Abjad Alphabet: Letters & Numerals

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore some of the languages that use an abjad alphabet. Used not just today but throughout history, understanding abjad notation is key to understanding languages spoken in the Middle East.

Language Class

How many languages do you know? There's no shame in only knowing one, but many people, either through choice or due to their high school curriculum, at least try their hand at a second. The new words and different grammar can be confusing, and some even come with an entirely new alphabet. It helps if one first learns the basics; how each letter or symbol sounds is a good start.

Well, if Arabic was your second language of choice, even this basic building block may have proved elusive, because Arabic uses an abjad alphabet and writing system. Abjad alphabets are consonant-only alphabets, in which the vowels - while still pronounced when speaking - are left entirely out of the notation system. It would certainly be hard to learn how to pronounce a letter that you can't even see!

While Arabic is the most widely spoken language that uses an abjad alphabet, there have been dozens of languages throughout the Middle East and the rest of western Asia that used an abjad system. Below we discuss one current abjad language (Arabic) and one dead abjad language (Aramaic).

Types of Abjad Alphabets

Arabic

Arabic is a language with an abjad alphabet that is still spoken today. Largely spoken in the Middle East and parts of North Africa (see map below), Arabic is the language in which the Qur'an was originally written. There are over 30 regional dialects of Arabic, from Maghrebi Arabic spoken in Morocco on the west coast of Africa, to the Mesopotamian Arabic spoken in Iraq.

Arabic has been in use since the fourth century A.D., and over time it has gone through many changes. Arabic contains 28 letters, and they are written from right to left. Numerals, however, are written from left to right. While, as in all abjad languages, the vowels are left out in writing, vowel diacritics are often used, especially in the Qur'an, in order to make sure the words are spoken correctly when read aloud.

Arabic-speaking parts of the world
Arabic speaking parts of the world

Aramaic

Aramaic is a dead language that used an abjad alphabet. Aramaic borrowed many of its phrases and alphabet structure from the even earlier Phoenician language. In use in the Near East (modern day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and parts of Iraq and Saudi Arabia) from approximately the eighth century B.C. to 600 A.D., Aramaic was largely replaced by Arabic. Some Aramaic is still used in services in small Christian enclaves in Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and Iran.

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