Varieties of Arabic

Varieties of Arabic
Different dialects of Arabic in the Arab world

The Arabic language is a Semitic language characterized by a wide number of linguistic varieties within its five regional forms. The largest divisions occur between the spoken languages of different regions. The Arabic of North Africa, for example, is often incomprehensible to an Arabic speaker from the Levant or the Gulf Region. Within these broad regions further and considerable geographic distinctions exist, within countries, across country borders, even between cities and villages.

Another major distinction is to be made between the widely diverging colloquial spoken varieties, used for nearly all everyday speaking situations, and the formal standardized language, found mostly in writing or in prepared speech. The regionally prevalent variety is learned as the speaker's native language, while the formal language is subsequently learned in school. The formal language itself varies between its modern iteration (often called Modern Standard Arabic or MSA in English) and the Classical Arabic that serves as its inspiration, though Arabic speakers typically do not make this distinction.

Further substantial differences exist between Bedouin and sedentary speech, the countryside and major cities, ethnicities, religious groups, social classes, men and women, and the young and the old, to list only some. These differences are to some degree bridgeable. Often, Arabic speakers can adjust their speech in a rich variety of ways according to the context and to their intentions - for example, to speak with people from different regions, to demonstrate their level of education or to draw on the authority of the spoken language. This is particularly true at a time of increasing human development and globalization.


Language mixing and change

Arabic is characterized by a wide number of varieties; however, Arabic speakers are often able to manipulate the way they speak based on the circumstances. There can be a number of motivations for changing one's speech: the formality of a situation, the need to communicate with people with different dialects, to get social approval, to differentiate oneself from the listener, when citing a written text, to differentiate between personal and professional or general matters, to clarify a point, and to shift to a new topic, to name but a few.[1]

An important factor in the mixing or changing of Arabic is the concept of a prestige dialect. This refers to the level of respect accorded to a language or dialect within a speech community. The formal Arabic language carries a considerable prestige in most Arabic-speaking communities, depending on the context. This is not the only source of prestige, though.[2] Many studies have shown that for most speakers, there is a prestige variety of vernacular Arabic. In Egypt, for non-Cairenes, the prestige dialect is Cairo Arabic. For Jordanian women from Bedouin or rural background, it may be the urban dialects of the big cities.[3] Moreover, in certain contexts, a dialect relatively different from formal Arabic may carry more prestige than a dialect closer to the formal language - this is the case in Bahrain, for example.[4]

Language mixes and changes in different ways. Arabic speakers often use more than one variety of Arabic within a conversation or even a sentence. This process is referred to as Code-switching. For example, a woman on a TV program could appeal to the authority of the formal language by using elements of it in her speech in order to prevent other speakers from cutting her off. Another process at work is 'leveling', the "elimination of very localised dialectical features in favour of more regionally general ones." This can affect all linguistic levels - semantic, syntactic, phonological, etc...[5] The change can be temporary, as when a group of speakers with substantially different Arabics communicate, or it can be permanent, as often happens when people from the countryside move to the city and adopt the more prestigious urban dialect, possibly over a couple of generations.

This process of accommodation sometimes appeals to the formal language, but often does not. For example, villagers in central Palestine may try to use the dialect of Jerusalem rather than their own when speaking with people with substantially different dialects, particularly since they may have a very weak grasp of the formal language.[6] In another example, groups of educated speakers from different regions will often use dialectical forms that represent a middle ground between their dialects rather than trying to use the formal language. Take, for example, this case of a recorded conversation between educated Arabs from the Gulf, Baghdad, Cairo and Jerusalem. To express the existential 'there is' (as in, 'there is a place where...'), Arabic speakers have access to many different words:

  • Gulf: /aku/
  • Baghdad: /aku/
  • Cairo: /fiː/
  • Jerusalem: /fiː/
  • Modern Standard Arabic: /hunaːk/

In this case, /fiː/ is most likely to be used as it is not associated with a particular region and is the closest to a dialectical middle ground for this group of speakers. Moreover, given the prevalence of movies and TV shows in Egyptian Arabic, the speakers are all likely to be familiar with it.[7]

Note that sometimes a certain dialect may be associated with backwardness and will therefore not carry 'mainstream prestige' - yet, it will continue to be used as it carries a kind of 'covert prestige' and serves to differentiate one group from another when necessary.

Regional varieties

The greatest variations between kinds of Arabic are those between regional language groups. These can be divided in any number of ways, but the following typology is usually used:

  • Arabian Peninsula (Khaliji Arabic) group includes:
Gulf Arabic
Baharna Arabic
Najdi Arabic
Omani Arabic
Hejazi Arabic
Shihhi Arabic
Dhofari Arabic
Yemeni Arabic
  • Mesopotamian group includes:
Iraqi Arabic
North Mesopotamian Arabic
Bedawa Arabic
  • Syro-Lebanese group includes:
Levantine Arabic
Judeo Arabic
Mediterranean Sea or Cypriot Arabic
  • Egyptian group includes
Chadic Arabic
Sudanese Arabic
Nubi Arabic
Juba Arabic
Darfuri Arabic
Sa'idi Arabic
Egyptian Arabic
Moroccan Arabic
Tunisian Arabic
Algerian Arabic
Libyan Arabic
Hassaniya Arabic
Saharan Arabic

These large regional groups do not correspond to borders of modern states. In the western parts of the Arab world, varieties are referred to as الدارجة ad-dārija, and in the eastern parts, as العامية al-`āmmiyya. Some of these varieties are mutually unintelligible from other forms of Arabic due to wide distances over time that created divergences in phonologies. Varieties west of Egypt are particularly disparate, with Egyptian Arabic speakers claiming difficulty in understanding North African Arabic speakers, while North African Arabic speakers understanding other Arabic speakers only due to the widespread popularity of Egyptian Standard and to a lesser extent, the Lebanese popular media. One factor in the differentiation of the varieties is the influence from other languages previously spoken in the regions, which have typically provided a significant number of new words, and have sometimes also influenced pronunciation or word order. Examples are Turkish and English in Egypt, French in North Africa and Syria, and English and Hebrew in Israel. However, a much more significant factor for all five dialect groups is, as Latin among Romance languages, retention (or change of meaning) of the classical language form of Fus'ha Arabic used in the Qu'ran.

