Comparative Analysis of Consonants in Arabic and English

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Arabic and English are two widespread languages which are vividly used by people all over the world. Arabic is used in all the Muslim countries as it is the language of Koran. It is the official language in 26 countries, including Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria, Mauritania, etc. English is the official language in 67 sovereign states and is used as an international language of communication all over the world. About 341 million people are native English speakers and 267 million use it as a second language in over 104 countries, including the UK, Ireland, Canada, the USA, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, American Samoa, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Aruba, Barbados, Bahamas, Belize, Botswana, British Indian Ocean Territory, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cameroon, Brunei, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, and Denmark (Javed, 2013). The languages belong to different language families, thus provoking hardships in studying each one for representatives of the other language family. Arabic is a Semitic language, while English is a West Germanic language. Differentiation in families influences the structure, spelling, grammar, phonology, and morphology of both languages. One of the basic issues for the learners is that Arabic is written and read from right to left, which is unusual for English users. Despite the variety of forms and dialects of both languages, the analysis will focus on literary forms, Modern Standard Arabic and Standard English, which are used for official documentation, speeches, literature, media, and cultural events.

For the analysis, the works by Manhammed Hassan Abdul Rahman, Farheen Javed, Andrzej Kopczynski, Mona M. Hamad as well as linguistic studies across the cultures of Cambridge and Oxford universities and websites of linguistics and pedagogical universities were used. These linguists focused on comparative researches of both the Arabic and English languages and devoted their works to the phonological level of language. The comparison is based on the phonemic level where the structure of consonant phonemes and their relations are described, and the subphonemic level.

The study is going to introduce and briefly describe each of the compared languages, point the main processes for articulation of consonants, which resolve into the phonological division of consonant systems and provokes issues for learners, and analyze the main similarities and differences in the consonant systems of both languages.

Arabic language

Arabic is a Semitic language that has triliteral and quadriliteral consonantal roots. Words arise with different meanings due to the usage of long and short vowels, prefixes, and suffixes or changing verb forms. Historically, it starts in the 5th century from Classical Arabic and comes into such varieties as Modern Literary Arabic, Modern Spoken Arabic, and Modern Standard Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic consists of 30 consonants and 4 long vowels. In contrast to the Classical Arabic, it acquired 3 new letters: “g – hard,” “p,” and “v” which were borrowed from the European languages. Among the distinguishing features of the Arabic language are:

  • nunations: unn, ann, and inn sounds
  • shaddah is a doubling sign, maddah a stretch, waslah a connector, and sukun a mark representing vowellessness
  • diphthongs “aw and ay
  • it is a cursive language
  • writing is from right to left and has no separation for capital or small letters
  • it has a complicated and very wide system of derivations
  • regular stress
  • identical letters in forms but different in dotes such as: ت ،ث ،ب and .ج،ح،خ
  • there is no difference between pronunciation and writing

Word stress in Arabic is strictly defined by a range of rules based on the structure of the word or the sequences of consonants and vowels. If derivative parts change the word structure, it has to follow the rules according to the stem part of the word. Generally, prosodic language characteristics do not have functions of morphological differentiations in Arabic.

Shortly describing the grammatical and morphological levels of this language, it is worth noting that there is no neutral gender, only masculine and feminine; it has a phenomenon of sound and broken noun forms; nouns may change their forms depending on the past, present, or future tense; all foreign words are assimilated to the internal language rules and adopt the regulations of its grammar system. The Arabic language has complex root-and-pattern morphology, where root is based on the main frame of consonants. It is very sophisticated in lexical level and provides thousands of stems for word creation, extremely high variations of synonymic structure. For example, the word “lion” has up to 500 synonyms. Moreover, grammatical rules were covered by two major schools of Kufa and Basra still in the 8th century; however, almost every grammar rule has at least one exception ( Sbait, n.d).

