Rough Guide to Arabic: Modern (un)Standard Spoken Arabic, Part II


DISCLAIMER: I am by no means an expert of the Arabic language nor do I claim so, at the very most I consider myself an advanced beginner. The information given here is therefore to be taken with a grain of mil7, as an amateur’s notes taken throughout several years of investigations by consulting people, books, and my ear. This first series of texts is intended for the non-native Arabic speaker trying to understand spoken and written ‘street’ Arabic, specifically for Westerners whose only knowledge of the language is through many hours of study of the terribly complex “Modern Standard Arabic.” Alterations, modifications, amendments and contradictory corrections are welcome.

Hello again! In this second part of the series, I will (again, try to) continue to unravel the complex fabric that is spoken Arabic, this time one of its written forms. We return to our hypothetical ajnabi.

Our foreigner has now reached confidence level 2 in his Arabic education and feels like marking it with some changes to his gadgets: he adds an Arabic keyboard both on his iPhone and computer. If he’s still in university, he might have even stuck some stickers on top of his laptop keyboard to facilitate essay writing (as if that’s going to help!). If he’s very bold and happened to be in the midst of purchasing a new laptop, he might have bought one with a bilingual keyboard. It’s a right of passage, he thinks, Arabic is here to stay in his life. Plus, it just looks badass. He inaugurates this by whatsapping his buddy Jad in Beirut:

Ajnabi: كيف الحال يا صاحبي؟ أنا الأجنبي

Jad: shu? meen ma3i? w shu bddk ya 5aye?

Paralysis. What’s going here, he wonders. Why isn’t it written in Arabic script, and what are these numbers? Seems the only thing he kind of understands is “ma3i,” which sort of looks like معي”.”

Turns out a lot chatting online via whatsapp or Facebook is done using an alphanumerical script. Why? Apparently when computers and mobiles phones first reached the Arab world they didn’t come with the option of writing in Arabic script, so people typed Arabic using the Latin letters. Nowadays, it’s also much easier than switching back and forth from an Arabic keyboard, as this can very quickly become a huge pain on certain word processors due to the right-to-left writing direction (cool article related to this). Doesn’t mean the Arabic script isn’t used, it is and very often. However, our purpose here is to decipher Arabic written in Latin script. Naturally, if I write “baab” you’ll understand I’m saying “باب.” What about certain letters like ق and ع ? Well, you use numbers. Here goes my personal compilation:


Arabic Script

Numbers / Letters






3’ or gh


4 or dh


5 or kh








8 or q






With this “ضفدع” becomes “9’ufda3” and “قلعة” turns into “8al3a” or “qal3a.” This is called the “Arabic chat alphabet” or “Arabish.”

Confusing? You’ll get used to it. The more complicated part comes with the diacritics, or the lack thereof. Much like a sign on the street or an article in a magazine where the fat7as, kasras and 9’ammas are omitted, the same happens when using the alphanumeric script. So something which our ajnabi would have written like: enta bil-maktab?, could become: ent blmaktab?, or even ent blmktb? My first introduction to this was a message my friend sent me that went something like this:

Wnk ya a5i? Iza t2dr i6l3 3 6ab8 atasi3, sh8 ra2m 23, natritak.

But our ajnabi needs to cover a bit more ground before fully decoding that. Till next time!

Ila li8a2!

There are no comments

Add yours

Comments are closed.