Examples of major regional differences

The following example will illustrate similarities and differences between the literal, standardized language, and certain major urban dialects:

True pronunciations differ; transliterations used approach an approximate demonstration. Also, Literary Arabic pronunciation differs regionally.

Variety I love reading a lot When I went to the library I only found this old book I wanted to read a book about the history of women in France.
Literary Arabic ʾanā ʾuḥibbu l-qirāʾahta kaṯīran ʿindamā ḏahabtu ʾila l-maktabati lam ʾaǧid siwā hāḏā l-kitābi l-qadīm wa kuntu ʾurīdu an ʾaqraʾa kitāban ʿan tārīḫi l-marʾah fī-farānsā
Tunisian ēne nħibb il-qrēye barʃa waqtelli mʃīt l il-maktba ma-lqīt-ʃ kēn ha l-ktēb l-qdīm u kunt nħibb naqra ktēb ʕala tērīx l-mra fi frānsa
Egyptian ana baħebb el-ʔerāya ʔawi lamma roħt el-maktaba ma-lʔet-ʃ ella l-ketāb el-ʔadīm da w-ana kont ʕāyez aʔra ketāb ʕan tarīx el-settāt fe faransa
Lebanese ana bħibb il-ʔirēye ktīr lamma reħit il-maktebe ma lʔēt illa hal-i-ktēb li-ʔdīm wi kēn beddi ʔeʔra ktēb ʕan tērīx l-mara b-frēnse
Iraqi āni aħibb el-qrāya kulliʃ lamman reħit lel-maktaba ma ligēt ɣēr hāða l-ketāb al-qadīm redet aqra ketāb ʕan tarīx al-ħarim eb-fransa
Saudi ana aħob il-grāya kθīr lamma roħt l-mekteba ma lgēt ɣēr haða l-ktāb il-gedīm wa kont abɣa agra ktāb ʕan tarīx il-ħarīm fi fransa[9]
Kuwaiti ʔāna wāyed aħibb agrā lamman reħt al-maktaba ma ligēt illa hal ketāb al-gadīm kent abī agra ketāb an tarīx el-ħarīm eb fransa

For the sake of comparison, consider the same sentence in German and Dutch:

  1. German: Ich lese sehr gerne. Als ich in zur Bibliothek ging, fand ich nur dieses alte Buch, obwohl ich ein Buch über die Geschichte der Frau in Frankreich hatte lesen wollen.
  2. Dutch: Ik lees zeer graag. Toen ik naar de bibliotheek ging, vond ik slechts dit oude boek, hoewel ik een boek over de geschiedenis van de vrouw in Frankrijk had willen lezen.

Some linguists do argue that the varieties of Arabic are different enough to qualify as separate languages in the way that French and Italian or German and Dutch do. However, as Reem Bassiouney points out, perhaps the difference between 'language' and 'variety' is to some degree political rather than linguistic.[10]

Other regional differences

"Peripheral" varieties of Arabic located in countries where Arabic is not a dominant language (e.g., Turkey, Iran, Cyprus, Chad, and Nigeria) are particularly divergent in some respects, especially vocabulary, being less influenced by classical Arabic. However, historically they fall within the same dialect classifications as better-known varieties. Probably the most divergent of non-creole Arabic varieties is Cypriot Maronite Arabic, a nearly extinct variety heavily influenced by Greek.

The Maltese language is a Semitic language descended from Siculo-Arabic whose vocabulary has acquired a large number of loanwords from Sicilian and Standard Italian. Maltese only uses a Latin-based alphabet and is the only Semitic official language within the European Union.

Arabic-based pidgins, with a small, largely Arabic vocabulary that lacks most Arabic morphological features, have been widespread along the southern edge of the Sahara through the present day; the medieval geographer al-Bakri records a text in one (in a place probably corresponding to modern Mauritania) in the 11th century. In some areas, especially around the southern Sudan, these have creolized; see the list below.

Dialects vary within regions as well, on a smaller level. For example, within Syria, the Arabic of the city of Homs is recognized as different from that of the capital, Damascus, though both can be considered 'Levantine' Arabic. In Morocco, the Arabic of the city of Fes is considered different from Arabic spoken elsewhere in the country.

Formal vs. vernacular speech

Another major difference between varieties of Arabic is that between the standardized formal language, primarily found in writing, media or in prepared speech, and the vernacular, spoken dialects, used for most situations. The formal language is referred to as اللغة الفصحى al-lugha al-fuṣḥā, and itself diverges between its modern iteration (often called Modern Standard Arabic or MSA in English), used in writing, media or in prepared speech, and the Classical Arabic that serves as its inspiration. The latter is the language of the Qur'an and is rarely used except in reciting the Qur'an, or quoting older classical texts.[11] Arabic speakers typically do not make this distinction. The development of Modern Standard Arabic dates to the beginning of the 19th century, and was the result of a laborious process of modernizing the Classical language.

Colloquial and formal Arabic certainly do overlap; as a matter of fact it is very difficult to find a situation where one type is used exclusively. For example, MSA is used in formal speeches or interviews. However, just as soon as the speaker diverts away from his well-prepared speech in order to add a comment or respond to a question, the rate of colloquial usage in this speech increases dramatically. How much MSA versus colloquial is used depends on the speaker, the topic, and the situation - amongst other factors. At the other end of the spectrum, public education, as well as exposure to mass media, has introduced MSA elements amongst the least educated so it would be equally difficult to find an Arabic speaker whose speech is totally unaffected by MSA.[12] This linguistic situation in general is sometimes referred to as diglossia.

