Differences between English and Arabic Phonology
In this blog post, we will look into a contrastive analysis of English and Arabic Phonology. Arabic is a Semitic language from the Afro-Asiatic Language Family. English, on the other hand, is a West Germanic language from the Indo-European Language family. Inevitably, these languages show many linguistic differences at all levels of linguistic analysis, i..e phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, etc.
For this, we will take into consideration the segmental features only, i.e. the consonant and vowel system of the two languages. We divide this discussion into three sub parts, each covering all major points of difference between English and Arabic Phonology.
English and Arabic Phonology: Consonant System
We start discussing some of the major differences between English and Arabic Phonology by looking into the consonant system of the two languages.
Number of Consonant sounds
Arabic sound system comprises a total of thirty-two consonants, while that of English has only twenty-four. There are quite a number of common consonant sounds in both the languages. However, there is also a considerable set of consonants restricted to each language.
The roots of Arabic words are nothing but a sequence of vowel-less consonants. They are, thus, also referred to as consonantal roots. Arabic words are formed from vowel infixes between such a sequence of consonants. Difference vowel infixes bring about a change in meaning. This also means Arabic words can only begin with consonants (Watson 2002). However, in English, this is not the case. The roots of English words generally have both consonants and vowels together as syllables.
Also, English words can begin with either of consonants or vowels. In a way, consonants are more important than vowels in Arabic sound system. A consequence of that is consonants are emphasized in Arabic. But this does not necessarily happen in English.
Voiceless and Voiced sounds
Another major difference is that Arabic does not differentiate between a lot of voiceless and voiced sound pairs. For example, /p/, /b/, /g/, /k/ (plosives or stops) and /f/, /v/ (fricatives). Unlike English, they are not distinct phonemes but allophones in Arabic.
Rhoticity, Aspiration and Nasalization
The phenomenon of rhoticity in English and Arabic is also different. Although English dialects vary greatly in the use of rhotic consonants, the /r/ is preserved in the Standard variety. Arabic learners, however, make it a voiced flap.
Next, the approximation of English /h/ sound is harsh and highly aspirated in Arabic. The velar nasal sound /ŋ/ is absent in Arabic, but is common in English (Smith, 2011).
English and Arabic Phonology: Consonant Clusters
Another point of difference in English and Arabic Phonology is the occurance of Consonant Clusters.
What are Consonant Clusters?
Generally, words are formed by presence of onset and coda consonants around a nucleus. Nucleus is most often a vowel, but can also be a liquid or semi-vowel. However, a Consonant Cluster is a cluster of consonants with no vowels in between.
Number of Consonant Clusters
English, as compared to Arabic, has a wider range of consonant clusters represented in both written and spoken form of the language. There are seventy-eight three-segment and fourteen two-segment permissible consonant clusters in English which do not occur in Arabic sound system (Smith, 2011).
Number of Segments
English sound system permits the occurrence of three-segment Consonant Clusters in the initial position (for eg. /splɪt/) and up to four-segment Consonant Clusters in the final position (/twɛlfθs/) in a word. In the latter case, five-segment consonant clusters are also possible (/æŋksts/). However, they are limited to certain dialects only, and even there they are extremely rare. Consonant Clustering is also common in compound words in English (/lan(d)slʌɪd/, /ɡraʊndhɒɡ/).
Consonant Cluster Reduction
Another interesting quality of free flow and eloquent English speech is simplification or reduction of consonant clusters. This is true especially at word boundaries. Arabic sound system, on the other hand, forbids consonant clusters of all segment lengths in initial position and of more than two segments in medial and final position. However, when it is absolutely necessary in the language, such as in case of loan words, epenthetic short vowels (often shwas) are inserted between the consonants.
English and Arabic Phonology: Vowel System
Lastly, we study the vowel system of these two languages to complete our discussion on differences in English and Arabic Phonology.
Number of Vowels
Let us now come to the differences in the vowel system of the two languages. English has a total of twenty to twenty-two vowels (there is a lot of variation in vowel system), including diphthongs. Arabic, on the other hand, has only eight vowels (three short, three long plus two diphthongs). As we can see, English has more number of vowels in its sound system. English also contains a higher vowel-to-consonant ratio as compared to Arabic.
Not only is there a huge difference in the number of vowels, both the languages also employ their vowels in strikingly different ways. For instance, the words in English can begin with vowels (/apəl/, /ʌmbrɛlə/, etc.), but in Arabic, the word initial position can only be occupied by a non-vowel or consonant.
Vowel Length and Quality
Another important difference is that Arabic mainly uses its long vowels and diphthongs as infixes. The short vowels in the language are not that conspicuous and important in the formation of words. There are only three short vowels and they too are, in fact, almost allophonic in nature. In other words, Arabic speakers articulate these vowels interchangeably or with a lot of variation.
The fact that short vowels are unimportant in Arabic is even reflected in the orthography. The short vowels do not even have a complete representation like long vowels in the writing system and are retrieved by context or environment in which they occur. In case when they do get represented, it is optional and done by using diacritics.
However, this does not happen in case of English. In English, both short and long vowels are equally important. And they can contribute to a change in meaning of the words (for instance, /sin/ and /sɪn/). Unlike English, vowel quality does not bring about any major difference in Arabic.