English language

The English language is a West Germanic language which belongs to Indo-European language family and has its roots in 450 AD. Traditionally, it is divided in 3 main historical periods of development: Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. Assimilation of different tribes who came or were living on the British Isles influenced the language development greatly, walking through till nowadays version which is used in mass media, literature, as a spoken and international language. The core remains the Anglo-Saxon Old English, and it preserves the authentic Germanic grammar with its genders or tense system. Modern English belongs to pluricentric languages as it has different standards across the globe, and all of them are considered to be literary variants, for example, British English, American English, Australian English, Caribbean English, etc. English is a stressed language, although it might have not such a regular stress as Arabic. The long history of language development and changes made the stress a mostly historical phenomenon than a linguistic one, based on the word structure or set of simple rules. However, stress is the prosodic language feature that in English may influence the word meaning and grammatical differentiation, e.g.: digest (noun) – digest (verb).

It is also an analytical language in contrast to Arabic. It uses 35 basic sounds and 26 graphemes. It is also very changeable as it has a huge tendency to borrow words from other languages, modify them, create new items, and simplify the language, using lots of shortenings, abbreviations, and idioms (Catford, 1974).

The English language is considered to be an easy language for learners due to its simple syntax and derivative system as it is an analytical language. The difficulties may be provoked by the fact that it is not identical in spelling and pronunciation, which requires non-native speakers frequently use dictionaries and remember the transcriptions of the words. Other important features of the language are as follows:

  • it is written from left to right
  • it has italics in writing
  • it differentiates capital and small letters as well as print or handwriting
  • English does not contain identical letters ( Fajardo-Acosta’s, n.d.).

Contrastive analysis of Arabic and English consonants

General classification

First of all, about the focus should be made on the most important sounds: classification should be based on places of articulation which create obstruction for the air during the speech and make a platform for sound creation. The following classification exists both for Arabic and English consonants, and examples will be provided below. However, it is important to note that there are sounds that have representation only in one of the languages, or there are similar consonants that exist both in Arabic and English but belong to different groups in classification. These varieties will be more thoroughly described in the further analysis after general classification.

The classification of consonants looks as follows:

  1. bilabial – sounds which are created with the help of upper and lower lips due to their conjunction : /p/, /b/, and /m/ in English, /b/ ب, /m/م, and . و/w/ in Arabic
  2. labiodental – are created by upper teeth and lower lip: /f/ and /v/ in English, /f/ف in Arabic
  3. dental – are created by putting the tongue behind the upper teeth: / ð / and/ θ / in English and /t/ ت, /ṭ/ ط, /d/ د, /ḍ /ض, /s /س, /ṣ/ص, /z/ز in Arabic
  4. alveolar – as the name says for itself, sounds are created with the help of alveolar ridge: /t/, /d/, /s/, /z/, /n/, /l/, /r/ in English and /r/ر, /L/ ل, and /n/ ن in Arabic
  5. alveopalatal – tongue goes to the roof to the mouth to hard palate leaving behind alveolar ridge (/ʃ/ ,/ tʃ/, /ʒ/, and /dʒ/)
  6. velar – are created with the help of soft palate and back of tongue: /k/, /g/, and /ŋ/ in English and /x/خ, /˛g/غ, and /k/ك in Arabic
  7. palatal – are made by soft palate and front part of tongue: /j/ in English and /ʃ/ش , /j/ي, and /ʒ/ج in Arabic
  8. glottal – are created only by air without any obstructions: /h/ in English and /h/ and /?/ ء in Arabic
  9. retroflex – tongue touches the alveolar ridge (/r/).
  10. interdental – are created by putting the tongue between the teeth: exist only in Arabic /θ/ث ,/ð/ ذ, and/ ð/̣ ̣ظ
  11. pharyngeal – are created with the help of pharynx and tongue: /ḥ/ح, and /`/ع in Arabic only; there is no English version of the consonant
  12. uvular – created with the participation of uvula: they are represented by only one symbol /q/ ق, which exists just in Arabic ( Amer, n.d.)