The notable Egyptian linguist, Al-Said Badawi, made the following distinctions in 'levels of speech' regarding the mixing of vernacular and formal Arabic in Egypt:

  • فصحى التراث fuṣḥā al-turāth, ‘heritage classical’: The Classical Arabic of Arab literary heritage and the Qur'an. This is primarily a written language but it is heard in its spoken form on at the mosque or in religious programmes on TV.
  • فصحى العصر fuṣḥā al-‘aṣr, ‘contemporary classical’: This is what Western linguists call Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a modification and simplification of Classical Arabic created for the modern age; it has consequently coined a great deal of new words, both from using lexical material native to Arabic and by borrowing words from other, chiefly European, languages. Aside from being principally a written language, it is also read aloud from text. Highly skilled speakers can also produce it spontaneously, though typically in extremely formal contexts; this is particularly common in talk and debate programs on pan-Arab TV networks such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, as it is understood throughout these networks' target market.
  • عاميات المثقفين ‘āmiyya al-muthaqqafīn, ‘colloquial of the cultured’: This is vernacular language heavily influenced by MSA which can be used for serious discussion but is generally not written. It also includes a high quantity of foreign loanwords, chiefly relating to the technical and theoretical subjects it is used to discuss. This is used by well-educated people, principally on the TV, and can frequently be understood by Arabic-speakers outside the speaker's country of origin. It is also becoming the language of instruction at universities.
  • عاميات المتنورين āmiyya al-mutanawwarīn ‘colloquial of the basically educated’: This is the everyday language that people use in informal contexts, and that is heard on TV when non-intellectual topics are being discussed. It is characterized, according to Badawi, by high levels of borrowing.
  • عاميات أميين āmiyya al-'ummiyyīn, ‘colloquial of the illiterates’: This is very colloquial speech characterized by the absence of influence from MSA, but also relatively little foreign borrowing, with the result that the lexicon is almost entirely derived from Classical Arabic.

Almost everyone in Egypt has access to more than one speech register, and people often switch between them, sometimes within the same sentence. This scheme generally corresponds to the linguistic situations in other Arabic-speaking countries as well.[13]

The spoken varieties of Arabic have occasionally been written, usually in the Arabic alphabet. Vernacular Arabic was first recognized as a written language contrasting with Classical Arabic in 17th century Ottoman Egypt, as the Cairo elite began to trend towards colloquial writing. A record of the Cairo vernacular of the time is found in the dictionary compiled by Yusuf al-Maghribi. More recently, many plays and poems, as well as a few other works (even translations of Plato)[verification needed] exist in Lebanese Arabic and Egyptian Arabic; books of poetry, at least, exist for most varieties. In Algeria, colloquial Maghrebi Arabic was taught as a separate subject under French colonization, and some textbooks exist. Mizrahi Jews throughout the Arab world who spoke Judeo-Arabic dialects rendered newspapers, letters, accounts, stories, and translations of some parts of their liturgy in the Hebrew alphabet, adding diacritics and other conventions for letters that exist in Judeo-Arabic but not Hebrew. The Latin alphabet was advocated for Lebanese Arabic by Said Aql, whose supporters published several books in his transcription. Later, in 1994, Abdelaziz Pasha Fahmi, a member of the Academy of the Arabic Language in Egypt proposed the replacement of the Arabic alphabet with the Latin alphabet. His proposal was discussed in two sessions in the communion but was rejected, and was faced with strong opposition in cultural circles.

Sociolinguistic variables

Sociolinguistics is the study of how language usage is affected by societal factors, e.g., cultural norms and contexts (see also Pragmatics). The following sections examine some of the ways that modern Arab societies have an impact on how Arabic is spoken.


The modern state


The religion of an Arabic speaker is sometimes involved in shaping how he speaks Arabic. Of course, as is the case with other variables, religion cannot be seen in isolation. It is generally connected with the political systems in the different countries. It should be noted that unlike is often the case in the West, religion in the Arab world is not usually seen as a individual choice. Rather, it is matter of group affiliation: one is born a Muslim, Christian, Jew, Suni or Shiite, and this becomes a bit like one's ethnicity. Religion as a sociolinguistic variable should be understood in this context.[14]

Bahrain provides an excellent illustration. A major distinction can be made between the Shiite Baharnas, who are the oldest population of Bahrain, and the Sunni population that began to immigrate to Bahrain in the eighteenth century. The Sunni form the majority of the urban population. The ruling family of Bahrain is Sunni. The colloquial language represented on TV is almost invariably that of the Sunni population. Therefore, power, prestige and financial control are associated with the Sunni Arabs. This is having a major impact on the direction of language change in Bahrain.[15]

The case of Iraq also illustrates how there can be significant differences in how Arabic is spoken on the basis of religion. (Note that the study referred to here was conducted before the American occupation of the country.) In Baghdad, there are significant linguistic differences between Arabic Christian and Muslim inhabitants of the city. The Christians of Baghdad are a well-established community, and their dialect has evolved from the sedentary vernacular of urban medieval Iraq. The typical Muslim dialect of Baghdad is a more recent arrival in the city and comes from Bedouin speech instead. In Baghdad, as elsewhere in the Arab world, the various communities share MSA as a prestige dialect, but the Muslim colloquial dialect is associated with power and money, given that that community is the more dominant. Therefore, the Christian population of the city learns to use the Muslim dialect in more formal situations, for example, when a Christian school teacher is trying to call students in the class to order.[16]

Education and social class

Age and gender


Pre-Islamic varieties

Islamic Golden Age

Modern varieties

Western varieties

Central varieties

Northern varieties

Southern varieties


Sectarian varieties


Country-based varieties

Diglossic variety

Sedentary vs. Nomadic

A basic distinction that cuts across the entire geography of the Arabic-speaking world is between sedentary and nomadic varieties (often misleadingly called Bedouin). Across the Levant and North Africa (i.e. the areas of post-Islamic settlement), this is mostly reflected as an urban (sedentary) vs. rural/nomadic split, but the situation is more complicated in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula. The distinction stems from the settlement patterns in the wake of the Arab conquests. As regions were conquered, army camps were set up that eventually grew into cities, and settlement of the rural areas by Nomadic Arabs gradually followed thereafter. In some areas, sedentary dialects are divided further into urban and rural variants.[citation needed]

The most obvious phonetic difference between the two groups is the pronunciation of the letter ق qaaf, which is voiced in the Bedouin varieties (usually /ɡ/, but sometimes a palatalized variation /d͡ʒ/ or /ʒ/), but voiceless in the sedentary varieties (/q/ or /ʔ/) (the former realisation being mostly associated with the countryside, the latter being considered typically urban).[citation needed] The other major phonetic difference is that the rural varieties preserve the Classical Arabic (CA) interdentals /θ/ ث and /ð/ ذ[citation needed], and merge the CA emphatic sounds /dˤ/ ض and /ðˤ/ ظ into /ðˤ/ rather than sedentary /dˤ/.[citation needed]

The most significant differences between rural Arabic and non-rural Arabic are in syntax. The sedentary varieties in particular share a number of common innovations from CA[specify]. This has led to the suggestion, first articulated by Charles Ferguson, that a simplified koiné language developed in the army staging camps in Iraq, from whence the remaining parts of the modern Arab world were conquered[citation needed].

