As computer and smartphone communication spread across the Arab-speaking world, Arab users generally had to rely on English keyboards. The response was the basically spontaneous development of a chat language called “Arabish” (a combination of Arabic and English) or “Arabizi” (a combination of Arabic and inglizi – the Arabic word for English). Arabizi substitutes a mixture of Latin letters and Arabic numbers for letters in the Arabic alphabet. To the uninitiated it just looks like gibberish.
Arabic letters are replaced by their closest sounding equivalent Latin character. The Arabic letter د becomes the Latin character “d.”
Numbers, on the other hand, are used to replace Arabic letters that they look like. The Arabic letter ع, the sound of which doesn’t really correspond to any single Latin character, becomes the Arabic number “3.”
Staff member Enas Ibrahim contributed this example:
3indi wathee8a ta7taj tarjama wa ta9dee8
I have a document that needs translation and notarization
You can tell that Enas is a project manager.
Since the Arabizi system is informal it doesn’t have any rules and can vary by user and place. One major reason for variations is that some Arabic letters are pronounced differently in different countries and regions. One letter might be transliterated “j” in one place and “g” in another. In texting, people generally use their regional dialect, rather than Modern Standard Arabic, so word choice as well as pronunciation can be different.
Also, just as in other languages, Arabs have developed abbreviations for common phrases. That ever useful Arab interjection “insh’allah” (God willing) is shortened to ISA and it wouldn’t be surprising if it found its way into international usage. Internationally used abbreviations such as “LOL” and “OMG” have also made their way into Arabizi messages.
Of course, these days most computers support Arabic, and Arabic keypads or apps are available for mobile phones. But so many people are now used to using Arabizi, that it continues to be the “language” of choice not only in texting but also on social media like Twitter.
I’m thinking of adopting an Arabizi abbreviation myself: c u l8r– isa.