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Most of the languages of the Near East — today principally Arabic and Hebrew— belong to the Semitic family of languages, part of a wider phylum variously called Hamito-Semitic or Samito-Hamitic, or occasionally Afroasiatic. Except for Hittite and Sumerian, this was also true of the ancient languages of this region, including Egyptian.
One of the most distinctive features of these languages is the prevalence of triconsonantal semantic elements, and the interpolation of vowels —often unwritten— to indicate features like tense or number.
These languages make certain sound distinctions that English speakers are unaccustomed to hearing or producing. Even when the Roman alphabet is supplemented with apostrophes and the liberal use of Hs, it does not come near to providing an accurate guide for speakers of European languages. That is why we meet spellings Koran, Quran, and Qur'an almost interchangeably.
This page provides a brief introduction to some of the common challenges for English speakers, using modern Egyptian Arabic for examples. (Different dialects of Arabic vary a great deal, and of course there is a lot of variation across Semitic languages over time and space. Some, like modern Hebrew, are less phonologically challenging for English speakers.) When Arabic words appear in English texts, the spellings rarely carry enough information to prounounce the words recognizably. After reading this page you won’t end up speaking Hebrew or Arabic or Assyrian exactly, but at least you will appreciate what authors and editors are up against.
Vowels are the familiar A, E, I, O, and U, and come in long and short. (Actually, O and U are not distinguished from each other when they are short.) Although textbooks differentiate long and short vowels by marking long ones with a macron (ā), most popular sources do not differentiate them. AU (AW), EI (EY), and AI (AY) are diphthongs.
The primary challenge for English speakers comes from sounds made at the back of the mouth, in the throat, or with the back of the tongue. How these are represented in Romanized spellings varies from author to author and publisher to publisher. Here are some of the distinctions that Semitic speakers are making that are foreign to English speakers:
Bottom Line: If you study Semitic languages (or other languages influenced by them), you will have to get used to distinguishing all sorts of sounds made at the back of the mouth that probably sound both similar and harsh to you now. (One British writer dismissively called them “camel belches.”)
Meanwhile, do not expect to see either consistent spellings of borrowed Semitic words or very good approximations in Roman letters to the original sounds.
An exception to the generalization about inconsistent spellings is words which have become stabilized because of their appearance in English Bibles. Names like Jerusalem, Moses, Jonathan, and Ezekiel all fall into this category. These can reasonably be said to have become English words of Hebrew or Aramaic origin, and they have taken on a life of their own and are used with no attempt to make them accurate representations of the original languages.
Now you know.
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