According to Kopczynski and Valid M. Amer, the consonants differ also in the manner of articulation: the process of pronunciation may involve the same articulation places but produce still different sounds. The following classification is based mainly on the way and power of air obstruction and is similar for both the Arabic and English languages (Kopczynski, 1993):

  • Stop/plosive: These consonants have a particular stop of air involved into articulation processes. The stops may be produced by different organs like lips, tongue or teeth; but in general, they include such sounds as /p/ and /b/, /t/ and /d/, /k/and /g/ in English, /b/ب, /t/ ت, /ṭ/ ط, /d/ د, /ḍ/ض, /q/ق, /k/ك in Arabic.
  • Fricative: These sounds are generated because of partial mouth closure and are represented by /f/ and /v/, /θ/ and /ð/, /s/ and /z/, /ʃ/ and /ʒ/, /h/ in English, /f/ف, /θ/ث, /ð ̣/ظ, and /ð/ذ, /s/ س, /ṣ/ص, /z/ز, /ʃ/ش, /x/ خ, /˛g/̣غ, /ḥ/, /h/ ـه, /h/ء in Arabic.
  • Affricate: These sounds also involve the processes of closure, but at the initial phase of the articulation process while the stream of air is released. These comprise the examples of /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ in English and /ʒ/ج in Arabic.
  • Nasal: These consonants do not require mouth opening and mostly move the stream of air through nose for pronunciation. They include /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/ in English, /m/م and the alveolar nasal /n/ in Arabic.
  • Lateral: The representatives of this group are articulated with the help of partial mouth closure, leaving the narrow ways for the air stream from the tongue sides. English has one lateral sound /l/ and Arabic has /l/ ل.
  • Glides (semi-vowels): These sounds are pronounced without any mouth conjunction and mostly are used at the beginning of the world. Glides include /w/ and /j/ in English and accordingly /w/و, and /j/ ي in Arabic
  • Thrill is included only in Arabic classification and is presented by /r/ ر (Amer, 2010).

Contrastive description

Regarding the similar classification of the consonant systems in both languages, more attention should be paid to the contrastive differences which cause phonemic and subphonemic problems for learners of languages, for example. They are based on the manner of articulation mostly.

Considering the stops, it must be acknowledged that English is symmetrical on the contrary to Arabic. English has three pairs of stops in bilabial, velar, and alveolar types; meanwhile Arabic has no pair for /b/ and /k/. /p/ as a phoneme in Arabic occurs mostly in dialect as a variation of /b/ that means that learners of standard version do not use it. This sound may exist as a borrowed sound in borrowed words mostly. Phonemic problem of using these consonants for Arabic lays in the confusion with such counter pairs as /pæn/ pan and /bæn/ ban; /kæp/cap and /kæb/ kab as English consonant system includes both distinct phonemes /b/ and /p/. The Arabic language is wider in the stops as it includes also glottal and uvular stops, not presented in English.

Phonemes /t/ and /d/ are presented in both languages and create a pair; however, in English both sounds are alveolar, so alveolar ridge plays the most important role in articulation, while in the Arabic language the tongue touches teeth creating the dental pair of sounds. This subphonemical issue does not influence the understanding and use of the language but may create an obvious foreign accent. The glottal stop /?/ is a separate consonant sound in the Arabic consonant system. Arabic has no syllable beginning with a vowel, but it is used to start syllables beginning with vowels and elsewhere. In English it is not so. People may hear it as a vowel sound. Therefore, Arabic speakers may distort the blending between vowels (Rahman and Reishaan, n.d).

Kopczynski states that there are four affricates in English /tr/, /dr/, /tʃ/, and /dʒ/, and no affricates in Arabic at all. It was mentioned above that Arabic has only one affricate /ʒ/ج which the researcher applies mostly to dialects and variants of Arabic but not Modern Arabic Standard. As pronunciation of this sound is diversified in Egypt, Maghreb countries, Syria, Kuwait, Algeria, it is possible to assume that this suggestion is trustful and works for fricatives.

English consonants have nine fricatives in the system; Arabic has fourteen. Uvulo-pharyngeal and emphatic fricatives are a remarkable feature of the Arabic system of consonants. On the phonemic level, the consonant system of fricatives is presented as following:

  • Labiodental: Arabic /f/ – English /f/ or /v/
  • Interdental: Arabic /θ/ث – English /θ/
  • Arabic /ð ̣/ظ and /ð/ذ – English /ð/
  • Dento-alveolar Arabic /s/ س, /ṣ/ص – English /s/
  • Arabic /z/ز – English /z/
  • Alveo-palatals: Arabic /ʃ/ش – English /ʃ/
  • Uvulars, pharyngeal, glottals: Arabic /x/ خ, /˛g/̣غ, /ḥ/, /h/ ـه, /h/ء – English /h/ (Kopczynski, 1993).

