Differentiation of p and b in Arabic: بي تقيلة and بي خفيفة

Discussion in 'العربية (Arabic)' started by Josh_, Oct 26, 2011.

  1. Josh_ Senior Member

    the phrontistery
    U.S., English
    Hi all,

    As we all know the sound /p/ is not found in Arabic and as such some Arabs have difficulty in pronouncing it. It often sounds like a /b/, which is found in Arabic, and is phonetically related to /p/.

    Now, over the years I have been in conversations with Arabic speakers -- who know little to no English, but know English letters and their names -- in which they have had to spell for me an English word (either because I could not understand their pronunciation of it and/or because they wanted to know the correct pronunciation). When the word has either a 'b' or a 'p' in it they will differentiate by saying بي تقيلة (bii ti2iila; literally 'heavy 'b') for 'p' and بي خفيفة (bii khafiifa; light 'b') for 'b'. (The logic should be obvious -- the straight stroke in 'p' goes downward (relative to the rounded stroke) as though it were heavy, whereas the stroke in 'b' goes up as though it were light.

    Now, I have a few questions pertaining to this. Is this a common way to refer to these two letters? Or is it considered somewhat childish? Is this how Arabic speaking children learn how to differentiate the (shape of the) letter? If these are somewhat childish renderings, what would more academic ones be?

    I should also mention that the people I spoke to were all Egyptians, so this might be particular to Egypt. But I'd be interested in knowing if these names occur in other dialects.

    Thanks for any feedback.
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2011
  2. Wadi Hanifa

    Wadi Hanifa Senior Member

    I've heard it before. I think it might be an old-fashioned way of putting it though. Are you sure it's related to the orthography? I would have thought it was because the 'p' is aspirated and hence requires more effort to produce than a 'b'.
  3. cherine

    cherine Moderator

    Alexandria, Egypt
    Arabic (Egypt).
    Hi Josh! Good to see you back :)
    Actually I think it has a different logic :) The p being harder to pronounce is called heavy, while the b is common so it's light.
    For those who've been to language schools or learned languages since childhood, we never learned these letters that way. We'd always learn by the sound, stressing the sound to make it clear if the person can't differentiate what we're saying. And, we also learn to make a word. For example: p papa vs. b bébé (for those of us who grew up learning French) or p for pencil/pen vs. b for book (for those who learned English).

    When I first heard that te2iila vs. khafiifa thing I was still a child and I couldn't understand why they were called that. More important, to me -and many others like me- the "logical" thing was to call "p" light and "b" heavy.
    See, logic isn't really a universal thing here. :)
    No. I still hear it used by grown up. So I don't think it's a childish thing.
    Again, it's something taught to and used by those who have not been to language schools, haven't receive good language education and/or learned English via Arabic (i.e. using Arabic description, sometimes Arabic terminology).
  4. Tracer

    Tracer Senior Member

    Wadi Jinn
    American English
    Strangely, I do the same thing when describing the Arabic “emphatics” to Arabic learners.

    For example, when I’m asked about the difference between the ت and the ط as far as the pronunciation goes, I describe the ت as “the light t” and the ط as “the heavy t”. I do the same with the س and the ص and several other letters.

    I admit that this is an unprofessional way to explain these sounds to English speakers. But guess what......it works. People readily accept the explanation and seem to understand what I’m saying.

    Too often, I’ve noticed, professional teachers tend to explain these sounds in linguistic terms which completely mystify your average language learner. Look at any introductory Arabic text in the section explaining the phonology and you practically have to “translate” the bewildering English linguistic jargon.

    Professional language teachers tend to forget that your average language learner is not in the least bit acquainted with or interested in linguistics. Having to deal with pages and pages of odd phonological terminology is most discouraging, especially since they are most often placed at the beginning of the book. [If this is the way it is on page 1, what’s it going to be like on page 100?]

    I have a feeling the use of “light” and “heavy” in explaining the difference between “P” and “B” to Arabic speakers learning English is analogous to my example for English speakers learning Arabic.

    “Light” and “heavy” are used because it’s the simplest, most understandable way to explain these differences to students, whether English or Arabic learners .

    (disclaimer: I do not teach Arabic professionally or even “on the side”).
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2011
  5. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Or because 'p' is voiceless and 'b' is voiced, which probably makes the latter sound 'softer'.
  6. إسكندراني

    إسكندراني Senior Member

    أرض الأنجل
    عربي (مصر)ـ | en (gb)
    Ironically, the Urban Egyptian ب is so distant from the 'proper' ب that it is probably better described as 'p' - I can't remember the technical term, but most Egyptians who learn تجويد will discover this. It could be because original pronunciation survived; ancient egyptian and coptic names are transliterated as p not b. It might also be because of Turkish (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan = رجب طيّب أردوغان)
  7. Mahmoud_egy New Member

    it's not childish to say light or heavy b , it's used by grown up here and we also say " b for a book " and " p for a pen".
  8. إسكندراني

    إسكندراني Senior Member

    أرض الأنجل
    عربي (مصر)ـ | en (gb)
    Yeah it's common to do that: 'b for boy' and 'p for pen' when I've heard it :)
  9. xebonyx

    xebonyx Senior Member

    Funny that you happen to mention this, because earlier today I was delving into how /p/ and /b/ phonemically relate to each other, and how Turkish didn't differentiate the two in the past (particularly when taking into consideration its Arabisms).

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