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The Arabic script is an Abjad writing system or consonantal alphabet. Most letters stand for a consonant, and short vowels are usually not indicated (but can exceptionally be indicated with diacritic symbols). Long vowels also have proper letters, which is why the Arabic script can be called an impure Abjad.

The Arabic script is said to be well adapted to Arabic grammar (and more generally, Abjads are well adapted to Semitic languages) because roots usually consist of three consonants. Words derived from a common root still look fairly similar in writing because much morphology consists of changes in short vowels.

For instance, according to Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic, the Arabic root ذ ب ح Ḏ-B-Ḥ (to sacrifice) can be derived the forms ذَبَح ḏabaḥa (he sacrificed), ذَبَحْتَ ḏabaḥta (you (masculine singular) sacrificed), ذَبَّحَ ḏabbaḥa (he slaughtered), يُذَبِّح yuḏabbiḥ (he slaughters), and مَذْبَح maḏbaḥ (slaughterhouse). Source: Abjad

(This is marked as disputed in the Wikipedia article, but sounds sensible to me and I think I've also read it elsewhere. Still, if you can cite sources disputing this feel free to rectify it.)

Question: The Arabic script is also used for a range of non-Semitic languages, such as Farsi/Persian and Urdu. Despite a fair degree of influence from Arabic, these languages do not follow the Arabic/Semitic system where roots rely on (three) consonants.

Does this have any practical consequences? Is there any evidence that the use of the Arabic script for non-Semitic languages makes reading and writing harder? Or the use of other Abjads, such as the Hebrew script for Yiddish?

My attempt at an answer, so far:

  • On the one hand - as a learner of Arabic - I find the Arabic script troublesome enough even though consonantal roots are important in Arabic and short vowels less so. After all, short vowels carry morphological load (the passive of kataba - write - is kutiba, only distinguished by short vowels). But if authors feel this creates too much ambiguity they use diacritics to mark the crucial short vowels.
  • Another problem when learning Arabic (caused by the Arabic script) is that I can't pronounce words I do not already know. But this is because I'm a learner, and publications for learners (whether native or non-native) typically include diacritics for short vowels depending on previous knowledge.
  • On the other hand, even in English, it's n_t th_t h_rd t_ r__d _ s_nt_nc_ w_th__t v_w_ls. (see below)
  • If the Arabic script really does cause so much trouble for non-Semitic languages one would expect these language communities to try and adopt another script. I don't know of any such cases where the community did that of it's on accord (some communities in the Soviet Union were forced to) and even if there are some they seem to be exceptions. I think this is not really a counter-argument to the Arabic script not being ideal for non-Semitic languages because once a community has adopted a script the opportunity costs implied by change would be fairly high (everybody has to learn a new script). Also, many communities using the Arabic script are also Muslim. As the language and script of the Qur'an, the Arabic language and script enjoy a lot of prestige.

(The clause without vowels is supposed to read "it's no that hard to read a sentence without vowels". If you had to read this apparently it is harder than I thought.)

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    Turkish switched from Arabic to Latin script. But then Arabic script is particularly unsuitable for Turkish because of its eight vowels. The Yiddish alphabet, though based on Hebrew, isn't really an abjad, since it marks (almost) all vowels with separate letters. – TKR Aug 31 '13 at 2:59
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    This is more a guess than an answer, but I would think that unless a language has phonological distinctions that are specifically hard to capture in Arabic script (like Turkish, see above), there's no reason that having non-templatic morphology should make it harder to read. In fact you might even expect the opposite - since the vowels carry less grammatical weight, leaving them out might cause fewer difficulties in such languages than in Arabic or Hebrew. – TKR Aug 31 '13 at 3:05
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    Yes both the Hebrew and Arabic scripts are just sets of symbols that can be used in various ways. The Hebrew script is used as an abjad for the Hebrew language and as an alphabet for the Yiddish language. I don't know if the Arabic script is used as an alphabet for any language but I have heard of languages using extra vowel diacritics. Also Turkish is not alone in having moved from the Arabic script to another script. Several Central Asian languages have also done so. – hippietrail Aug 31 '13 at 16:24
  • Another thing you didn't bring up is long vowels in Arabic which not only are written but are written with letters that can also represent consonants, thus adding ambiguity and a second complication for figuring out the pronunciation of an unfamiliar written word. – hippietrail Aug 31 '13 at 16:25
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    @hippietrail - The Uighur language in China uses Arabic script as a fully vocalized alphabet. – Yellow Sky Nov 10 '13 at 12:31
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Persian had used to use a variety of alphabets throughout the time, so I think it would not make any particular difficulty to read in Persian Arabic alphabet as well. The main difficulties are

