Writing and Pronouncing the Hamza (ء): A Guide for the Perplexed

In order to master the Arabic consonant hamza (هَمْزَة), it is necessary to have a solid grasp of the rules governing when and how it is written, and when it is pronounced and not pronounced. These rules are somewhat complex; however, there is no need to worry too much about them until you have some experience in reading and writing Arabic. If you are not yet familiar with the basics of the hamza and its various shapes, we recommend that you begin with our general introduction to the hamza, and return here when you are ready to delve deeper into its intricacies.

Introduction

Hamza (or hamzaŧ, as written in our transcription system) is always written on the line (ء) when it is used in the abstract, as for example in the above image or the title of this post. When used as part of a word, it may be written on the line, or seated on one of the letters Āalif (أ or إ), wāw (ؤ), or yāĀ without the dots (ئ), or not written at all. When it is not written, the hamzaŧ is sometimes pronounced and sometimes silent, depending upon context.

How hamzaŧ is written in a given word is determined by rules pertaining primarily to its position in the word (initial, medial, or final) and the surrounding vowels. Although most of these rules are widely accepted, there is some disagreement in certain cases about the proper way to write the hamzaŧ. And even where there is agreement on the rules, there are occasional exceptions to these rules. Add to this the fact that mistakes in writing the hamzaŧ are not uncommon – hardly surprising given the complexity of the subject – and the result is a considerable amount of variation and inconsistency in hamzaŧ writing.

In our discussion, we present a fairly standard set of rules for writing the hamzaŧ. If you are interested in learning about variations in hamzaŧ writing and the significance thereof, please see the essay by Dilworth B. Parkinson cited below.

Word-initial hamzaŧ

Word-initial hamzaŧ always sits on an Āalif. It never sits on the line, or on a wāw or dotless yāĀ. This is the case even when the word takes an inseparable preposition or the definite article as a prefix.

The hamzaŧ is placed above the Āalif (أ) if it is followed by fatHaŧ (a) or Dammaŧ (u), and below the Āalif (إ) if it is followed by kasraŧ (i). Note that إ only occurs in word-initial position, never in word-medial or word-final position.

Examples:

إِنْجيل أُسْبوع أَنا


Since every Arabic word must begin with a consonant, you can be sure that a word-initial Āalif is always a seat for hamzaŧ. But this hamzaŧ is sometimes unwritten, as in the following examples.

اِبْنَة اِسْتِخْدام البِنْت

The unwritten hamzaŧ is called hamzat lwaSl / هَمزَة الوَصْل, which means “the hamzaŧ of conjunction” or “the elidable hamzaŧ“. It occurs only at the beginning of words which would otherwise begin with a consonant cluster, i.e. two consecutive consonants without an intervening vowel, which is not permitted in MSA. (In Lebanese Arabic, however, a word can begin with a two-consonant cluster.)

Note that hamzat lwaSl is not part of the root of the word. It may be regarded as a prefix which serves to facilitate pronunciation in the event that the word begins a sentence or utterance, or (as in the above examples) stands alone. In such situations, hamzat lwaSl and its helping vowel are pronounced in order to avoid an utterance-initial consonant cluster. If, however, the word immediately follows the preceding word without an intervening pause, then the hamzaŧ and its helping vowel are dropped, as in the following examples:

The girl’s pen is new.
قَلَمُ البِنْتِ جَديد.
You may use the phone.
يُمْكِنُكَ اسْتِخْدامُ الهاتِف.
I know the doctor’s daughter.
أَعْرِفُ ابْنَةَ الطَّبيب.

In fully vocalized texts, hamzat lwaSl is represented by a small symbol called waSlaŧ / وَصْلَة (), which sits atop the Āalif in place of the regular hamzaŧ:. In most texts, however, this symbol is omitted.

The other type of hamzaŧ, called hamzat lqaT3 / هَمْزَة القَطْع (i.e. “the hamzaŧ of disjunction”) can occur in any position in the word. It is always written and always pronounced, as it is part of the root of the word.