In general the rural varieties are more conservative than the sedentary varieties and the rural varieties within the Arabian peninsula are even more conservative than those elsewhere. Within the sedentary varieties, the western varieties (particularly, Moroccan Arabic) are less conservative than the eastern varieties[citation needed].

A number of cities in the Arabic world speak a 'Bedouin' variety, which acquires prestige in that context[citation needed].


Morphology and syntax

All varieties, sedentary and Bedouin, differ in the following ways from Classical Arabic (CA)
  • The order subject–verb–object may be more common than verb–subject–object.
  • Verbal agreement between subject and object is always complete.
    • In CA, there was no number agreement between subject and verb when the subject was third-person and the subject followed the verb.
  • Loss of case distinctions. (ʼIʻrāb)
  • Loss of original mood distinctions other than the indicative and imperative (i.e. subjunctive, jussive, energetic I, energetic II).
    • The dialects differ in how exactly the new indicative was developed from the old forms. The sedentary dialects adopted the old subjunctive forms (feminine /iː/, masculine plural /uː/), while many of the Bedouin dialects adopted the old indicative forms (feminine /iːna/, masculine plural /uːna/).
    • The sedentary dialects developed new mood distinctions; see below.
  • Loss of dual marking everywhere except on nouns.
    • A frozen dual persists as the regular plural marking of a small number of words that normally come in pairs (e.g. eyes, hands, parents).
    • In addition, a productive dual marking on nouns exists in most dialects. (Tunisian and Moroccan Arabic are exceptions.) This dual marking differs syntactically from the frozen dual in that it cannot take possessive suffixes. In addition, it differs morphologically from the frozen dual in various dialects, such as Levantine Arabic.
    • The productive dual differs from CA in that its use is optional, whereas the use of the CA dual was mandatory even in cases of implicitly dual reference.
    • The CA dual was marked not only on nouns, but also on verbs, adjectives, pronouns and demonstratives.
  • Development of an analytic genitive construction to rival the constructed genitive.
    • Compare the similar development of shel in Modern Hebrew.
    • The Bedouin dialects make the least use of the analytic genitive. Moroccan Arabic makes the most use of it, to the extent that the constructed genitive is no longer productive, and used only in certain relatively frozen constructions.
  • The relative pronoun is no longer inflected. (In CA, it took gender, number and case endings.)
  • Pronominal clitics ending in a short vowel moved the vowel before the consonant.
    • Hence, second singular /-ak/ and /-ik/ rather than /-ka/ and /-ki/; third singular masculine /-uh/ rather than /-hu/.
    • Similarly, the feminine plural verbal marker /-na/ became /-an/.
    • Because of the absolute prohibition in all Arabic dialects against having two vowels in hiatus, the above changes occurred only when a consonant preceded the ending. When a vowel preceded, the forms either remained as-is or lost the final vowel, becoming /-k/, /-ki/, /-h/ and /-n/, respectively. Combined with other phonetic changes, this resulted in multiple forms for each clitic (up to three), depending on the phonetic environment.
    • The verbal markers /-tu/ (first singular) and /-ta/ (second singular masculine) both became /-t/, while second singular feminine /-ti/ remained.
    • In the dialect of southern Nejd (including Riyadh), the second singular masculine /-ta/ has been retained, but takes the form of a long vowel rather than a short one as in Classical Arabic.
    • The forms given here were the original forms, and have often suffered various changes in the modern dialects.
    • All of these changes were triggered by the loss of final short vowels (see below).
  • Various simplifications have occurred in the range of variation in verbal paradigms.
    • Third-weak verbs with radical /w/ and radical /j/ (traditionally transliterated y) have merged in the form I perfect tense. (They had already merged in CA, except in form I.)
    • Form I perfect faʕula verbs have disappeared, often merging with faʕila.
    • Doubled verbs now have the same endings as third-weak verbs.
    • Some endings of third-weak verbs have been replaced by those of the strong verbs (or vice-versa, in some dialects).
All dialects except some Bedouin dialects of the Arabian peninsula share the following innovations from CA
  • Loss of the inflected passive (i.e., marked through internal vowel change) in finite verb forms.
    • New passives have often been developed by co-opting the original reflexive formations in CA, particularly verb forms V, VI and VII. (In CA these were derivational, not inflectional, as neither their existence nor exact meaning could be depended upon; however, they have often been incorporated into the inflectional system, especially in more innovative sedentary dialects.)
    • Hassaniya Arabic contains a newly developed inflected passive that looks somewhat like the old CA passive.
    • Najdi Arabic has retained the inflected passive up to the modern era, though this feature is on its way to extinction as a result of the influence of other dialects.
  • Loss of the indefinite /n/ suffix (tanwiin) on nouns.
    • When this marker still appears, it is variously /an/, /in/, or /en/.
    • In some Bedouin dialects it still marks indefiniteness on any noun, although this is optional and often used only in oral poetry.
    • In other dialects it marks indefiniteness on post-modified nouns (by adjectives or relative clauses).
