If you have Arabic friends on social media, you may have noticed that when they write in Arabic, they often mix numbers in the middle of their words.
While this may seem a bit confusing at first, it’s perfectly normal – it’s called arabizi. Arabizi refers to the Arabic chat alphabet mainly used by young Arabs in digital communication. It is a product of the globalization of English technology that caused many people to rely on the Latin alphabet to communicate. I definitely encourage you to learn the Arabic alphabet if you are to understand the true essence of the language. However, it is also important to be familiar with Arabizi as it is very popular online.
You have seen how to understand Arabic words when you write them in the Latin alphabet. Reading them in your standard alphabet can also help you learn how to pronounce the words better. But what about the letters that have no English equivalent? Once you’ve learned these letters, you are likely on a learning curve trying to pronounce them – which is perfectly normal given that phonetics are so different between English and Arabic. This is where the numbers come in. Let’s look at some examples:
7 = ح (Haa)
Notice how the actual letter looks like the number 7. A few years ago I was flipping my Facebook timeline and noticed a thread of comments between two Lebanese friends I knew from college. I noticed that the first comment said, “7elweh kteer! ” (Beautiful).At first I thought it must have been a typo. However, I noticed that more words contained random numbers so this must have been done on purpose. I learned later that this is very common and the 7 replaced the ح (haa), which is a stronger “hh” sound than the ه (haa). In the formal Arabic script, the comment would have said: حلوة كتير. When you decide to learn Arabic, you’ll find that pronunciation is one of the greatest challenges – but it’s also worth it!
3 = ع (‘ayn)
See how the a (‘ayn) looks like a backward looking number 3? This was by far the hardest character for me to learn to pronounce – it literally took me months! I watched in awe as native speakers pronounce it so seamlessly in casual conversation while sounding like I was vomiting (if you know, you know). If you write the letter “a” instead of the a, native speakers will likely know what you mean. But why not take the risk and try texting your Arabic-speaking friends like a local? Arabizi is your friend! Suppose you want to text your friend to come over to you. You can tell “T3ai 3andi” (تعي عندي) When you don’t have the Arabic keyboard on your phone or laptop.
9 = ص (Saad)
I can see what this type of 9 looks like, although less intuitive than the previous two. While learning the alphabet, you may have asked yourself, “Is there really a notable difference in pronunciation between ص (saad) and س (siin)?” While it doesn’t seem like it, there definitely is is One difference–– ص is a slightly stronger “s” sound. So if you are just typing the “s” in the Latin alphabet, it is not a very good thing. As you saw in the video, if you want to enter “good morning” (صباح الخير) with arabizi, you can say “9ba7 el 5air” (read below for more information on the 5).
5 = خ (khaa)
I don’t think the character looks very much like the number, but I promise that if you memorize it, it will stay. In the first video in our Speaking of Arabic series, we looked at the meaning of Khalas (stop / enough). It’s a very common word. The next time you tell a friend over text, try saying “5alas” instead of “خلص”.
6 = ط (Taa)
I definitely see the resemblance here that makes it a lot easier to remember. Imagine you meet someone through text and you want to ask them if they are a student at the university. With Arabizi you can ask: “Duck 6albeh bel jam3a?” (انت طالب بالجامعة).
8 = ق (qaaf)
Suppose your friend just texted you asking you to come outside because she was driving the two of you to a party. You are not quite finished yet and will take 5 minutes. In this case you can send her an SMS with the title “bidi 5 da8aye8” (بدي ٥ دقائق).
2 = أ & ء (aalif & hamza)
You may have learned that when the أ is accompanied by a ء, the pronunciation has a subtle glottic stop. The 2 in Arabizi emphasizes this. Imagine that you are hungry and want to have something to eat with friends. You can send them an SMS with the title “2na je3an” (أنا جعان).
You may find that some people type these words a little differently than I do. As you saw in this video, that’s because it’s not standardized – which is great because there really aren’t any right or wrong answers. While some language enthusiasts argue that Arabizi is losing popularity with new generations, most of my Arab friends say that this is their preferred informal way of communicating online and in text. I say you try it out and decide for yourself!