Arabic vocalization or تشكيل (tashkeel) is used to indicate the short vowels (a, i, u) that are usually not written in Arabic. There are three short vowel sings or حركات (harakaat) and a few more additional signs to indicate the absence of a vowel, the prolongation of an alif and the double pronunciation of a consonant. Let’s take a look at an example. Below is the Arabic word for “library” without short vowels:
Were we to merely transcribe the letters that appear we would end up with <mktba> – the two short “a”-sounds are merely implied. The reader needs to know already that the word means “library” and that library is maktaba and not something else like muktiba or mikatuba.
So, what about the learner who just started out? Or the Arabic child who hasn’t mastered reading and writing yet? Here is where vocalization comes into play: through the short vowel and other signs any reader who knows the Arabic letters will be able to pronounce the word. Below is maktaba written with the short vowel signs added.
As you can see there is now a small sign above the first letter from the right م (meem) that indicates a short <a>-sound. This little stroke is called “fatHa”. The next letter ك (kaaf) bears a symbol indicating that there is no short vowel at this point. This small circle is called “sukoon”. There is no sign above the fourth letter ب (baa’), because it is followed by a ة (taa’ marbooTa) that is pronounced as an “a”-sound in any case.
Below is a table summarizing the short vowel sings.
|بّ||shadda||doubles the letter underneath|
|آ||madda||prolongs the <a>-sound of the alif.|
Should I use vocalization in my Arabic studies?
Some teachers insist that it is best to start learning Arabic without recourse to vocalized texts. Their reasoning is that almost all Arabic writing in real life comes without the short vowels and that it is therefore better to get used to reading unvowelled texts from the get go.
On the other hand, even Arab children start out by reading vowelled texts and continue to do so for a long time at school. I’ve seen textbooks for Arab kids in grade six and they still vocalize almost every word. It seems like it could take quite a while to build up the knowledge of words and grammar before children are capable of doing without the harakaat.
My personal take on this debate is that Arabic learners should pursue a double strategy. A text for study should first be read with all the vowel signs in place and repeated until the student has assimilated the pronunciation of all the words. In the next step, one can proceed to a version of the same text that lacks the short vowels. It should now be possible to read this version with the same confidence as the vowelled text.
An undoubted benefit of using fully vowelled texts is that the grammatical concepts are much easier to grasp, because all the endings are evident. To give you an example of this consider the following sentence, meaning “the weather was good”:
Without vocalization it is not immediately clear to the Arabic learner what case الطقس takes. Is it nominative or accusative? However, when the same sentence is vocalized, this becomes immediately obvious:
Now we know that it’s al-Taqsu and not al-Taqsa.
While this might not seem important to some Arabic learners, these little details do make a difference, especially when the context of communication gets more educated.
So in conclusion: Do both! Vowelled and unvowelled material is both important.
UPDATE: I’ve posted a new blog entry about a neat technique that helps you remember the Arabic short vowels.