a) sounds not present in Arabic, yet noticeable in Persian (or other languages using the script), and

b) a richer stock of vowels. These two factors elicit in Persian Arabic script, respectfully,

a) four new letters with some more dots to distinguish phonemes [p]پ, [t͡ʃ] (ch)چ, [ʒ]ژ zhe and [ɡ]گ, and

b) using 'Alef for [ɒ], Vav for [v] / [uː] / [o] / [ow] / [oː] (in Dari), Yi for [ɒː] / [eː] (in Dari) and not distinguishing short vowels.

The key principle might be similar to that of using Arabic script for aljamiado texts in Medieval Spain, or to write (Turkic) Tatar language in Belorussia with the Arabic script.

The Abjad is still vastly used for most of non-Semitic languages spoken throughout former Tocharian areas and Sogdia.

What is truly interesing, from my point of view, is how the Arabic script was used by Chinese muslims (A.K.A. Huizu) to write Chinese words, and there are still examples of reversed order of two-syllable (that is, two-character) words among some of Chinese Hui people.

  • "so I think it would not make any particular difficulty to read in Persian Arabic alphabet as well" - That statement is not entirely true. Maybe someone using it everyday in Iran is biased seeing it as "this is the way it is", however foreign born Persians who have a second native language find it particularly difficult. It is far from effortless for them. I usually joke with Persians when they complain by saying that cuneiform was less of a guessing game. :) – Midas Jul 23 '18 at 11:00
  • @Midas I think your difficulty doesn't come from the mismatch of the Persian language with the Arabic alphabet, but rather from your previous unfamiliarity of the Arabic alphabet. The question is about the former. – user69715 Jul 27 '18 at 20:50
  • @user69715 Please read my comment again. I am not talking about myself. – Midas Jul 31 '18 at 9:28
  • @Midas you're talking about some "foreign born Persians" - I assume they were born in countries that don't primarily use the Arabic alphabet? Then the same comment applies – user69715 Jul 31 '18 at 22:14
  • @user69715: Yes, but they are taught to write Persian. They are not unfamiliar with it, so what you said does not apply in this case. The only difference is that they are exposed to two native alphabets e.g. Latin and Arabic. The fact that they use another alphabet as well give them a different perspective on how suitable Arabic is for Persian. When you have only one alphabet to your disposal you cannot have the same perspective. – Midas Aug 2 '18 at 6:01
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There are many non-Semitic languages written in Arabic-based script.

  • Persian or Farsi, presently used in Iran is an Indo-European language and use a variant of the Arabic script.
  • Mozarabic language was a language used by Spanish Christians back when Arabic was the main language of learning and literature. It is primarily written in the Arabic script. It is a Romance language, and its vocabulary was derived from Latin
  • During the sultanates era, Malay (which is an Austronesian language) used to be written in an Arabic script, see Jawi. Today people use the Latin alphabet, but Jawi is still used in several context. In fact, I have first-hand experience with Jawi writing, so I am going to elaborate.

In Riau, an Indonesian province which is the Indonesian centre of Malay culture, Jawi (or as we call it, Arab Melayu) is taught in school all the way to high school. It is also widely used in road signs, signs of buildings, and even a few books. To handle the difficulties you highlighted, there are several rules/changes.

  • Non-original arabic letters are introduced to represent sounds that doesn't exist in arabic. Some are borrowed from the Persian script, and it introduced several new ones to represent sounds that doesn't exist in Arabic or Persian.
  • Many vowels are represented by their closest consonant, e.g. waw (normally representing w) also represents u and o sounds. This isn't that far from the original Arabic usage because waw is also used in Arabic to represent long u sound.
  • The schwa vowel does not appear in the written form
  • The a sound can be represented in several ways, there is a slightly complicated rule regarding this.
  • Arabic loanwords are written in the original Arabic form, so the above rules are ignored.

There are several other rules, but it's not that complicated. I remember reading the rules which fits merely 2 or 3 book pages including examples, and after this I never have any problem with this subject in school. After certain level, this subject involves studying Malay literature, culture and history in full Jawi text.

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