Probably the most common use of hamzat lwaSl is with the Āalif of the definite article (ال). Certain word types also take hamzat lwaSl, in particular:

  • imperatives of Form I (اِفْعَل ,اُفْعُل)
  • imperatives of Forms VII (اِنْفَعِل), VIII (اِفْتَعِل), IX (اِفْعَلَّ) and X (اِسْتَفْعِل)
  • active past tense verbs of Forms VII (اِنْفَعَلَ), VIII (اِفْتَعَلَ), IX (اِفْعَلَّ) and X (اِسْتِفْعَلَ)
  • passive past tense verbs of Forms VII (اُنْفُعِلَ), VIII (اُفْتُعِلَ) and X (اُسْتُفْعِلَ)
  • gerunds (المصادر) of Forms VII (اِنْفِعال), VIII (اِفْتِعال), IX (اِفْعِلال) and X (اسْتِفْعال)

A few common words also take hamzat lwaSl, including some words of foreign origin which would otherwise begin with a consonant cluster.

Examples:

woman اِمْرَأَة son اِبْن
studio اِسْتوديو daughter اِبْنَة
strategy اِسْتراتيجيّة two اِثْنان
name اِسْم God اَلله

Generally speaking, hamzat lwaSl does not exist in Lebanese Arabic but only in MSA. Words which take hamzat lwaSl in MSA are typically pronounced in Lebanese Arabic with either hamzat lqaT3 or with no hamzaŧ and helping vowel at all. For example, MSA اِسْم becomes إِسِم in Lebanese Arabic, and MSA اِسْتَخْدَمَ becomes سْتَخْدَم in Lebanese Arabic. (Remember that in Lebanese Arabic, unlike MSA, a word is permitted to begin with a two-consonant cluster.)

As for the definite article, it is generally pronounced without a hamzat and helping vowel in Lebanese Arabic. Only the lām (or the letter to which it assimilates) is pronounced. Keep in mind, however, that it is always written ال, except when a lām is prefixed to it. (To learn more, please see our post on the definite article.)

Word-medial hamzaŧ

In order to determine how hamzaŧ is written in word-medial position, go through the following rules in order until arriving at the applicable rule.

1. If the vowel on or before the hamzaŧ is kasraŧ, or if the hamzaŧ is preceded by yāĀ (whether it is a long vowel or consonant), then the hamzaŧ sits on the dotless yāĀ (ئ).

Examples:

هَيْئَة مَشيئَة تُنْشِئُه تَدْفِئَة سُئِل هُدوئِه سائِل

2. If the first rule does not apply, and if the vowel on or before the hamzaŧ is Dammaŧ, then the hamzaŧ sits on the wāw (ؤ).

Examples:

سُؤال تَفاؤُل تَرْؤُف

3. If the first two rules do not apply, then the hamzaŧ sits on the Āalif (always above, never below) unless it follows the long vowels Āalif or wāw.

Examples:

شَأْن سَأَل مَأْدَبَة مَسْأَلَة

4. If the first two rules do not apply, and the hamzaŧ follows the long vowels Āalif or wāw, then it sits on the line.

Examples:

 مُروءَة تَفاءَل

Word-final hamzaŧ

In order to determine how hamzaŧ is written at the end of a word, it is necessary to look at the immediately preceding vowel.

At the end of a word, hamzaŧ sits on the line when it follows a long vowel (و ,ا, or ي) or a sukūn.

Examples:

مِلْء تُضيء هُدوء حَمْراء

Remember that ء does not connect to any letter. Thus, the yāĀ in تُضيء and the lām in مِلْء – both of which are connectors – do not connect to the final ء.

If the hamzaŧ follows a short vowel, it sits on the letter that matches the short vowel.