    • All Arabic dialects preserve a form of the CA adverbial accusative /an/ suffix, which was originally a tanwiin marker.
  • Loss of verb form IV, the causative.
    • Verb form II sometimes gives causatives, but it is not productive.
  • Uniform use of /i/ in imperfect verbal prefixes.
    • CA had /u/ before form II, III and IV active, and before all passives, and /a/ elsewhere.
    • Some Bedouin dialects in the Arabian peninsula have uniform /a/.
    • Najdi Arabic has /a/ when the following vowel is /i/, and /i/ when the following vowel is /a/.
All sedentary dialects share the following additional innovations
  • Loss of a separately distinguished feminine plural in verbs, pronouns and demonstratives. This is usually lost in adjectives as well.
  • Development of a new indicative-subjunctive distinction.
    • The indicative is marked by a prefix, while the subjunctive lacks this.
    • The prefix is /b/ or /bi/ in Egyptian Arabic and Levantine Arabic, but /ka/ or /ta/ in Moroccan Arabic. It is not infrequent to encounter /ħa/ as an indicative prefix in some Persian Gulf states; and, in South Arabian Arabic (viz. Yemen), /ʕa/ is used in the north around the San'aa region, and /ʃa/ is used in the southwest region of Ta'iz.
    • Tunisian Arabic lacks an indicative prefix, and therefore does not have this distinction, along with Maltese and at least some varieties of Algerian and Libyan Arabic.
  • Loss of /h/ in the third-person masculine enclitic pronoun, when attached to a word ending in a consonant.
    • The form is usually /u/ or /o/ in sedentary dialects, but /ah/ or /ih/ in Bedouin dialects.
    • After a vowel, the bare form /h/ is used, but in many sedentary dialects the /h/ is lost here as well. In Egyptian Arabic, for example, this pronoun is marked in this case only by lengthening of the final vowel and concomitant stress shift onto it, but the "h" reappears when followed by another suffix.
      • ramā "he threw it"
      • maramaʃ "he didn't throw it"
The following innovations are characteristic of many or most sedentary dialects
  • Agreement (verbal, adjectival) with inanimate plurals is plural, rather than feminine singular, as in CA.
  • Development of a circumfix negative marker on the verb, involving a prefix /ma-/ and a suffix /-ʃ/.
    • In combination with the fusion of the indirect object and the development of new mood markers, this results in verbal complexes that are approaching polysynthetic languages in their complexity.
    • An example from Egyptian Arabic is
      • /ma-bi-t-ɡib-u-ha-lnaː-ʃ/
      • [negation]-[indicative]-[2nd.person.subject]-bring-[plural.subject][negation]
      • "You (plural) aren't bringing her to us."
    • (NOTE: Versteegh glosses /bi/ as continuous.)
  • In Egyptian, Tunisian and Moroccan Arabic, the distinction between active and passive participles has disappeared except in form I and in some Classical borrowings.
    • These dialects tend to use form V and VI active participles as the passive participles of forms II and III.
The following innovations are characteristic of Maghrebi Arabic (in North Africa, west of Egypt)
  • In the imperfect, Maghrebi Arabic has replaced first person singular /ʔ-/ with /n-/, and the first person plural, originally marked by /n-/ alone, is also marked by the /-u/ suffix of the other plural forms.
  • Moroccan Arabic has greatly rearranged the system of verbal derivation, so that the traditional system of forms I through X is not applicable without some stretching. It would be more accurate to describe its verbal system as consisting of two major types, triliteral and quadriliteral, each with a mediopassive variant marked by a prefixal /t-/ or /tt-/.
    • The triliteral type encompasses traditional form I verbs (strong: /ktb/ "write"; geminate: /ʃəmm/ "smell"; hollow: /biʕ/ "sell", /ɡul/ "say", /xaf/ "fear"; weak /ʃri/ "buy", /ħbu/ "crawl", /bda/ "begin"; irregular: /kul/-/kla/ "eat", /ddi/ "take away", /ʒi/ "come").
    • The quadriliteral type encompasses strong [CA form II, quadriliteral form I]: /sˤrˤfəq/ "slap", /hrrəs/ "break", /hrnən/ "speak nasally"; hollow-2 [CA form III, non-CA]: /ʕajən/ "wait", /ɡufəl/ "inflate", /mixəl/ "eat" (slang); hollow-3 [CA form VIII, IX]: /xtˤarˤ/ "choose", /ħmarˤ/ "redden"; weak [CA form II weak, quadriliteral form I weak]: /wrri/ "show", /sˤqsˤi/ "inquire"; hollow-2-weak [CA form III weak, non-CA weak]: /sali/ "end", /ruli/ "roll", /tiri/ "shoot"; irregular: /sˤifətˤ/-/sˤafətˤ/ "send".
    • There are also a certain number of quinquiliteral or longer verbs, of various sorts, e.g. weak: /pidˤali/ "pedal", /blˤani/ "scheme, plan", /fanti/ "dodge, fake"; remnant CA form X: /stəʕməl/ "use", /stahəl/ "deserve"; diminutive: /t-birˤʒəz/ "act bourgeois", /t-biznəs/ "deal in drugs".
    • Note that those types corresponding to CA forms VIII and X are rare and completely unproductive, while some of the non-CA types are productive. At one point, form IX significantly increased its productivity over CA, and there are perhaps 50-100 of these verbs currently, mostly stative but not necessarily referring to colors or bodily defects. However, this type is no longer very productive.
    • Due to the merging of short /a/ and /i/, most of these types show no stem difference between perfect and imperfect, which is probably why the languages has incorporated new types so easily.
The following innovations are characteristic of Egyptian Arabic
  • Egyptian Arabic, probably under the influence of Coptic, puts the demonstrative pronoun after the noun (/al-X da/ "this X" instead of CA /haːðaː l-X/) and leaves interrogative pronouns in situ rather than fronting them, as in other dialects.


