:

Name Isolated Initial Medial Final Transliteration Sound Pronunciation
‘alif ا ـا ‘ / ā long unrounded low central back vowel ‘a’ as in ‘father’
Bā’ ب بـ ـبـ ـب b voiced bilabial stop ‘b’ as in ‘bed’
Tā’ ت تـ ـتـ ـت t voiced aspirated stop ‘t’ as in ‘tent’
Thā’ ث ثـ ـثـ ـث th voiceless interdental fricative ‘th’ as in ‘think’
Jīm ج جـ ـجـ ـج j voiced palatal affricate ‘j’ as in ‘jam’
Ḥā’ ح حـ ـحـ ـح voiceless pharyngeal constricted fricative only in Arabic; a constricted English ‘h’
Khā’ خ خـ ـخـ ـخ kh voiceless velar fricative ‘ch’ as in German ‘Bach’
Dāl د ـد d voiceless velar fricative ‘ch’ as in German ‘Bach’
Dhāl ذ ـذ dh voiced dental stop ‘d’ as in ‘deer’ (approx.)
Rā’ ر ـر r voiced dental trill ‘r’ as in ‘run’ (approx.)
Zāy ز ـز z voiced dental sibilant ‘z’ as in ‘zoo’ (approx.)
Sīn س سـ ـسـ ـس s voiceless dental sibilant ‘s’ as in ‘sit’
Shīn ش شـ ـشـ ـش sh voiceless palatal sibilant ‘sh’ as in ‘shut’
Ṣād ص صـ ـصـ ـص voiceless post-dental sibilant emphatic the counterpart of Sῑn; all the ’emphatics’ are pronounced with the back of the tongue slightly raised
Ḍād ض ضـ ـضـ ـض voiced post-dental emphatic stop the counterpart of Dāl
Ṭā’ ط طـ ـطـ ـط voiceless post-dental emphatic stop the counterpart of Tā’
Ẓā’ ظ ظـ ـظـ ـظ voiced post-interdental emphatic fricative the counterpart of Dhāl
cayn ع عـ ـعـ ـع c voiced pharyngeal fricative purely Arabic — a constriction of the throat and an expulsion of the breath with the vocal cords vibrating
Ghayn غ غـ ـغـ ـغ gh voiced uvular fricative close to a French ‘r’ as in ‘Paris’ — like a gentle gargling
Fā’ ف فـ ـفـ ـف f labio-dental voiceless fricative ‘f’ as in ‘free’
Qāf ق قـ ـقـ ـق q voiceless unaspirated uvular stop ‘k’ in the back of the throat; compare ‘cough’ with ‘calf’
Kāf ك كـ ـكـ ـك k voiceless aspirated palatal or velar stop ‘k’ as in ‘king’
Lām ل لـ ـلـ ـل l voiced dental lateral ‘l’ as in ‘lift’
Mīm م مـ ـمـ ـم m voiced bilabial nasal ‘m’ as in ‘moon’
Nūn ن نـ ـنـ ـن n voiced dental nasal ‘n’ as in ‘net’
Hā’ ه هـ ـهـ ـه h voiceless glottal fricative ‘h’ as in ‘house’
Wāw و ـو w voiced bilabial glide ‘w’ as in ‘wonder’
Yā’ ي يـ ـيـ ـي y voiced palatal glide ‘y’ as in ‘yellow’
Hamza ء voiceless glottal stop not a phoneme in English but found in some exclamations — e.g. ‘oh-oh’

Now, let’s look at the four different forms of some of these letters:

Letter Initial Medial Final Isolated
ج/ǧ جميل / ǧamil /“beautiful” مجلة / maǧallah / “magazine” ثلج / ṯalǧ /”snow” سراج / siraǧ / “lamp”
ع/ʿ عِلم / ʿilm /“science معلم / muʿallim / “teacher” منعْ / manʿ /“forbidding” ممنوع / mamnūʿ / “forbidden”
س/s سمك / samak /“fish” مَسْح / masḥ / “wiping” هَمَسَ / hams /“he whispered” حَماس / ḥamas / “enthusiasm”

Some letters don’t change much from one form to the other. Only the connection part is different. Let’s check out some examples:

Letter Initial Medial Final Isolated
ت/t تفاح / tuffaḥ /“apples” متاح / mutaḥ / “available” بيت / bayt /“a house” صوت / ṣawt / “a sound”
د/d دب / dub /“bear” قدر / qadar / “fate” عيد / ʿid /“feast” ورد / ward / “flowers”

So there you have it. Arabic letters are shaped different because Arabic is written in cursive. If you have any more questions about the Arabic language or Arab culture, please drop us a line at kaleela.com and don’t forget to download the kaleela Arabic language learning app, available for both iOS and Android phones