PJ 6779.W7I" ""'""•"y Library
..SROken Arabic of Egypt ■
3 19P4 026 887 152
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ARABIC OF EGYPT
THE SPOKEN ARABIC
J. SELDEN WILLMOEE, M.A.
ONE Of THE JUDGES OP THE NATIVE COURT OF
APPEAL AT CAIRO
DAVID NUTT, 57-59 LONG ACRE
Printed by Ballantynb, Hanson &> Co.
At the Ballantyne Press
Professor Sheldon Amos once remarked to me that Egyptian
Arabic had been a hopeless puzzle to him, which he despaired
of ever being able to master, until he fell across Spitta Bey's
grammar of the language. Then all became clear at once.
Spitta's work was indeed a model of the way in which a spoken
living language should be scientifically studied. But it was
necessarily the work of a pioneer. It opened the way which
others should follow and complete.
The work that was begun by Spitta seems to me to have
been finished by Mr. Willmore. The present volume contains
an exhaustive account of the Cairene dialect of Egyptian
Arabic as it is spoken to-day. On the practical side it will
be welcomed by those who live in Egypt and wish to understand
and be understood by the natives. But it will be qiiite as
much welcomed by the student of scientific philology. It tells
him what he wants to know — how a living Semitic language
pronounces its words and forms its grammar. For language
consists of sounds, not of written symbols, and its grammar is
that of ordinary conversation. What has been termed anti-
quarian, philology is doubtless important to the historian or the
literary scholar ; for linguistic science it is of little use. The
living organism alone can yield scientific results ; the spellings
of a past age or the grammatical forms which exist only in
books are a hindrance rather than a help to scientific research.
It is, of course, essential that the living organism should be
represented as accurately and exactly as possible. In other
words, we must have a notation which shall reproduce the
pronunciation of a language with approximate accuracy. The
defective Arabic alphabet, with its diacritical marks and poverty
of vocalic symbols, is out of the question. It belongs to a pre-
scientific age and people, and is wholly unfitted to represent
the living sounds of a modern Arabic language. For this we
must have recourse to some modification of the Latin alphabet.
What this modification shall be will depend on the immediate
object in view. If the object is purely scientific, we may make
our choice between the alphabets of Lepsius, Alexander J. Elli.s,
or Sweet ; if, on the other hand, it is mainly practical, there is
nothing better than the alphabet adopted in the " Sacred Books
of the East,'' or that adaptation of Spitta Bey's alphabet which
is to be found in the present work. This latter reproduces
the pronunciation of the Cairene dialect with all the accuracy
needed by the practical student. It sets before us a Semitic
language as it really exists, not an artificial jargon such as has
been imagined by grammarians of the old school or the compilers
of newspaper articles.
A. H. SAYCE.
A TBEATISE on tbe Arabic language as spoken in Egypt, and
particularly at the capital, was published by Wilhelm Spitta
in the year 1880 under the title of Grammatik cles Arabischen
Vulgdrdialectes von ^Egypten. To the scholarship and careful
researches of this writer orientalists are indebted for the first and,
perhaps, only serious attempt to sketch the distinguishing features
of the literary and vernacular dialects. In the grammars of
" vulgar " Arabic which already existed, as in others which
have since appeared, we find a confusion between two spoken
dialects, such as Egyptian 'and Syrian, or a hopeless mixture
of forms and expressions used only in conversation with those
which are peculiar to the written language. In some of these
grammars the Arabic words are written in Roman characters
without any method ; in others the Arabic letters are employed.