Reflexes of Classical q
Place Reflex qalb baqara waqt qaal qamar qahwa quddaam
"heart" "cow" "time" "said" "moon" "coffee" "in front of"
Uzbeki Arabic (Jugari) q, occ. g qalb baqara waqt, (waḥt) qaal qamar giddaam
Muslim Baghdad Arabic g, occ. j gaḷuḅ (baqar) wagut, (waket) gaal gumar gahwa geddaam, jiddaam
Jewish Baghdadi Arabic q, occ. j qalb qaal qamaɣ jeddaam
Mosul, Iraq q? qalb
Anah, Iraq q, g qaalb (bagra) waqet qaal gahwa
Rural Lower Iraqi Arabic g, occ. j galub bgura, bagra wakit gaal gumar ghawa, gahwa jiddaam
Judeo-Iraqi Arabic, Iraqi Kurdistan q qalb baqaṛa waqt, waxt qaal qamaṛ qahwe qǝddaam
Mardin, Anatolia q qalb baqaṛa waqt, waxt qaal qamaṛ qaḥwe qǝddaam
Sheep nomads, Mesopotamia, NE Arabian Peninsula g, occ. j galb, galub bgara wagt, wakit gaal gumar ghawa jeddaam
Camel nomads, Mesopotamia, NE Arabian Peninsula g, occ. dᶻ galb, galub bgara wagt, wakit gaal gumar ghawa dᶻöddaam
Aleppo, Syria ʾ ʾalb baʾara waʾt ʾaal ʾamar ʾahwe ʾǝddaam
Damascus, Syria ʾ ʾalb baʾara waʾt ʾaal ʾamar ʾahwe ʾǝddaam
Beirut, Lebanon ʾ ʾalb baʾra waʾt ʾaal ʾamar ʾahwe ʾǝddeem
NW Jordan g gaḷib bagara wagǝt gaal gamar gahwah giddaam
Druze q qalb baqara qaal qamar qahwe
Nazareth, Israel k kalb bakara wakt kaal kamar kahwe kuddaam
Jerusalem (urban Palestinian Arabic) ʾ ʾalb baʾara waʾt ʾaal ʾamar ʾahwe ʾuddaam
Bir Zeit, West Bank k kalb bakara wakt kaal kamar kahwe kuddaam
Sana, Yemen g galb bagara wagt gaal gamar gahweh guddaam
Cairo, Egypt ʾ ʾalb baʾara waʾt ʾaal ʾamar ʾahwa ʾuddaam
Sudan g galib bagara wagt gaal gamra gahwa, gahawa giddaam
Ouadai, Chad g, occ. q beger waqt gaal gamra gahwa
Benghazi, E. Libya g gaḷǝb ǝbgǝ́ṛa wagǝt gaaḷ gǝmaṛ gahawa giddaam
Tunis, Tunisia q, occ. g qalb (bagra) waqt quddaam
El Hamma de Gabes, Tunisia g galab gal
Marazig, Tunisia g, occ. q galab gal gahwa, qahwa geddaam
Jewish Algiers (Judeo-Arabic) ʾ ʾǝlb wǝʾt ʾǝmr ʾǝddam
Bou Saada, Algeria g bigar gimar
Jijel Arabic (Algeria) q qǝlb wǝqt qmǝr qǝddam
Casablanca, Morocco q, occ. g qǝlb bqʌr, bgʌr wʌqt qǝmr qoddam
North Taza, Morocco q or g? waqt, (wax) gǝmra
Maltese ʾ Maltese language
uses q for [ʔ]
qalp waqt qaal qamar qoddiem
Andalusian Arabic (low register) k kalb bakar wakt kamar kuddím
  • CA /ʔ/ is mostly lost.
    • Depending on the exact phonetic environment, this either caused reduction of two vowels into a single long vowel or diphthong (when between two vowels), insertion of a homorganic glide /j/ or /w/ (when between two vowels, the first of which was short or long /i/ or /u/ and the second not the same), lengthening of a preceding short vowel (between a short vowel and a following non-vowel), or simple deletion (elsewhere). This resulted initially in a large number of complicated morphophonemic variations in verb paradigms.
    • In CA and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), /ʔ/ is still pronounced.
    • However, because this change had already happened in Meccan Arabic at the time the Qur'an was written, it is reflected in the orthography of written Arabic, where a diacritic known as hamzah is inserted either above an ʾalif, wāw or yāʾ, or "on the line" (between characters); or in certain cases, a diacritic ʾalif maddah ("lengthened ʾalif") is inserted over an ʾalif. (As a result, proper spelling of words involving /ʔ/ is probably one of the most difficult issues in Arabic orthography. Furthermore, actual usage is inconsistent in many circumstances.)
    • Modern dialects have smoothed out the morphophonemic variations, typically by deleting the associated verbs or moving them into another paradigm (for example, /qaraʔ/ "read" becomes /qara/ or /ʔara/, a third-weak verb).
    • /ʔ/ has reappeared medially in various words due to borrowing from CA. (In addition, /q/ has become [ʔ] in many dialects, although the two are marginally distinguishable in Egyptian Arabic, since words beginning with original /ʔ/ can elide this sound, whereas words beginning with original /q/ cannot.)
  • CA /q/ changes widely from variety to variety. In Bedouin dialects from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia, it is pronounced [ɡ], as in most of Iraq. In the Levant and Egypt (except in Upper Egypt (the Sa'id), as well as some North African towns such as Tlemcen, it is pronounced as a glottal stop [ʔ], apart from rural areas in the South West Levant where it becomes emphatic [q]. In the Persian Gulf, it becomes [d͡ʒ] in many words (adjacent to an original /i/), and is [ɡ] otherwise. Elsewhere, it is usually realized as uvular [q].
  • CA [ɡʲ] varies widely. In some Arabian Bedouin dialects, and parts of the Sudan, it is still realized as the medieval Persian linguist Sibawayh described it, as a palatalized [ɡʲ]. In Egypt, parts of Yemen and parts of Oman, it is a plain [ɡ]. In most of the Levant and most of North Africa, apart from north Algeria, it is [ʒ]. In the Persian Gulf and southern Iraq, it often becomes [j]. Elsewhere, it is usually [d͡ʒ].
  • CA /k/ often becomes [t͡ʃ] in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, some Rural Palestinian dialects and in some Bedouin dialects (adjacent to an original /i/, particularly in the second singular feminine enclitic pronoun, where [t͡ʃ] replaces an classical /ik/ or /ki/). In a very few Moroccan varieties, it affricates to /k͡ʃ/. Elsewhere, it remains [k].
  • CA /r/ is pronounced [ʀ] in a few areas: Mosul, for instance, and the Jewish variety in Algiers. In all northern Africa, a phonemic distinction has emerged between plain [r] and emphatic [rˤ], thanks to the merging of short vowels.
  • CA /θ/, /ð/ become /t, d/ in Egypt and some regions in North Africa (including Malta), and become /s, z/ in the Levant (except for some words, in which they become /t, d/), but remain /θ/ and /ð/ in Iraqi, Yemenite, Tunisian, rural Palestinian, Eastern Libyan, and some rural Algerian dialects. In Arabic-speaking towns of Eastern Turkey, (Urfa, Siirt and Mardin) they respectively become /f, v/.
  • CA /t/ (but not emphatic CA /tˤ/) is affricated to [t͡s] in Moroccan Arabic; this is still distinguishable from the sequence [ts].
  • CA /ʕ/) is pronounced in Iraqi Arabic and Kuwaiti Arabic with glottal closure: [ʔˤ]. In some varieties /ʕ/ is devoiced to [ħ] before /h/, for some speakers of Cairene Arabic /bitaʕha//bitaħħa/ (or /bitaʕ̞ħa/) "hers". The residue of this rule applies also in the Maltese language, where neither etymological /h/ nor /ʕ/ are pronounced as such, but give [ħ] in this context: tagħha [taħħa] "hers".
  • The nature of "emphasis" differs somewhat from variety to variety. It is usually described as a concomitant pharyngealization, but in most sedentary varieties it is actually velarization, or a combination of the two. (The phonetic effects of the two are only minimally different from each other.) Usually there is some associated lip rounding; in addition, the stop consonants /t/ and /d/ are dental and lightly aspirated when non-emphatic, but alveolar and completely unaspirated when emphatic.
  • CA short vowels /a/, /i/ and /u/ suffer various changes.
    • Original final short vowels are mostly deleted.
    • Many Levantine Arabic dialects merge /i/ and /u/ into a phonemic /ə/ except when directly followed by a single consonant; this sound may appear allophonically as /i/ or /u/ in certain phonetic environments.
    • Maghreb dialects merge /a/ and /i/ into /ə/, which is deleted when unstressed. Tunisian maintains this distinction, but deletes these vowels in non-final open syllables.
    • Moroccan Arabic, under the strong influence of Berber, goes even further. Short /u/ is converted to labialization of an adjacent velar, or is merged with /ə/. This schwa then deletes everywhere except in certain words ending /-CCəC/.
      • The result is that there is no more distinction between short and long vowels; borrowings from CA have "long" vowels (now pronounced half-long) uniformly substituted for original short and long vowels.
