29 words for 29 letters
This page is an experimental typographic index of the process of working with two languages and bridging two wildly different worlds. For each letter of the Arabic alphabet, I chose one word from my daily life in London, mostly concepts, thoughts and ways of being that I often find myself explaining.
Alef — انشالله — God willing
Inshallah replaces a yes or no answer, and is neither a yes or a no. It moves responsibility from the will of the self to that of God, as the ultimate decisive power in our futures.
Jeem — جد — Grandfather or Serious
Arabic uses diacritics as vocalisation marks; here is an example of two meanings acquired just by a change of position of the diacritic: Above or below the word, changes the meaning from serious to grandfather.
Zal — ذوق — Taste
Zouk is part cultural, part universal, part social, part personal, part local, part familial; often used to describe a perfect mix of consideration, grace and elegance.
Sheen — شوي - A little
Although mainly related to the quantity of things; repeated twice, Shwey shwey means slow down, a highly useful word if you happen to be in a taxi in Beirut or Cairo.
Tha’ — ظبي — Thabi
Dhabi is a type of deer, found in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Over the years, I sketched many typographic iterations of the word Dhabi as part for companies in the UAE.
Qaf — قاعدة — Rule
From the verb Ka3ad, meaning to sit down - The interpretation of the word depends on context and could be used to mean: foundation, grammatical rule, military base or pedestal
Noon — نسخ — copying
Often used to refer to a cursive style of Arabic calligraphy standardised in the tenth century by Ibn Muqla, the word originates from the verb copy, and was assigned to the most legible calligraphic style in copying the Qur’an.
Ba’ — بينتاغرام — Pentagram
I did a talk at Pentagram in 2019, and the invite showed the word Pentagram in Arabic. Since the sound P doesn’t exist, it is often replaced by the letter B, or the letter B with 3 diacritics instead on one.
Ha — حمص — Chickpeas or hummus
A Lebanese appetiser made of mashed chickpeas, lemon juice, Tahini sauce and Garlic appropriated by the variety of supermarkets around the world due to its irresistible simplicity.
Ra’ — رواق — Quiet
Perhaps a rarity in some parts of the world; Quiet and its opposite — noise — have very subjective perceptions between east and west.
Sad — صدى — Echo
Sada can only mean one thing and cannot be changed with diacritical marks. Its simplicity as a word carries it between formal Arabic and colloquial Arabic, and made it a good name for multiple media platforms.
Ain — عربي — Arabic
The word refers to the language as well as the identity, applied to nationals of 24 countries with Arabic as an official language. European for example, is an identity equivalent, although being European does not imply speaking one language.
Kaf — كوفي — Kufi
The Kufi script is one of the many Arabic calligraphic styles; Square Kufi was developed for modular tiles in architecture, and has stretched the decorative geometric capabilities of the script, before computerised fonts.
Ha — هون — Here
With the correct diacritics, it means to ease… or to take it easy. Without the diacritics, it is the colloquial word for here, where we are.
Ta’ — تسمية — Naming
A nod to the Arabic language, a consideration for the bilingual word count, attention to ease of phonetics and a sensibility to global concepts are some of the variables that come into a bilingual naming exercise.
Kha’ — خط — Typography & calligraphy
Two words in English that symbolise two very different graphic histories are combined in one word in Arabic - This word is a perfect insight into the connectivity of typography and calligraphy in Arabic.
Za’ — زنخة — No equivalent in English
This word describes the lingering smell of fish, dairy, and chicken on gently washed plates. I have explained this smell to all my flatmates in London, and once I assign the word to the smell, if becomes easily recognisable.
Dad — ضو — Light
In formal Arabic, light has an additional Hamza at the end; hard to pronounce, the colloquial written form has dropped the hamza for simplicity.
Ghayn — غربة — foreignness
The noun from the root word foreign, it is often used to describe the domicile of expats, highlighting the fact that Arabs often emigrate abroad and find themselves in foreign lands.
Lam — لول — Transliteration of lol
Although there are no acronyms in Arabic, and so no equivalent of Laughing out loud, it is common for acronyms to be translated as sound in informal settings, and to carry an additional layer of meaning.
Waw — ولو — No equivalent in English
A sound, that could mean nothing and everything depending on the tone of voice, and body language. This is a word that could be infused with any meaning.
Tha’ — ثورة — revolution
Since October 2019, the word revolution acquired a new meaning for all Lebanese as it refers to the movement that aimed to topple the corrupt government and bring back the stolen fortunes over 40 years.
Dal — دغري — Direct
Best usage is when someone says I am talking you Dighri, as opposed to taking you via swings and roundabouts. Also used in taking and giving road directions in cities where postcodes do not exist, like Beirut.
Seen — سمر — Samar
My first name, a word that refers to talking and telling stories at night before television became the main source of nightly entertainment. It is pronounced like summer but with an A instead of the e.
Ta’ — طرب — Tarab
Tarab describes a type of music that evokes a form of emotional ecstasy and a trancelike state. A variety of definitions exist; a departure of grief or sorrow through music is one of my favourites.
Fa’ — فتحة — Opening
Several diacritic marks are used to indicate short vowels in Arabic; Fatha is one of them, translated as opening, as it accentuates the ‘a’ sound in a word — its presence can alter the meaning of a word.
Meem — مرحبا — Hello
Pan Arab greeting, understood across the Arab world, with multiple local variants. Word originates from the verb ‘Rahhib ‘ meaning welcome .
Ya — يللا — Come on - Move it
There is a song in Arabic, yalla bina yalla, and in the spirit of translating serif and sans serif - Notions that do not exist in Arabic type, I would say get your freak on is a good equivalent.