New essay: “Ṣâd is for Zero” on the Arabic alphabet website

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour –

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

“Ṣâd is for Zero” –


The shape of Ṣâd shares something with the letters of the Roman alphabet: the appearance of weight, the feeling that it stands, or reclines, rather than floats. Granted, that cushion shape doesn’t look particularly heavy or solid. In fact it looks a little squishy, rounded on the right, flattened down to a point on the left, but it’s wide and substantive enough to have some substance, to function as a base or stand.

The sound in Arabic is not quite that of Sîn. The term for the sound of Ṣâd is S “velarized.” It has to do with the position of the tongue. It feels more emphatic. Non-native speakers of Arabic who don’t always hear the distinction may try focusing instead on the vowel sound which follows it, particularly if the vowel is an A. After Ṣâd, that A is lengthened a little. In other words, ص is pronounced something more like the S in English “sod” than the S in “sad.”) A cunning student might learn to approximate it by lengthening that A before learning how to pronounce the consonant. Textbooks may not say this, but non-native speakers of Arabic who don’t differentiate Sîn from Ṣâd will still be understood. They’ll have a speech impediment, but there are worse obstacles.

In fact your listener may prefer you to have the accent. There is a funny and profound essay by Abdelfattah Kilito in which he confesses to discovering an anxiety in himself: “One day I realized that I dislike having foreigners speak my language…” and adds that the anxiety increases with the fluency of the non-native speaker. “What if this stranger speaks exactly, and expresses himself as clearly as we do?… This person who came from a faraway place causes confusion, not only because he undermines our sense of superiority but also because he suddenly robs us of our language, the principle of our existence, what we consider to be our identity, our refuge, ourselves.” He gives the example of a meeting with an American woman who spoke Moroccan Arabic like a native. He is surprised at his own reaction: “for the first time I felt that my language is slipping away from me, or rather that the American woman had robbed me of it” (Kilito, Thou Shalt not Speak my Language, 87, 91). Perhaps it’s a little like the paradox of animation technology: we admire the skill that makes the image on the screen look real, as it imitates the world outside more and more accurately, but there’s a point beyond which, if the images become too realistic, they start to look a little creepy. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try.

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