Examples:

نَشَأَ The hamzaŧ is written on an Āalif (always above, never below) since the vowel before it is fatHaŧ.
تَهَيَّأَ
 
تَباطُؤ The hamzaŧ is written on a wāw since the vowel before it is Dammaŧ.
تَهَيُّؤ
 
شاطِئ The hamzaŧ is written on a dotless yāĀ since the vowel before it is kasraŧ.
يُهَيِّئ

An exception to the above rule occurs in the case of a hamzaŧ which is preceded by the consonant wāw with a šaddaŧ and Dammaŧ (وُّ). In this case, the hamzaŧ sits on the line.

Example:

تَبَوُّء
Word-final hamzaŧ and accusative tanwīn

When accusative tanwīn is added to a word-final hamzaŧ, an (unpronounced) Āalif is appended to the word as long as the hamzaŧ is not preceded by or written on an Āalif.

Examples:

جِزْءًا جِزْء بِدْءًا بِدْء نَوْءًا نَوْء
شاطِئًا شاطِئ لُؤْلُؤًا لُؤْلُؤ تباطُؤًا تباطُؤ

If the hamzaŧ is either preceded by or written on an Āalif, then no Āalif is appended to the word.

Examples:

جِراءً جِراء ماءً ماء هَواءً هَواء
مَنْشَأً مَنْشَأ مَلْجَأً مَلْجَأ مَبْدَأً مَبْدَأ

Finally, note that when Āalif is appended to a word-final hamzaŧ, and this hamzaŧ is preceded by a connecting letter (i.e. any letter other than و ,ز ,ر ,ذ ,د ,ا) with a sukūn, the hamzaŧ is written on a dotless yāĀ.

Examples:

شَيْئًا شَيْء مِلْئًا مِلْء بُطْئًا بُطْء
Āalif maddaŧ (آ)

When a hamzaŧ which would sit on an Āalif is followed by another Āalif, the two are combined into a single shape: Āalif maddaŧ (آ). This rule applies regardless of word position (initial, medial, or final).

Examples:

نَشَآ القُرْآن آدَم



Further Reading

Parkinson, D.B. (1988), “Orthographic Variation in Modern Standard Arabic: The Case of the Hamza, in J. McCarthy and M. Eid (eds), Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics. Papers from the Annual Symposium on Arabic Linguistics, Volume II: John Benjamins Publishing, 269-95.

Related
The Arabic Alphabet: A Guide to the Phonology and Orthography of MSA and Lebanese Arabic
The Definite Article in Arabic

6 Replies to “Writing and Pronouncing the Hamza (ء): A Guide for the Perplexed”

  1. Very useful review.
    What about the fatha tanwin? When it is written on the hamza and when it requires an additional alif? Like بناءً instead of جزءاً ?

    • Thank you – that’s a great question. To address this issue, we have added a section above on word-final hamzaŧ and accusative tanwīn.

  2. I have seen a type of Quran it does not have a hamza only it was present alif plzz answer my question and it was oldest after death of Mohammad saw

    • According to tradition, the Arabic spoken in Mecca did not have a glottal stop, and so the hamza was not used when the Qur’an was first written down. The introduction of the hamza is credited to Abū al-Aswad, and it was originally probably a small ع, written above the و, ا, or ي. (see p. 64 of Versteegh’s The Arabic Language, 2nd ed.)

  3. I’m learning a du’a and an ayat: Du’a (قَدَرُ اللهِ وَمَا شا ءَ فَعَلَ.) The ayat: (إِلاّمَاشَآءَ ٱللّهُ. إِنّهُ، يَعْلَمُ ٱلْجَهْرَ وَ مَا يَخْفَى )
    which of the above rules applies to the use and pronunciation of these Hamzas?
    English is my first language. I’m trying to squeeze in multi-languages.

    • The hamzaŧ is always pronounced unless it is hamzat lwaSl, as in ٱللّهُ and ٱلْجَهْرَ. In the case of إِلاّ and إِنّهُ the hamzaŧ is placed below the Āalif because it is followed by a kasraŧ. (See the section on word-initial hamzaŧ.)

      With شاءَ the hamzaŧ sits on the line because it is preceded by a long vowel. (See the section on word-final hamzaŧ.)

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