Therefore, phonological differences lay in the absence of the phoneme /v/ in Arabic; phonemes /s/ and /z/ are alveolar in English and dental in Arabic, provoking various pronunciation patterns. Arabic speakers who learn the English language may use /s/ and /z/ for the English /Ɵ/ and /ð/. Therefore, English words such as /pa: Ɵ/ path and /pa: s/ pass, /brið/ breathe and /briz/ breeze, etc. cause misunderstandings and improper lexis use. Palatals in Arabic are softer than in English. Glottal fricatives are quite similar in pronunciation of both languages and are dependent on the consonant environment.

Nasals differ also in quantity as English has three nasal consonants while Arabic has two. Phonemes /m/ and /n/ in the English language can play the role of syllabic creators. Arabic nasals do not tend to make any syllables. However, the major difference is the existence of the sound /ŋ/ in English. As there is no phoneme /ŋ/ in MSA, it obviously creates issues for learners. Although during the articulation of /n/ in the environment of /g/ or /k/ Arabic nasal becomes more uvular, it is just allophone. Usually, English /n/ is alveolar and Arabic /n/ is dental.

Lateral /l/ has one expression in English and two in Arabic: emphatic and non-emphatic, or so called dark/heavy or clear/light, accordingly. The first are used before consonants and finals, while the latter are used before vowels. The dark version of /l/ in Arabic is used only in the one word as /əɫɫa:h/ “the God,” and in English this variation can be heard more frequently.

Glides are similar for both languages, with one important remark about phoneme /r/, which is considered to be glide in English and flap in Arabic. /r/ can be also considered as a retroflex sound in English. Neither of these categories exists in the analyzed languages; however, in the spoken language, these phonemes are often replaced despite the huge difference in the manner of articulation.

Phonologist emphasize a specific feature of Arabic consonants which they call “emphatic” sounds / dˤ, tˤ, sˤ, ðˤ/ (ض, ط, ص, ظ). At the same time, these consonants may be articulated and heard as velarized or pharyngealized sounds/ dˤ, tˤ, sˤ, ðˤ/ or / dˠ, tˠ, sˠ, ðˠ/, / d̴, t̴, s̴, ð̴/. Such a kind of articulation manner is also called “Retracted Tongue Root” and can be reflected in writing as <D> or with the help of underlining or dots.

In both languages consonants are phonologically divided in short or long.


In the English language, consonants may follow each other even up to more than seven letters in a row. Such a group of consonants without a vowel creates a consonant cluster, which is a frequent phenomenon in English and has place in the initial or final position in the word. The below examples provide the most common clusters for two, three, and more consonants:

  1. Two consonants at the beginning of words:
  • /s/ followed by /p, t, k, f, m, n, l, w, j/
  • /p/ followed by /r, w, j/
  • /k/ followed by /l, r, w, j/
  • /b/ followed by /l, r, j/
  • /d/ followed by /r, w, j/
  • /g/ followed by /l, r/
  • /f/ followed by /l, r, j/
  • /Ɵ/ followed by /r, w/
  • /ʃ/ followed by /r/ as in shrink
  • /v, m, n, h/ followed by /j/
  1. Three consonants at the beginning of words:
  • /spr/, /str/,/skr/, /stj/, /spl/, /skw/, /skj/ as in skew (this sequence is rare in English).
  1. Two or more consonants at the end of the word:
  • /s/ and /z/ at the end of plural nouns or present tense verbs : books, eats
  • /t/ and /d/ at the end of verbs in the past tense: wished
  • /Ɵ/ itself or followed by /s/ in plurals: strength, seventh, breadths
  1. Word boundaries can become a cluster of three, five, or even seven consonants: Best man, long skirt, first stream, tempts strangers
  2. /n/ and /l/ in a syllabic position also create a consonant cluster, like in the word lesson /lesn/ (Amer, 2010).

