Shwa for Arabic
‏شْوَا للغة العربيّة‎

The use of Shwa script to write Arabic has several advantages over the traditional script (in addition to its universality). Most visible is the lack of dots: each letter has its own form. There is a full letter for hamza, a letter for the emphatic lam (as in the name Allah), and many of the special signs needed to make up for the deficiencies of traditional script, e.g. sukūn, madda and waṣla, are simply not needed at all: Shwa script is much cleaner.

The term Standard Arabic includes both the Classical Arabic of the Qur'ān and Golden Age, and Modern Standard Arabic (the language people are taught to read and write in schools), but nobody speaks it as a native language. In contrast, the vernacular spoken dialects, which differ considerably from one another, are rarely written. But it is not the role of the script to favor one or the other: Shwa script can be used to write any of them. What that means is that the dialects of Arabic, including Classical and Modern Standard, differ as much from each other when written in the Shwa script as they already do in speech.

Unlike the traditional script, Shwa script for Arabic is written from left to right. Otherwise, a straight one-for-one replacement of traditional letters by their Shwa equivalents is a good first step in transliteration. Here's a table of equivalents (I use the apostrophe ' to represent hamza, the exclamation mark ! to represent !ayn, and the underdot to represent other emphatic consonants) :

أ(as chair) ʔ'
(in Miṣr)gg
(in ash-Shām
or al-Maghrib)
in Allahɫll
و(as vowel)ū
ي(as vowel)ī
other signs
اْsukūn(no vowel)
ةtā' marbūṭaa(t) ()
ى'alif maqsūraa



Four consonants are considered emphatic : ṣ ḍ ṭ and dḥ/ẓ. These sounds feature secondary pharyngealization : the root of your tongue is retracted as they are spoken. This retraction spreads to neighboring sounds in the same word, especially vowels. Three other consonants have the same effect on neighboring sounds as emphatic consonants: q, r and a special "dark" pronunciation of the letter lam in the word Allah (and Shwa uses a velar ɫ letter for this sound).

These changes are reflected in Shwa. The following rules approximate an educated pronunciation of Modern Standard Arabic, although the actual rules are much more complex and not at all standard :

The result is that Arabic uses nine Shwa vowels, not just the three traditionally mentioned.

Standard Spoken Arabic

As mentioned, the rules above only approximate an educated pronunciation of Modern Standard Arabic, because there is no standard pronunciation! Modern Standard Arabic is only a written dialect; every spoken dialect pronounces it differently. And one of the main reasons that there is no standard spoken Arabic is that the Arabic alphabet can't write many of the differences in pronunciation - they're all written alike. So perhaps the Arabic world is waiting for a more precise or less ambiguous orthography in order to develop a spoken standard. As in other widespread languages - Chinese, English, Spanish - a standard dialect wouldn't supplant the variety of spoken dialects: Arabic speakers would still be diglossic, as they are now. But the standard would include a spoken form.


Here is an example in some detail. We're going to write the name of the famous Caliph of Baghdad, Hārūn 'ar-Rashīd bin Muḥammad bin 'al-Manṣūr, the hero of the Arabian Nights. Here is his name in traditional script:

  ‫هَارُون الرَشِيد بِن مُحَمَّد بِن المَنصُور‬

And here's the same name in Shwa :


Ornamental Styles

Because Islam proscribes figurative art, decoration in the Muslim world has focused on calligraphy and geometric patterns. Here are some examples in the traditional script, both old and new:

Because of this tradition, it is common to see Arabic names written in Shwa in an ornamental style, especially when they are being used as labels, for instance on a book cover, a movie poster, a building or the like. Often, the font is either calligraphic (as if written by hand) or geometric, and it may also be cursive: the letters may be connected, like in the traditional script. One popular cursive style is called Abjad gait : consonants are connected to form a zigzag spine, while the vowels are written in the spaces created above and below the cursive line. For example, here is the same name you met above in Abjad gait (cursive but not calligraphic):

The name Arabic on the Home page is also in Abjad gait. Here is a prettier version:

Please bear in mind, as you compare the traditional and Shwa versions, that traditional calligraphy has had fifteen centuries to develop their beautiful ornamental forms, while Shwa is just beginning. If you are a calligrapher, perhaps you'd like to show us how beautiful Shwa script can be.

For now, why don't you try reading a sentence?

‫البشر  هم  هم  لايتغيّرون‬


In addition to being the everyday language of 235 million people, Arabic is also the original language of Islam, the religion of almost a quarter of the world's population. Some Muslims may wonder whether the Qur'ān is just as holy when written in the Shwa script.

The answer is "yes". As devout Muslims know, the prophet could neither read nor write, which is one reason why the Qur'ān is so beautiful : it was meant to be recited. So there is nothing holy about the traditional script itself. When Turkish converted from the Arabic script to the Roman alphabet in 1926 (as did Albanian in 1909 and Malay by 1959), this subject was widely debated, and an article appeared (by Kılıçzade Hakkı in Hür Fikir, 17nov1926) entitled "Gabriel didn't bring the Arabic letters too, you know". Most of the world's Muslims don't use the Arabic script, in fact, among the world's six most populous Muslim nations only one (Pakistan) uses it.

If the Shwa script can write Classical Arabic better than the traditional script, then is it not a better vehicle for the Holy Qur'ān? And if the Muslims of the world write their own languages in the Shwa script, won't it be easier for them to read the Qur'ān in the same script?

Here is the shahādah, the Muslim profession of faith which is one of the five pillars of Islam, written in the Shwa script:

‫لا  إلاه  إلاالله  و محمد  رسولالله‬

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