beginning, Duolingo

Duolingo: Descriptions 1

Welcome to the Descriptions 1 skill in Dr. Bulbul’s Guide to Duolingo Arabic. The Descriptions 1 skill introduces the letters س siin, ع 3ayn, and ل laam. The  ـّـ shadda is also introduced, which is a diacritic used to indicate a doubled consonant.

The official Tips and Notes for this skill (which are quite sparse) can be found here.

The letter س siin

Of the three new letters introduced in this skill, the easiest to discuss is the س siin, let’s start with that. This letter stands for the normal s sound. Here is what it looks like in the four different shapes. Each shape has an example word under it.

Final Medial Initial Independent
ـس ـسـ سـ س
دَبَس مِسْك سامي داس

A word with the letter س siin in this skill is this one:

‘fish (collective)’

The letter ل laam

As for the letter ل laam, it represents the l sound. Here is what it looks like in its four shapes, again with an example word under each shape.

Final Medial Initial Independent
ـل ـلـ لـ ل
جَميل كَلب لَم مال

A very basic adjective containing a ل laam from this skill is the Arabic word for ‘beautiful’:


Beginners often have trouble distinguishing the ل laam from the ا ‘alif, particularly in the initial and medial forms. First let’s compare the shapes of these two letters:

Letter Name Final Medial Initial Independent
‘alif ـا ا
laam ـل ـلـ لـ ل

As you will remember from the Alphabet 2 skill, the ا ‘alif is a non-connector, which means that it can never connect to the following letter. This is why it doesn’t have an initial or medial form here in the chart. (To read about the four potential shapes an Arabic letter can have, look at the section ‘One Letter, Four Shapes’ in the Alphabet 2 skill.) This is what distinguishes the ‘alif and the laam when they’re followed by another letter. Unlike the ا ‘alif, the ل laam is a connector, and is always connected to the following letter. Let’s compare the two letters in context. In each of the following pairs, the word on the right contains an ا ‘alif and the one on the bottom contains a ل laam.

With ل laam With ا ‘alif
دَلَم دام
dalam daam
مَلِك ماك
malik maak
بَلي باي
balii baay

The letter ع 3ayn

The problems posed by the third new letter in this skill, the ع 3ayn, have to do with pronunciation. But let’s first look at the four shapes of this letter:

Final Medial Initial Independent
ـع ـعـ عـ ع
واسِع نَعَم عَيب باع

The sound represented by the ع 3ayn doesn’t really resemble anything you might be familiar with from a European language. You might describe it as an “ah” sound, but far back in your throat, almost as if you were gagging. What is important to remember, though, is that it is not a vowel, but a consonant! It functions exactly like any other consonant in the language and can appear in any position that other consonants can appear it. It can also be doubled just like all other consonants.

In the transliteration system used in the Duolingo course, the sound of the ع 3ayn is written with the numeral 3. This is because this character resembles the Arabic letter written backwards. But using a 3 for an ع 3ayn is also a common practice in another context: when writing text messages in transliteration on a mobile phone.

The Arabic word for ‘Arabs’ (as well as related words) begins with an ع 3ayn:


For those language geeks out there, phonetically speaking the ع 3ayn sound is a voiced pharyngeal fricative and is transcribed as [ʕ] in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Doubling consonants with the shadda

In addition to the three new letters we have just discussed, this skill also introduces the ـّـ shadda, which is a diacritic that indicates that a consonant is doubled:

With shadda Without ًshadda
بَسّام بَسام
bassaam basaam
كَلّ كَل
kall kal

When a doubled consonant is followed by an a or u vowel, we write the fatḥa or ḍamma above the shadda:

دَبُّ دَبَّ
dabbu dabba

You will remember that for the i vowel, we write a kasra below the letter. However, when a doubled consonant is followed by the i vowel, the kasra is generally written under the shadda rather than under the letter. Compare these two words, one with a shadda and one without:

دُرِّسَ دُرِسَ
durrisa durisa

Also look at the contrast between a shadda combined with a fatḥa and a shadda combined with a kasra:

لُبِّ لُبَّ
lubbi lubba

Case endings

It is the intention of Duolingo Arabic to teach you an informal variety of Standard Arabic. One of the main features that distinguishes the formal language is the use of case endings (nominative, genitive, or accusative) on nouns and adjectives and of mood endings (indicative, subjunctive, or jussive) on verbs. Modern Arabic dialects completely lack all of these endings, and in informal Arabic the use of these endings is either limited or eliminated altogether. Avoiding these endings means that you don’t have to master the rules of the various cases and moods, and it also makes Standard Arabic sound a bit less bookish, by bringing it closer to a living dialect.

To give you a taste of case endings, let’s look at how ‘a new neighbor’ would be pronounced (in the nominative) in both formal and informal Arabic:

جار جَديد
formal: jaarun jadiid(un)
informal: jaar jadiid
‘a new neighbor’

Do you see how the formal version has the nominative case ending -un, while the informal version doesn’t?

So why are we talking about these case endings if Duolingo is teaching us informal Arabic? Well, because of a sort of glitch. You see, as I have read, Duolingo decided to use computer-generated voices for this course. While this surely has certain advantages, it appears that the computer-generation inserts the case endings wherever it sees fit. The end result is that you will often hear a more formal pronunciation of a phrase or sentence than the variety of the language we’re actually aiming for. Just learn to get used to hearing and ignoring these unexplained endings on nouns and verbs.

Although a nuisance, this glitch will actually get you used to hearing a mix of formal and informal pronunciations, which better reflects real-life Standard Arabic, where speakers can talk in a range of more formal and less formal registers.

Some new vocabulary

Here are the new words introduced in this skill, or at least most of them:

زَوج كَريم جار
zawj kariim jaar
‘husband’ ‘generous’ ‘neighbor’
سَمَك عادِيّ دَجاج
samak 3aadiyy dajaaj
‘fish’ ‘normal, usual, regular’ ‘chicken(s)’
جَديد بارِد
jadiid baarid
‘new’ ‘cold’

Just one remark needs to be made here:

  • The words سَمَك samak ‘fish’ and دَجاج dajaaj ‘chicken’ are both collective nouns. So, you can use them in sentences like ‘I don’t eat chicken’ or ‘Fish are easy to care for’, but you don’t use these words to refer to a single, individual fish or chicken, as in ‘a fish’ or ‘a chicken’.

Picture time!

Can you read the text in this picture?

Good luck!

I hope that this page gave you a better understanding of the material presented in the Descriptions 1 skill. Here’s your link back to Dr. Bulbul’s Guide to Duolingo Arabic.

For your convenience, here is a brief summary of the entire Arabic writing system on the Bite-Size Arabic website.

If you would prefer a more structured presentation of the alphabet than that given in the Duolingo course, why not consider working through my book Bite-Size Arabic?


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