In the latter case the short vowels are omitted altogether ; a
single character (iv) is used for u, 6, and au, another (y) for t,
e, and ay, and a double consonant is printed single ; so that it
is impossible in almost every case to pronounce correctly a word
with which we are not already orally acquainted.^ Signs for such
short vowels as occur in the literary language, in the form of
accents above and below the consonants, are employed in copies
of the Koran and occasionally in other books, as a guide to
pronunciation ; but new ones would have to be invented to
express sounds peculiar to the spoken language if, in adopting
the Arabic character, we "pointed" the words. To do so with
any approach to completeness, we should have to employ a system
of vowel-points and accents akin to that in use for Hebrew ;
1 Thus both katab he wrote, and kutib it loan written, are re-
presented by the letters Idb ; malak he possessed, malik Mng, and
milk property, by 7nUc, and the letters miot will be read according
to the context mawt or m6t death, mauwit he killed, or mauwitt /
but no Arabic type would admit of this. Natives would, no
doubt, learn to read in the Arabic character without vowel
points the language which they speak, as they are already tamiiiar
with the words ; but the language of the books is naturally in
the keeping of the learned, who still regard with much jealousy
the introduction of "vulgar" grammatical forms or even of
words which do not figure in the Qamus. Hence the proportion
of people who are able to read and write in Axabic-speaking
countries is exceedingly small ; for the working-man, having no
time to study a strange idiom, and nothing to gain by learning
the letters, remains, and will ever remain under the present
system, illiterate. No doubt there is a certain benefit in having
a common written language for the whole of the Arab world, so
that a man of education brought up in Algeria can read a book
published in Egypt or Syria ; but it is a benefit enjoyed at the
expense of the lower classes.
The foreigner who seeks a practical knowledge of the language
is at another disadvantage. Whether he engage a professor or
study from the books, he generally acquires a vocabulary of
words only understood by the educated, and in the latter case
he is confronted with the difiiculties resulting from the absence
of the vowels.
The dialect of Cairo presents many forms of very high
antiquity. Its precise place in the Semitic family could be
more easily determined if the influence which the Koreish
dialect has had upon it could be removed. There can be .no
doubt that it is more closely allied, in structure at least, to
the Hebraic and Aramaic branches of the family than is the
language of the Koran and subsequent Arabic literature. Hebrew
and Syriao, for instance, have, like Oairene and other spoken
dialects, no final vowel in the 3rd person singular of the verb,
making katab and ktab respectively (lit. Arab, kataba^) in
the past tense, nor in any person of the aorist except in the
3rd person plural. The vowel of the preformative syllable is
in Hebrew i, in Syriac e, but a in the primitive form of the
literary Arabic verb. The dual is wanting in the verb and
pronoun,2 and the nouns have no case-endings. In Hebrew we
may note the following further points of resemblance : h has
no consonantal power at the end of words, though it may take
1 Literary Arabic drops the final short vowels in the iussive
2 It is wholly absent in Syriac, and appears only in a few
nouns in Hebrew.
the place of an accent, thus malka queen, z6 this ; ^ ay becomes
e and au o in certain cases, as beth house (lit. Arab, bayt), 16 if ;
a full vowel disappears under circumstances similar to those
described in § 33 of the grammar, as melek, malka, gevM
boundary, ligvM ; ^ y in the early stages of the language stands
for qat'a in such words as 'arbhiyim (later, but rarely, 'arbhi'im)
Arabs, or the qat'a falls out, as r§m for re'm (cf. r&s, &c.) ; the
vowel of the first syllable in certain cases is thrown out and
prefixed to the first radical, as in ezro' (for zer6') arm, ezba'
finger (cf. grammar, § 15) ; the e and ^-sounds frequently replace
the a, as in the verbs (above), or as in melek, chad ^ (lit. Arab,
malik, ahad), ve (but also va) and; there are traces of both
itfa'al and itfa"al ; the letter dh of the literary Arabic is
unknown, being replaced by 2; ; * ve and is softened to -d before
a labial and before a consonant moved only by a sheva ; the
pronoun of the 1st person is hemma (lit. Arab, huma, Oair.
humma), the interrogative mi (lit. Arab, man, Oair. min) ; ani
is sometimes used for the 1st person, as in Oairene ; the 3rd
person hu often accompanies the noun pleonastically (cf. § 375
of grammar), as ha ish hu the man hefi
In Syriac the verb system offers some very striking points
of resemblance to Egyptian in addition to those already men-
tioned. The passive of the simple verb does not exist," though
we have neuters of the ^ form p'el (fi'il), with corresponding
actives of the form p'al (fa'al), the vowel of the 2nd radical of
the aorist being generally a in the first case, e in the second (see
§ 141 (3) of the grammar) ; in place of it we have the derived
form ethp'el^ ( = itfa'al, unknown even as tafa'al in literary
Arabic) ; in the first derived form we have both pa"al and
pa"el ( = fa"al, fa"il), with ethpa"al (itfa"al, lit. tafa"al) for
1 Syriac bitt6 his daughter.
2 80 also in Ethiopic.
^ Aramaic had.
* Generally d in Oairene, but z in Nahwy. In Aramaic we
have talmld, as sometimes in Oairene. The fact that even the
educated have great difficulty in pronouncing dh, and that all
classes can pronounce v (the Hebrew equivalent of w) is very
5 Such expressions, unknown to literary Arabic, are com-
moner in Aramaic even than in Hebrew.
" It is hardly traceable either in Hebrew.
■^ Hebr. hithpahel = itfa"al, a form known to literary Arabic
otily in its later stage.
its passive. Further we have the forms ^^'f'^^^^^^'^
(given as quadrihterals m the grammar). The term
is possibly not «. modern form, but the equivalent ot tne arcnaic
Syriac un. Lastly, the Hebrew and Syriac syntax affords
strong evidence ot their close affinity to Cairene and other
living dialects. On the other hand, there is a very important
point which literary Arabic has in common with the spoken
dialects, namely, the use of broken plurals, a form which seems
to be preferred in Cairene Arabic to the " perfect" plural in at
(Hebrew 6th) ; ^ and further, the use of the dual, even in nouns,
is hardly known to the other branches of the Semitic family.
It results, from the above considerations, that the so-called
Arabic dialects of the present day present a combination of the
peculiarities of several branches of the Semitic family. The
development which some of them display in common with
Hebrew is evidence of their great antiquity, while the fact
that in most cases the stronger forms have been retained by
the Koreish dialect indicate that this latter separated at a com-
paratively late period from the common parent. Allowance
must, of course, be made for the circumstance of its growth
having been arrested when it became the sacred language ot
Islam, but the thinning ot the vowels and other signs of advance
had begun, as we have seen, in almost prehistoric times in
other branches ot the family.^
In the following pages the everyday speech of the people
is presented to the student, and care has been taken to avoid
words which are not familiar to all classes. It is generally
called the vulgar dialect of the country, but it is vulgar only in
the sense that it is popular and universal.^ Men of all condi-
tions employ it in conversation, though naturally many words
are used by the higher classes, especially as technical terms,
which are not understood by the uneducated. A discussion of
the reasons tor the existence of one dialect for literature and
1 Ethiopic is the only other member of the family which
admits of broken plurals.
^ 111 Assyrian the vowel of the preformative syllable of the
aorist was i in the 3rd person. Syriac has the weak vowel
even in the 1st person. The final a of the perfect appears in
Ethiopic (a language which has more in common with classical
Arabic, except for the absence of the dual, than either Hebrew
or Aramaic), and is retained in Amharic.
3 " 'H KOLvrj SiaAeKTos." The term " vulgar " is often ap-
plied contemptuously to spoken Arabic.
another for conversation would be out of place here.i There
can be no doubt that the progress of the nation is thereby
impeded, and great advantages would be gained if one only
were used for both purposes. The written language is re-
garded by the educated as ^pire ('arabi nadtf), the spoken as
unclean or hi-oken ('arabi maksur),^ while the lower classes term
the spoken 'arabt and the written nahwi.^ To us it seems
strange that it should be necessary to write of hrecul and toater
as khubz and ma', while we speak of them as 'esh and moiya,* or
to read from a document yaktub or yaktubu,^ while we regularly
hear yiktib in conversation. If we were to speak English
and write Dutch our literature would be understood, by the
educated at least, over a wide area ; but it would not appeal
to our senses. The force of words consists in the associations
which they recall — in the subtle reminiscences they awake of
bygone days. No word or expression which we meet only in
books will enter into our life like those which have become
1 See the preface to Dozy's Supplement aux Didionnaires
A7'abes. He points out that the early dictionaries composed by
the followers of the Prophet excluded all words not considered
classic or " sacred," and, as modern compilations have added
but little to the store by independent research, no collection of
words in general use in any way approaching to completeness
has as yet been made.
2 Apparently from the notion that the spoken dialect is
nothing but a corruption of the Koranic.
^ , Nahwi means literally grammatical, and is commonly ajp-
plied to the mongrel language employed in official correspond-
ence. It is the " classical " language artificially adapted to
modern wants. The Koi-anic forms are mostly retained, but
foreign and in particular French idioms are largely introduced,
and words are given meanings which they do not bear in the
classical language. It is used in speeches and in pleadings at
the courts (intermingled often in the same sentence with the
vernacular), or in the discussion of technical subjects, and
pedantically even in ordinary conversation. A brief sketch of
its accidence is given in an appendix to the Accidence.