Arabic consonants clusters differ greatly from the English system. They do not have more that two consonants involved and are never used in the initial position but occur in a middle position. Therefore, all above combinations of English clusters can be troublesome for Arabic learners as due to not similar cluster foundation, they tend to insert vowels between combinations of more than two consonants, provoking misleading and misinterpretation of the vocabulary units. Another confusing phenomenon existing in both languages but used differently is doubling of consonants. In Arabic, it requires great muscular tension, so the doubled consonants in writing will be pronounced with more power. For example, /?adʒl/ (“certainly”) and doubled /?adʒdʒala/ (“postponed”) has a different amount of /dʒ/ and in the second case has significant power in pronunciation. While the English language has gemination, or doubling consonants, in writing that is not rendered to phonemical level. Taking into consideration that Arabic is identical in pronunciation and writing unlike English, Arabic learners of English often may turn the orthography gemination into the phonetical, which is incorrect ( Amer, 2010) .

Sounds that exist only in Arabic


          ك           ق               k-like

         ص          س              s-like

ـه       خ             ح              h-like

         ت             ط               t-like

         د              ض             d-like

         ظ               ذ              h-like

The “k-like” group is represented by two consonant sounds, the first of which is analoguous to English /k/ while the second one is more of a throat sound. The “h-like” group is the biggest one as it includes three variants in Arabic. Accordingly, one is the lightest one, being very similar to English where the air stream does not produce almost any sound. The second, on the contrary, is very rough like in the word “Bach,” and the third one comes deeply from throat like in the blowing process. One more representative of the “h-like” group is the vocalized Arabic version of /h/: the ayn (ع) and ghayn (غ). These sounds are hard to hear and produce, and they are made mostly by air in the throat with and without vibrating cords.

The last peculiarity in the comparative analysis of these languages lays in the hard and soft varieties of sounds /s/, /t/, /d/, and /th/ in Arabic. The difficulties for the listener or learner are in the fact that an Arabic speaker will feel the difference in pronunciation of hard and soft /s/, for example, while the vowels affecting the consonants stay the same. In English, there is no phonemic difference for the consonants; however, the pronunciation of the vowel changes. The soft s (س) is similar to English /s/ (“seen”). Almost all soft consonants like /t/, ta (ت), /d/, del (د), /dh/, dhel (ذ) are like the English counterparts, and hard sounds as/T/ “taw” (ط), /D/, Dod (ض), /DH/, DHa (ظ) are produced with more power, making the articulation deeper and stronger (Javed, 2013).


Significant time was devoted to engagement of the historic and general linguistic background information in order to show the full picture, which is responsible for creation of consonant systems in both languages. As it was acknowledged, there are similarities and differences in both languages as not all phonemic units have the corresponding ones in the other language or may belong to other articulation classification.

  1. There are sounds which exist only in Arabic: /t/, /d/, /q/, /X/, /h/, /؟/, and /S/
  2. Consonants that exist only in English: /p/, /g/, /t S/, /3/, /   /, /v/
  3. Consonants that can be found in both languages but vary in the manner and place of articulation.

Main differences occur in stops, fricatives, nasals, and lateral as Arabic involves more different combinations of speech organs’ patterns for sound creation. For consonant /r/, both English and Arabic have distinct consonant classification, regarding it as a retroflex and flap sound accordingly based on the tongue position.

The research paid the major attention to description and analysis of the last group explaining the classification of consonants both in English and Arabic, distinguishing consonants which do not perfectly correspond to each other and represent different phonemic groups. It has not only scientific significance but also may be used for practical purposes. Deep understanding of the comparative consonant structure may be used for the learners or language teachers to avoid typical phonological mistakes during the learning process, prevent the frequent misunderstandings and confusion of word meanings due to phonemic difference, and improve the pronunciation of the target language.

The proceeding of the project has involved the use of different sources like books, webpages, articles completed by researchers of Arabic and English as to the comparative aspects. Some points of these authors as well as their classifications did not identically match. However, after a thorough analysis, it became clear that those light varieties do not have a great impact on the analysis and distinguishing of the consonants systems in both languages. The hardest issue was to coordinate Arabic sounds in writing as different researches may use a different system of symbols. This provoked some misleads during the research. Generally, working on the project was interesting and useful. It helped develop analytical and writing skills on linguistic topics and will hopefully be beneficial from the pedagogical point of view as it includes some recommendations for improving the process of studying at phonetic level.