Due to the influence of Islam, the Arabic alphabet is one of the
most widespread writing systems in the world, found in large parts
of Africa and Western and Central Asia, as well as in ethnic
communities in East Asia, Europe, and the Americas. While originally
used to write the Arabic language, the Arabic alphabet has been
adopted by other groups to write their own languages, such as
Persian, Pashto, Urdu, and more.
Although Arabic inscriptions are most common after the birth of
Islam (7th century CE), the origin of the Arabic alphabet lies
deeper in time. The Nabataeans, which established a kingdom in what
is modern-day Jordan from the 2nd century BCE, were Arabs. They
wrote with a highly cursive Aramaic-derived alphabet that would
eventually evolve into the Arabic alphabet. The Nabataeans endured
until the year 106 CE, when they were conquered by the Romans, but
Nabataean inscriptions continue to appear until the 4th century CE,
coinciding with the first inscriptions in the Arabic alphabet (which
is also found in Jordan).
Generally speaking, there are two variants to the Arabic
alphabet: Kufic and Naskhi. The Kufic script is angular, which was
most likely a product of inscribing on hard surfaces such as wood or
stone, while the Naskhi script is much more cursive. The Kufic
script appears to be the older of the scripts, as it was common in
the early history of Islam, and used for the earliest copies of the
Qu'ran. The following is an example of the Kufic script. This is
part of a commemorative tablet dating to the 11th century CE and
found in Toledo, Spain (which was controlled by Arabs at that time).
By the 11th century CE, the Naskhi script appeared and gradually
replaced the Kufic script as the most popular script for copying the
Qu'ran as well as secular and personal writings. It is from the
Naskhi script that modern Arabic script style developed.
The following is the Arabic alphabet in the Naskhi script.
One interesting feature of Arabic is the multiple forms of a
single letter. Depending on where in a word a letter appears, it
could appear as an initial form (beginning of word), final form (end
of word), or medial form (anywhere else). In addition, if the word
has only one letter, than the isolated form is used.
Like other Proto-Sinaitic-derived
scripts, Arabic doesn't have letters for vowels. However, there is a
system to marking vowels. Short vowels are represented by diacritics
above or below a letter (see below). Long vowels are represented by
using the short-vowel diacritics plus the letters alif, wa:w,
ya: to represent the sounds [a:], [u:], and [i:],
respectively. (Note that in the following example, the big dot is
not a diacritic but is part of the letter nun)
In addition to the vowel markers, Arabic also has several other
diacritics. The hamza, which looks like C, denotes the
glottal stop (the letter alif used to represent the glottal
stop, but has become more of a placeholder for vowel-initial words).
The hamza requires a "seat" letter (such as alif
but also wa:w and ya:) to anchor onto. Another
diacritic is the suku:n, which looks like a circle and is
placed on top of a letter to denote the absense of any vowel.
Finally, the diacritic shadda, which resembles W, represents
the doubling of a consonant.
And finally, Arabic uses a 10-base positional number system: