Consonants and vowels in Arabic and English

Abstract: A great many theoretical and practical contrastive studies have been carried out on different levels of language by teachers, linguists and psycholinguists in the field of Contrastive Analysis. Mainly there are three levels which are made use of in CA studies: 1) phonology 2) grammar 3) lexis. From these three areas the area of phonology and specifically the sound systems of English and Khuzestani Arabic are compared and contrasted in this study. Practically this study juxtaposed the consonants and vowels of English and Khuzestani Arabic and provided examples from both languages to draw out the similarities and difference.

Keywords: contrastive analysis; consonants; vowels; similarities, differences; Khuzestani Arabic


With regard to the roots, Arabic is the Semitic language of the Arabs, written from right to left in a cursive script. It is the mother tongue of about 300 million people. Arabic is the descendant of the language of Quran, the sacred book of Islamic religion. Arabs have their culture and identity and their language which is spoken in numerous dialects throughout much of the Middle East and parts of North Africa. It is a branch of Afro-Asiatic family of languages including Hebrew, Aramaic and certain ancient languages such as Phoenician. The Arabic language has a standard pronunciation,

which is basically the one used to recite the Quran. Meliani & Kopczynski (1993) in their paper noted that MSA is the variety that has evolved from Classical Arabic and is used throughout the Arab world from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf by educated Arabs not only in religious rites but also in science, education, and mass media. Away from the standard Arabic there are a lot of varieties. Shah (2007) in an article states that there are over 30 diverse varieties of colloquial Arabic which include:

Egyptian – spoken by 46 million people in Egypt and perhaps the most widely understood variety, due to the popularity of Egyptian-made films and TV shows.

Algerian – spoken by about 22 million people in Algeria.

Moroccan/Maghrebi – spoken in Morocco by 19.5 million people.

Sudenese – spoken in Sudan by 19 million people.

Saidi – spoken by 19 million people in Egypt.

Leventine – spoken in Lebannon, Jordon, Israel, Palestine and Syria by 15 million people.

Mesoptamin – spoken by 14 million people in Irag, Iran and Syria.

Najdi – spoken in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordon, and Syria by 10 million people.

Khuzestan is a province located in the southwest in Iran. There are about five million people in this province speaking in a variety of Arabic named Khuzestani Arabic. This variety can be included in the Najdi variety since it is so closer to the Iraqi accent. Iranian Arab communities are also found in Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Frye (2007) says that Most Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan Province are bilingual, speaking Arabic as their mother tongue, and Persian as a second language. The variety of Arabic spoken in the province is Khuzestani Arabic, which is a Mesopotamian dialect shared by Arabs across the border in Iraq. Of course it has substantial Persian influence and may be harder to understand by other Arabic-speakers around the world. English is the language of England, America and Australia, written from left to right not in a cursive script, now used in many varieties throughout the world. It is known as the Germanic language of England. Considering its family, English is a branch of the Indo-European language family that includes German, Dutch, and Scandinavian. Historically English originated from several dialects, now called old English which were brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th century. Unlike Arabic, English is taught as a foreign or second language in many countries all around the world; it is an international language or the commonest language used for international business, trade, travel, communication, etc. Only a relative handful studies have specifically compared the sounds in Arabic and English. Therefore the scarcity of information in this area persuaded the researcher to shed the lights on the nature of consonants and vowels in both Khuzestani Arabic and English, eliciting similarities and differences. With regard to the speech sounds, Waengler (2009) defines Consonants as speech sounds produced with a significant constrict in the oral or pharyngeal cavities when articulated. Fromkin (2009) says that the feature [consonantal] is present whenever some part of the vocal tract moves significantly away from the pre -speech position and forms an obstruction to the air stream in the oral cavity. Waengler (2009) states that Vowels are speech sounds produced with a relatively open vocal tract. “The feature [vocalic] pertains to the position of the vocal cords and the passage of the air stream through the oral cavity” (Fromkin, 2009). These two salient features can be found in mostly all languages all around the world including Khuzestani Arabic and English. There are some similarities and differences in uttering these consonants and vowels in English and Khuzestani Arabic; so the researcher decided to elaborate on the similarities and differences by representing the sounds of both languages and giving the readers examples of the speech sounds produced by Khuzestani Native speakers and English-Native speakers.


Comparative studies in linguistics have a long history. Teachers, linguists and psycholinguists have always been interested in errors produced by second language learners, either in their speech or writing or both. They worked on the sources of the errors whether they are based on similarities or differences between the mother language and the target language. “There have been two major approaches to study learners’ errors, namely Contrastive Analysis and Error Analysis” (Keshavarz, 2007). Brown (2000) reported that in fact Contrastive Analysis was considered as the last panacea for language teaching problems. Meanwhile a series of contrastive studies began to appear. As a matter of fact there are many studies that investigate the variations in Arabic dialects as well as making different comparisons either between Arabic dialects or between Arabic and other languages. In a study, Al-sawad (1983) in a study contrasts modern standard Arabic and English tense, aspect, and the structure of these two languages based on the grammatical features. In fact, he checks the similarities and differences in both languages. Brustad (1991) works on a number of these Arabic dialects: Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian and Kuwaiti. The focus of her study was on certain syntactic features that differ from one dialect to another. After comparing and contrasting these dialects she found that although minor differences have been emerged, the syntactic structure of these four Arabic dialects is similar. In a study Dahir (1998) focuses on the linguistic variation in the Syrian speech community. He sheds the lights on the dissimilarity in men’s and women’s use of standard and colloquial variants of three phonological variables, /q/, /θ/, /ð/ and /aw/ /ay/. He concludes that both standard Arabic and Syrian Arabic function as speech norms. He adds that the variation in θ/ð and aw/ay is not different in men and women; whereas, the variable /q/ is socially marked in the sense that men tend to use it in its standard value while women mostly change it into /? /. The present study juxtaposes the two sound systems of Khuzestani Arabic and English and works on them. However, the writer tried to provide more information on the Kuzestani Arabic system because it is assumed that a lot of our readers will be less familiar with this special Arabic dialect than English.

This study attempted to contribute to the knowledge base by:

A) Comparing the two vocalic systems, English and Khuzestani Arabic and compare the results using examples.

B) Creating a situation in which practicing teachers and learners could evaluate the theoretical and practical aspects of contrastive analysis.


It is worth noting that this study is pedagogical and aimed at predicting and solving learners’ problems. Here we discuss the two sound systems of Arabic and English and then compare the results.


Arabic has far fewer vowels and diphthongs than English and articulation is more stressed than English. There is also the use of glottal stops before initial vowels.

Let’s work on these vowels and draw out the similarities and differences in both languages.

General comparison:

Unlike English there are two types of vowels in Arabic; 1) short vowels 2) long vowels

1) Short vowels also known as ‘Harakat’ ÙŽ /a/ ِ / i / ُ /u/ which are merely oral, and used only in teaching texts for guiding the learner 2) Long vowels / α: / Ø / i:/ ÙŠ / Å« / Ùˆ which their function is to slightly lengthen the short vowels

The tables below describe Khuzestani Arabic vowels and gives the characteristics of them.


Isolated Sound





Damma is an apostrophe-like shape written above the consonant which precedes it in pronunciation. It represents a short vowel u (like the “u” in “but”).




Wāw is the long vowel Å« (like the “oo” in “moon”). It also represents the consonant w. When Waw is used to represent the long vowel, damma appears above the preceding consonant.




Fatha is a diagonal stroke written above the consonant which precedes it in pronunciation. It represents a short vowel a (a little like the “u” in “but”; a short “ah” sound).




Alif is the long vowel ā (a long “ahh” sound as in English “father”).




Kasra is a diagonal stroke written below the consonant which precedes it in pronunciation. It represents a short vowel i (like the “i” in English “pit”).




Ya’ is the long vowel Ä« (like the “ee” in English “sheep”). It also represents the consonant y. When Ya’ is used to represent the long vowel, kasra appears above the preceding consonant.


Vowels are different in English. They have traditionally been classified according to:

1) How high is the tongue?

2) What part of the tongue is involved?

3) What is the shape of the lips?

4) How tense are the muscles of the vocal tract?

The front vowels are: /i/ /I/ /e/ /æ/

The central vowels are: /Ð-: / /Ó™ / /Λ/

The back vowels are: /u: / /u/ /α: /­: /

The table below illustrates the English vowels.






ù :


i :





­ :

3: Ə









Specific comparison:


The resemblance between some sounds is evidently helpful for the Khuzestani Arabic students learning English. Level zero of Contrastive Analysis is Transfer which means “no difference or contrast is present between the two languages; the learner can simply transfer a sound from the native language to the target language” (Keshavarz, 2007).

1) The articulation of the short vowel ‘fatha’ / æ / is similar to that of the low front vowel /æ/


English: /s æ t/ /h æ t/

Arabic: / Ä æ d/ “limit” /r æ dd/ “answer”

2) The articulation of the short vowel ‘kasra’/ e / in Arabic is similar to the mid front /e/ in English.


E: /Å  e d/ /r e d/

A: /q e f/ “stop” /að e na / “allow”

3) The articulation of the short vowel ‘Damma’ / ¬»:/ in Arabic is similar to the mid back rounded vowel/­:/ in English.


E:/t ¬»:t/ /br ¬»:t/

A:/s ¬»:b ¬»:l/ “ways” /q ¬»:bal/ “kisses”

4) The articulation of the long vowel / α:/ in Arabic is similar to the British vowel /α:/.


E: /α:ns Ə / /α:sk/

A: /α:kher/ “end” /Qα:la/ “said”

5) The articulation of the long vowel / i:/ in Arabic is similar to the high front vowel /i:/ in English.


E:/si:t/ /fi:d/

A:/tamd i:d/ “extention” / Äad i:d/ “iron”

6) The articulation of the long vowel / u: / in Arabic is similar to the high back rounded vowel/u: / in English.


E:/fru:t/ /pru:v/

A:/r u: Ä / “soul” /dab u: s/ “pin”

It is worth noting that vowels which are absent in Arabic and present in English must be learned because they will cause trouble for the Arabs who are learning English. Differences:

Differences in articulation lead the Khuzestani Arabic students learning English to make Erroneous pronunciation of English vowels. That is why “differences are referred to as problematic areas or difficulties in contrastive analysis” (Brown 2000).

The main difference is that there are just six short and long vowels in Arabic, whereas there are twelve vowels in (British) English. Therefore the lack of six English vowels is problematic for almost all Arabic native speakers including the Arabs in Khuzestan and without practice they fail to articulate them perfectly.


1) Consider the English word “curl” /kÐ-:l/ , since the mid central vowel/Ð-:/ is not in the category of Khuzestani Arabic vowels, the Khuzestani native speaker may replace it with the short vowel /e/ in Arabic, articulate the word as /kerl/.

Arabic words:/erkab/ “get on” /ermi/ “shoot”

English words:”first” /fÐ-:st/ hurt /hÐ-:t/

2) Consider the English word “but” /bΛt/: since the low central /Λ/ is not existed in Arabic, the Arabic native speakers may replace it with the long vowel / α: / in Arabic, articulate the word as /b α:t/.

Arabic words:/ærα:dæ/ “will” / Ķ(h) α:bæ/ “disappointed” /z α: ræ/ “met”

English words:”won” /w Λn/ “cut” /k Λt/ month /m ΛnÓ¨/

3) Consider the English word “allow” /Ó™lau/:since the mid central vowel /Ó™/ is non in the category of Arabic vowels, the Arabic native speaker may replace it with the short vowel /æ/in Arabic, articulate the word as /ælau/.

Arabic words: / æ mara/ “building” / æ k æ l æ / “ate”

English words: “above /Ó™bΛv/ “about” /Ó™baut/


Focusing on consonants we drew out the similarities and differences in both Khuzestani Arabic and English.

General comparison:

There are 25 consonants in (British) English, whereas the number of consonants in Arabic is 33.

English consonants:

p b t d k g ? f v Ө ð s z Š Ž h Č Ĵ m n ŋ l r w y

Arabic consonants:

ā(alif) ?(hamze) b ŠŦ Ó¨ ð zÌ£ ð(dh) Ä´ Ò» Ä Ò³(kh) d r z s Å› Å  Ë(ain) Äž(ghain) f q(ghaaf) k l m n w y

And the four below consonants are absent in modern standard Arabic but present in Khuzestani Arabic. These four consonants are transferred from Persian into Khuzestani Arabic. Characteristically these consonants are the same as the four in English.

g Ž p Č

The table below describes Arabic consonants and gives the characteristics of them and provides you with examples. Reading the table well you will get more information about the characteristics of the Khuzestani Arabic consonants and their different forms.


Isolated Sound





long unrounded low central back vowel

‘a’ as in ‘father’



voiced bilabial stop

‘b’ as in ‘bed’



voiced aspirated stop

‘Å’ as in ‘tent’



voiceless interdental fricative

‘ Ó¨ ‘ as in ‘think’



voiced palatal affricate

‘j’ as in ‘jam’



voiceless pharyngeal constricted fricative

only in Arabic; a constricted English ‘h’



voiceless velar fricative

‘ch’ as in German ‘Bach’



voiced dental stop

‘d’ as in ‘deer’ (approx.)



voiced interdental fricative

‘th’ as in ‘there’



voiced dental trill

‘r’ as in ‘run’ (approx.)



voiced dental sibilant

‘z’ as in ‘zoo’ (approx.)



voiceless dental sibilant

‘s’ as in ‘sit’



voiceless palatal sibilant

‘sh’ as in ‘shut’



voiceless post-dental sibilant emphatic

the counterpart of Sá¿‘n; all the ’emphatics’ are pronounced with the back of the tongue slightly raised



voiced post-dental emphatic stop

the counterpart of Dāl



voiceless post-dental emphatic stop

the counterpart of Tā’



voiced post-interdental emphatic fricative

the counterpart of Dhāl



voiced pharyngeal fricative

purely Arabic — a constriction of the throat and an expulsion of the breath with the vocal cords vibrating



voiced uvular fricative

close to a French ‘r’ as in ‘Paris’ — like a gentle gargling



labio-dental voiceless fricative

‘f’ as in ‘free’



voiceless unaspirated uvular stop

‘k’ in the back of the throat; compare ‘cough’ with ‘calf’



voiceless aspirated palatal or velar stop

‘k’ as in ‘king’



voiced dental lateral

‘l’ as in ‘lift’



voiced bilabial nasal

‘m’ as in ‘moon’



voiced dental nasal

‘n’ as in ‘net’



voiceless glottal fricative

‘h’ as in ‘house’



voiced bilabial glide

‘w’ as in ‘wonder’



voiced palatal glide

‘y’ as in ‘yellow’



voiceless glottal stop

not a phoneme in English but found in some exclamations — e.g. ‘oh-oh’



Voiced postdorsal

‘g’ as in ‘gun’

Ž e


Voiced coronal palatal

‘Ž’ as in ‘closure’



Voiceless bilabial stop plosive

‘p’ as in ‘pick’



Voiceless coronal alveolar

‘ÄŒ’ as in ‘church’

Table 3: Arabic consonants

The table below illustrates the English consonants.

Standard English consonant phonemes











‎ m












‎ ?


‎ b








































Table 4: English Consonants

Specific comparison:


The articulation of most consonants in Khuzestani Arabic is identical to those of English. Let’s work on these resemblances with examples from both languages.

1) The articulation of /b/

English: /bi:d/

Arabic: /bal/ “rather”

2) The articulation of /Ó¨

E: /Ó¨In/

Arabic: /Ó¨ur/ “bull”

3) The articulation of /ð

E: /ðIs/

A: / ð æ rr æ / “spot”

Note: the double ‘r’ in this example shows the intensification of that sound in Arabic.

4) The articulation of /f/

E: /fi:Å /

A: /farIs/ “rider”

5) The articulation of /d/

E: /dId/

A: /d a r/ “room”

6) The articulation of /s/

E: /si:m/

A: /s Å« r/ “wall”

7) The articulation of /Å /

E: / Å Ip/

A: / Å  æ r/ “evil”

8) The articulation of /z/

E: /zu:m/

A: /z Å« r/ “force”

9) The articulation of /Ä´/

E: /Ä´u:n/

A: /Ä´ami:l/ “beautiful”

10) The articulation of /m/

E: /mu:n/

A: /m ¬»: d ¬»: n/ “cities”

11) The articulation of /n/

E: /nu:n/

A: /n Å« r/ “light”

12) The articulation of clear /l/

E: /leIm/

A:/l æ Ä æ m/ “meat”

13) The articulation of dark /l/

E: /bæbl/

A: / æ llah/ “God”

14) The articulation of /w/

E: /weÓ™r/

A: /w æ l æ d/ “boy”

15) The articulation of /y/ ( ј )

E: /yeld/

A: /y æ rmi:/ “shoot”

16) The articulation of /g/


A: /gal/ “said”

17) The articulation of /p/

E: /pIk/

A: /t æ pha/ “ball”

18) The articulation of / Ž/

E: /kl ¬»: Ž Ə/

A: / Ž i: b æ/ “bring it”

19) The articulation of / Č/

E: / ÄŒek/

A: / ÄŒ æ mm æ l/ “added”


Regarding the differences, let us first focus on some consonants which are present in Arabic but not in English.

1) /Ä/ : sharp /h/ like in the name ‘Hasan’ in Arabic

2) /Ò³/ (kh) : pronounced from the front of the throat e.g. /Ò³amr/ “wine”

3) / zÌ£ / : close to /ð/ but sharper e.g. / zÌ£ arf/ “container”

4) / dÌ£ / : close to / zÌ£ / but sharper e.g. / dÌ£ id/ “against”

5) /Ë/ (ain): Its place of articulation is lower than the consonant /?/ in English. e.g. /Ëuј Å« n/ “eyes”

6) /Äž/ (ghain): the same as the /r/ in French words like “au revoir”

7) /q/ (ghaaf): simply like /Äž/ but sharper e.g. /qalb/ “heart”

8) /Å›/: very close to /s/ but sharper e.g. /Å›alb/ “tough”

Consonants which are absent in Arabic but present in English are to be learned by Arabic learners of English because not learning or reinterpreting them (giving them a new shape or distribution) will influence the native like accent negatively.

This consonants are absent in modern standard and Khuzestani Arabic but present in English.

1)/p/: a bilabial consonant like /b/ in Arabic

2) /g/: a velar consonant close to/k/ in Arabic

3) /v/: a labio-dental consonant close to /f/ in Arabic

4) /Ž/: an alveo-palatal consonant close to /Ĵ/ in Arabic

5) /Č/: an alveo-palatal consonant close to /Ĵ/ in Arabic

6) /r/: a retroflex alveolar consonant very close to/Å™/ in Arabic

7) /t/: an alveolar consonant very close to the dental /t/ in Arabic

8) /k/: a velar consonant very close to the palatal/k/ in Arabic

9) /Å‹/: a velar consonant which is totally absent in Arabic

The absence of these sounds in one language and their presence in another language is problematic for learners. In Contrastive Analysis When “an item in the native language is absent in the target language” (Brown, 2000) that is under differentiation. On the contrary,” a new item entirely, bearing little if any similarity to the native language item, must be learned” (Brown, 2000) that is over differentiation.

Conclusion and Pedagogical implications

This study was conducted to probe the sound systems of both Khuzestani Arabic and English by presenting the sounds of each language and their characteristics. In fact we provided the reader with examples from both languages and based on these examples we drew out those sounds which resemble each other and those which differ from each other in articulation. The researcher, working on the examples from both languages, has illustrated that similarities cause level zero of Contrastive Analysis and help the learners transfer the native language item to the target language easily. On the contrary, differences are found as problematic. They may cause either under differentiation or over differentiation in the area of phonology which is one level of CA. The pedagogical outcome of this research, and the body of information produced in the corpus of language collected throughout the study can serve language researchers, educational policy makers, text-book authors, teachers and students in their quest for better understanding the process of learning and teaching English as a Foreign Language.

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