* Khubz is colloquial in the dialect of Syria. .
^ As the vowels are not printed, yaktub and yaktubu will
be written with the same letters as yiktib. In the reading of
correspondence and official documents the final short vowels are
often not pronounced, the clerks not being sufficiently versed in
the classical language to insert them.
familiar to us through our intercourse with our fe ow-
beings.i , ■ •,
To resume, the spoken language of Cairo represents in its
structure the distinguishing features of at least three branches
of the Semitic family. It has borrowed some words from boptic,
which it has thoroughly assimilated, as timsah crocodile, libsh
(Copt, lebsh bush, reed), whence we have the verb labbish, (fee,
and others from the languages of Europe, including Turkish.
Further, a great many expressions belonging in reality to the
written language have, owing to the influence of the Koran,
become familiar even to the lowest classes, some of them in
a slightly altered form, others without any change. But the
importations from abroad are by no means numerous, and on
the whole Oairene has preserved, unlike some other Semitic
idioms, as Maltese and the modern dialects of Abyssinia, an
essentially pure character. Such is the language which the
people have evolved for themselves, and history warns us that
all attempts to " educate them up" to express themselves in an
idiom not of their choosing will meet with failure. The wiser
course would be to throw aside all prejudice ^ and accept it, at
least for secular purposes, as the only language of the country.
There is reason to fear that, unless this be done and a simpler
system of writing be adopted, both the colloquial and literary
dialects will be gradually ousted, as the intercourse with Euro-
pean nations increases, by a foreign tongue.
And let it not be supposed that the Oairene or any other
spoken dialect is unworthy of a literature. They are many
of them richer in their phraseology than any of the European
languages, and with the introduction from the Nahwy voca-
bulary of the necessary technical terms would be capable of
expressing every idea of modern times, and this in a living
form. A movement in favour of the vernacular would best he
1 Dozy says of the early "purists " : " Meconnaissant la nature
des choses, ne comprenant pas et ne voulant pas comprendre
que tout dans ce monde est sujet a varier, que les lan<^ues se
modifient a mesure des modifications de la pensee, qu'elles
subissent la d6pendance de la societe qui les parl'e et des
(icrivains qui s'en servent, ils voulaient rendre immuable et
perpetuer oelle du livre de Dieu et n'avaient que du dedain et
du mepris pour les innovations plus ou moins involontaires de
^ '' O'est ainsi qu'en France au X« si6cle on n'avait pas I'idde
lidiome vulgaire filt susceptible d'etre 6crit." Renan
started by the press,i but it would need to be strongly supported
by men of influence. Should it succeed, a short time of com-
pulsory education, say two years, would be sufficient to spread a
knowledge of reading and writing throughout the country.
The system of transliterationv employed in the gi'ammar will,
it is hoped, recommend itself to the English student. There is
some inconvenience in representing a single Arabic letter by
two in the Roman character, as also in the use of dots below
the letters ; and should the Oriental system ever be superseded
by a European one for general use it will no doubt be found
more suitable to invent a separate character for all those Arabic
letters which have no equivalent in the Latin alphabet.
I venture to believe that Arabic scholars,^ as well as those
who seek a practical knowledge of the language, will find matter
of interest in the following pages. They have been written at
odd moments, chiefly in vacation time, in railway trains and
steamboats — a circumstance which I must urge as a plea for
any impeifections which may be detected in the work.
I must not conclude without expressing my indebtedness to
the heads of some of the Departments of the Egyptian Govern-
ment and others for subscriloing for a number of copies of the
book, and thereby enabling me to carry it through the press,
and also to Professor Sayce for his patience in reading through
the manuscript in the midst of his manifold preoccupations. The
notes marked with the letter S. are contributed by him.
J. S. WILLMORE.
Note. — Since writing the above, an essay on the Egyptian
alphabet by an American philologist, who takes a deep interest
in the welfare of the Egyptian people, has come to my notice.
I quote the following passages from it to illustrate the coinci-
1 Some half-hearted attempts have already been made.
A Cairene of the lower class known to me spent several
years at school when he was a boy. He there learned the
letters and part of the Koran by heart. Of the latter he re-
members but little, but he still makes use of the letters for his
correspondence, which he writes phonetically in the colloquial
language, with here and there a nahwy phrase. Asked why
he did not read- the papers, he replied that he could not throw
away his piastres on a literature which he did not understand.
2 Though not all. It was startling to learn from a professor
of Semitic languages at one of the English universities that he
excluded the living Arabic dialects from his studies.
dence of both his and Spitta's views with my own convictions.
Not having referred to Spitta's work for many years previously
to the completion of my own, I was unaware that he himself
desired to see the vernacular adopted for literary purposes.
" No one who has read the deeply-interesting preface to
the Grammatik can doubt the warmth of the hope which he
[Spitta] entertained that the work — as his biographer expresses
it — ' might contribute to the elevation of the spoken dialect into
a written language, thereby bridging over that deep chasm be-
tween the idiom of the people and the idiom of literature, which
is the greatest obstruction in the path of Egyptian progress.'
" The striking and forcible paragraph which closes the preface
has been frequently cited, but a translation of it here can hardly
be out of place : ' Finally, I will venture to give utterance to a
hope which, during the compilation of this work, I have con-
stantly cherished ; it is a hope which concerns Egypt itself , and
touches a matter which, for it and its people, is almost a question
of life or death. Every one who has lived for a considerable
period in an Arabic-speaking land knows how seriously all its
activities are affected by the wide divei-gence of the written
language from the spoken. Under such cii-oumstances there can
be no thought of popular culture ; for how is it possible, in the
brief period of primary instruction, to acquire even a half-way
knowledge of so difficult a tongue as the literary Arabic, when,
in the secondary schools, youths undergo the torture of its study
during several years without arriving at other than the most
unsatisfying results ? Of course the unfortunate graphic medium
— the complex alphabet — is in great part to blame for all this ;
yet how much easier would the matter become if the student
had merely to write the tongue which he speaks, instead of being
forced to write a language which is as strange to the present
generation of Egyptians as the Latin is to the people of Italy,
or the Old-Greek to the inhabitants of Greece a language
which, without being the popular speech, is no longer eve'n the
classical Arabic ! A real literature cannot be thus developed ;
for only the limited cultivated class knows how to use a book ;
to the mass of the people a book is really a thing unknown!
If he have need to write a letter, or execute a document the
ordinary man of the people must put himself blindly into the
hands of a professional scribe ; he must trustingly si<jn the most
important papers with a seal which he cannot read," and which
may be and is easily imitated. Why can this lamentable con
dition of things not be changed for the better? Simply because
there is a fear, if the language of the Koran be wholly given
up, of incurring the charge of trespassing upon the domain of
religion. But the Koranic language is now nowhere written ;
for wherever you find a written Arabic it is the Middle- Arabic
of the offices. Even the dubious unity of the Islamitic peoples
would not be disturbed by the adoption of the spoken vernacvilar,
since the language of prayer and of the ritual would still remain
everywhere the same. It is also asserted that the New- Arabic
is wholly unfit to become the language of the pen because it
obeys no fixed laws, and flows on without any syntactic restric-
tions. I venture to believe that the present publication proves
that the speech of the people is not so completely incapable of
discipline ; that, on the contrary, it possesses an abundance of
grammatical niceties ; and that it is precisely the simplicity of its
syntax, the plasticity of its verbal construction, which will make
it a most serviceable instrument. Did the Italian seem any more
promising when Dante wrote his Divine Comedy? And would
a commission of the most learned and most expert men of Egypt
not be able to do infinitely better that which it has not appeared
to me, a foreigner, too difficult to undertake ? '" .
" Careful study of its details — especially if supplemented
by a short period of use - can hardly fail to coHvince the in-
. vestigator that it would be difficult, to say the least, to create an
alphabet better adapted to its purpose than that of Spitta.i . . .
Its general application to the national dialect of Egypt would
forthwith immensely facilitate the extension of knowledge, and
inestimably lessen the task of the teacher throughout all the
Nilotic lands ; and this may well be brought about without, in
any measure, affecting the position of the Old-Arabic alphabet
as the medium of the venerated classical literature. Nor would
such a step detract from the sanctified character of that alpha-
bet, with which the sacred Koranic scriptures are written. The
Bible of the Russians is printed by means of the Cyrillic alphabet,^
1 The system of transliteration adopted in the present work
differs very considerably from Spitta's. In a book written for
English students, English tastes had to be consulted, and I am
sure that they would, for example, have been puzzled by the use
of j to represent the y sound, though philologically it may be
the right letter to employ.
It is strange that Spitta should not have recognised the
existence of the thick z (z) in the vernacular.
2 The old Slavonic Bible of Cyrilhis is still the authorised
version wherever a Slavonic language is spoken.
notably differing from that made use of in the modern Russian.
Our own English Bible, in its existing version, has many, verses
and phrases which can hardly be pronounced to be strictly
modern English. The Catholic Church regards only the Latin
Vulgate scriptures as authoritative, but the Catholic nations all
have secular literatures in their own vernacular. The Copts
daily use the Old- Arabic alphabet and the ' chancery ' Arabic
in their correspondence, while speaking the Egyptian idiom,
although their holy books are in the ancient Coptic, having its
own alphabet. There are other instances, even in the East, of
similar alphabetical and literary evolutions and revolutions ;
and there seems no good reason why these examples should not
be followed to advantage by nationalities of whatever race or
creed. Religion in no wise suffers thereby, while the progress
of the people is immeasurably accelerated. . . .
" There is little need of waiting for the new Dante, whose
advent Spitta, in "the closing phrases of the preface to his
Grammaiik, seems to hint at. Other efficient forces are
already at hand. Hundreds of young men are now constantly
receiving an excellent training in the higher schools of the
Egyptian cities — schools which are yearl}' growing better. These
sons of Egypt*are both intelligent and patriotic. Let all these
youth of the newer generation put their shoulders to the wheel.
Let them give their influence — great, if properly applied — to
the development of the popular tongue, and there will soon
follow the unapproachable blessing of universal education, with
its inevitable result of a broad literature ' for the people, of the
people, and by the people.' The present Government of Egypt
might well lend its aid — as it is at last in a position to do •
to such an effort. An American writer has characterised the
marvellous financial, commercial, agricultural, and moral trans-
formation of Egypt, effected in these later years, as ' the most
splendid Anglo-Saxon achievement of the century.' Why can-
not the men who have been the potent factor in bringing about
this beneficent material revolution, now open the gate, as well,
to the spiritual development of the people they rule so ably and
so honestly ? There is but one path that passes through that
gate, and that path can be traversed only by a nation educated
in the language it understands. That language is already the
daily speech of social intercourse, of the family, the shop" und
the farm. Why should it not become the medium of an educa-
tion, destined not only to elevate the nation which has its home
under the palms of the Nile, but perhaps to revive under a
noble form, the ancient glory of the whole Saracenic world ? "
ADDENDA ET CORRIGENDA
Page 12, line 6, /or tushUt rearf tusMt.
40, ,, 4, for match-maJcer read watchmaker.
40, „ 7, after kutubl add (or kutbt).
45, ,, 16,/or husari reacZ husart.
58, ,, 2, /or imMr^h reacZ imb&rih.
86, ,, 38, fm- qunsul read qunsul.
106, „ 32, /or akhilkh rearf akhftk.
123, ,, 31, for yiklas read yikhlas.
135, ,, 33, for biyinbarrik read binebarrik.
135, ,, 34, /or biyitbarrikii reaii bitebarrikii.
144, ,, 7, /or itrikib r«a(i itrakab.
156, ,, 2, /or yitkallimntsh reac^ yikallimnisb.
222, „ 23,/or 'adal reac? 'adl.
226, ,, 11, for akhukh read akhuk.
238, ,, 1, /or objective reacZ adjective.
265, ,, 31, for sMa read suda.
317, ,, 24, /or qasab reat^ qasab.
320, ,, '2, for yeruh read teruh.
321, ,, 30, /or tiftahu rmd tiftahu.
331, ,, 3, for raylen read raglSn.
349, „ 12, /or lireac^bi.
366, ,, 37, /or yedakbkhaniihureaiiyedaklikhanuh.
ARABIC OF EGYPT
§ 1. The alphabet of Oaii-ene Arabic consists of" the following
thirty letters : —
VOWELS. NAMK. ] VOWELS. NAME.
a £i, or nasba 1 o b or rof'a
e e or khefda I u fl or ruf'a
i i or khifda