      • This also results in consonant clusters of great length, which are (more or less) syllabified according to a sonority hierarchy. (For some subdialects, in practice, it is very difficult to tell where, if anywhere, there are syllabic peaks in long consonant clusters in a phrase such as /xsˤsˤk tktbi/ "you (fem.) must write". Other dialects, in the North, make a clear distinction; they say /xəssək təktəb/ "you want to write", but */xəssk ətkətb/ just won't do).
    • In Egyptian Arabic and Levantine Arabic, short /i/ and /u/ are elided in various circumstances in unstressed syllables (typically, in open syllables; for example, in Egyptian Arabic, this occurs only in the middle vowel of a VCVCV sequence, ignoring word boundaries). In Levantine, however, clusters of three consonants are almost never permitted. If such a cluster would occur, it is broken up through the insertion of /ə/ – between the second and third consonants in Egyptian Arabic, and between the first and second in Levantine Arabic.
  • CA long vowels are shortened in some circumstances.
    • Original final long vowels are shortened in all dialects.
    • In Egyptian Arabic and Levantine Arabic, unstressed long vowels are shortened.
    • Egyptian Arabic also cannot tolerate long vowels followed by two consonants, and shorten them. (Such an occurrence was rare in CA, but often occurs in modern dialects as a result of elision of a short vowel.)
  • In most dialects, particularly sedentary ones, CA /a/ and /aː/ have two strongly divergent allophones, depending on the phonetic context.
    • Adjacent to an emphatic consonant and to /q/ (but not usually to other sounds derived from this, such as /ɡ/ or /ʔ/), a back variant [ɑ] occurs; elsewhere, a strongly fronted variant [æ]~[ɛ] is used.
    • There is a tendency for emphatic consonants to cause non-adjacent low vowels to be backed, as well; this is known as emphasis spreading. The domain of emphasis spreading is potentially unbounded; in Egyptian Arabic, the entire word is usually affected, although in Levantine Arabic and some other varieties, it is blocked by an /i/ or /j/ (and sometimes /ʃ/).
    • The two allophones are in the process of splitting phonemically in some dialects, as [ɑ] occurs in some words (particularly foreign borrowings) even in the absence of any emphatic consonants anywhere in the word. (Some linguists have postulated additional emphatic phonemes in an attempt to handle these circumstances; in the extreme case, this requires assuming that every phoneme occurs doubled, in emphatic and non-emphatic varieties. Some have attempted to make the vowel allophones autonomous and eliminate the emphatic consonants as phonemes. Others have asserted that emphasis is actually a property of syllables or whole words rather than of individual vowels or consonants. None of these proposals seems particularly tenable, however, given the variable and unpredictable nature of emphasis spreading.)
    • CA /r/ is also in the process of splitting into emphatic and non-emphatic varieties, with the former causing emphasis spreading, just like other emphatic consonants. Originally, non-emphatic [r] occurred before /i/ or between /i/ and a following consonant, while emphatic [rˤ] occurred mostly near [ɑ].
      • To a large extent, Western Arabic dialects reflect this, while the situation is rather more complicated in Egyptian Arabic. (The allophonic distribution still exists to a large extent, although not in any predictable fashion; nor is one or the other variety used consistently in different words derived from the same root. Furthermore, although derivational suffixes (in particular, relational /-i/ and /-ijja/) affect a preceding /r/ in the expected fashion, inflectional suffixes do not.)
      • In Moroccan Arabic, short /a/ and /i/ have merged, obscuring the original distribution. In this dialect, the two varieties have completely split into separate phonemes, with one or the other used consistently across all words derived from a particular root except in a few situations.
    • In Moroccan Arabic, the allophonic effect of emphatic consonants is more pronounced than elsewhere.
      • Full /a/ is affected as above, but /i/ and /u/ are also affected, and are lowered to [e] and [o], respectively.
      • In some varieties, such as in Marrakesh, the effects are even more extreme (and complex), where both high-mid and low-mid allophones exist ([e] and [ɛ], [o] and [ɔ]), in addition to front-rounded allophones of original /u/ ([y], [ø], [œ]), all depending on adjacent phonemes.
      • On the other hand, emphasis spreading in Moroccan Arabic is less pronounced than elsewhere; usually it only spreads to the nearest full vowel on either side, although with some additional complications.
    • Emphasis spreading also pharyngealizes consonants between the source consonant and affected vowels, although the effects are much less noticeable than for vowels, since the rise of emphasis spreading is associated with a concomitant decrease in the amount of pharyngealization of emphatic consonants.
      • Interestingly, emphasis spreading does not affect the affrication of non-emphatic /t/ in Moroccan Arabic, with the result that these two phonemes are always distinguishable regardless of the nearby presence of other emphatic phonemes.
    • Certain other consonants, depending on the dialect, also cause backing of adjacent sounds, although the effect is typically weaker than full emphasis spreading and usually has no effect on more distant vowels.
      • The /x/ and the uvular consonant /q/ often cause partial backing of adjacent /a/ (and lowering of /u/ and /i/ in Moroccan Arabic). For Moroccan Arabic, the effect is sometimes described as half as powerful as an emphatic consonant, as a vowel with uvular consonants on both sides is affected similarly to having an emphatic consonant on one side.
      • Interestingly, the pharyngeal consonants /ħ/ and /ʕ/ cause no emphasis spreading and may have little or no effect on adjacent vowels. In Egyptian Arabic, for example, an /a/ adjacent to either sound is a fully front [æ]. In other dialects, /ʕ/ is more likely to have an effect than /ħ/.
      • In some Gulf Arabic dialects, /w/ and/or /l/ causes backing.
      • In some dialects, words such as الله /aɫɫaː/ Allāh has backed [ɑ]'s and in some dialects also velarized /l/.
  • CA diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/ have become [] and [] (but merge with original /iː/ and /uː/ in Maghreb dialects, which is probably a secondary development). The diphthongs are maintained in the Maltese language and some urban Tunisian dialects, particularly that of Sfax, while [] and [] also occur in some other Tunisian dialects, such as Monastir.
  • The placement of the stress accent is extremely variable between varieties; nowhere is it phonemic.
    • Most commonly, it falls on the last syllable containing a long vowel, or a short vowel followed by two consonants; but never farther from the end than the third-to-last syllable. This maintains the presumed stress pattern in CA (although there is some disagreement over whether stress could move farther back than the third-to-last syllable), and is also used in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA).
      • In CA and MSA, stress cannot occur on a final long vowel; however, this does not result in different stress patterns on any words, because CA final long vowels are shortened in all modern dialects, and any current final long vowels are secondary developments from words containing a long vowel followed by a consonant.
    • In Egyptian Arabic, the rule is similar, but stress falls on the second-to-last syllable in words of the form ...VCCVCV, as in /makˈtaba/.
    • In Maghrebi Arabic, stress is final in words of the (original) form CaCaC, after which the first /a/ is elided. Hence جَبَل ǧabal "mountain" becomes [ˈʒbəl].
    • In Moroccan Arabic, phonetic stress is often not recognizable.

See also


  1. ^ Bassiouney, 2009, p. 29.
  2. ^ Abdel-Jawad, 1986, p. 58.
  3. ^ Bassiouney, 2009, p. 19.
  4. ^ Holes, 1983, p. 448.
  5. ^ Holes 1995: 39, p. 118.
  6. ^ Blanc, 1960, p. 62.
  7. ^ Holes, 1995, p. 294.
  8. ^ Versteegh, 2001, p. 245.
  9. ^ Bassiouney, 2009, p. 21.
  10. ^ Bassiouney, 2009, p. 26.
  11. ^ Bassiouney, 2009, p. 11.
  12. ^ Questions from Prospective Students on the varieties of Arabic Language - online Arab Academy
  13. ^ Badawi, 1973.
  14. ^ Bassiouney, 2009, p.105.
  15. ^ Holes, 1984, p.433-457.
  16. ^ Abu-Haidar, 1991.


  • Abdel-Jawad, H. (1986). 'The emergence of a dialect in Jordanian urban centres.' International Journal of the Sociology of Language 61.
  • Abu-Haidar, F. (1991). Christian Arabic of Baghdad, Weisbaden: Otto Harasowitz.
  • Abu-Melhim, A. R. (1991). 'Code-switching and accommodation in Arabic.' Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics.
  • Badawi, S.A. (1973). Mustawayāt al-‘Arabīyah al-mu‘āṣirah fī Miṣr: Baḥth fī ‘alāqat al-lughah bi-al-ḥaḍārah, Cairo: Dār al-Ma‘ārifah.
  • Bassiouney, Reem (2006). Functions of code-switching in Egypt: Evidence from monologues, Leiden: Brill.
  • Bassiouney, Reem (2009). Arabic Sociolinguistics, Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
  • Blanc, D. (1960) 'Style variations in Arabic: A sample of interdialectical conversation.' in C.A. Ferguson (ed.) Contributions to Arabic linguistics, Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press.
  • Dendane, Z. (1994). 'Sociolinguistic variation in an Arabic speech community: Tlemcen.' Cahiers de Dialectologie et de Linguistique Contrastive 4.
  • El-Hassan, S. (1997). 'Educated Spoken Arabic in Egypt and the Levant: A critical review of diglossia and related concepts.' Archivum Linguisticum 8(2).
  • Ferguson, C.A. (1972). 'Diglossia.' Word 15.
  • Holes, C. (1983). 'Bahrain dialects: Sectarian differences exemplified through texts.' Zeitschrift fur arabische Linguistik10.
  • Holes, C. (1995). 'Community, dialect and urbanization in the Arabic-speaking Middle-East.' Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 58(2).
  • Mitchell, T.F. (1986). 'What is educated spoken Arabic?' International Journal of the Sociology of Language 61.
  • Pereira, C. (2007). 'Urbanization and dialect change: The dialect of Tripoli, Libya.' in C. Miller, E. Al-Wer, D. Caubet and J.C.E. Watson (eds), Arabic in the city: Issues in dialect contact and language variation, London and New York: Routledge.
  • Suleiman, Y. (1994). Arabic sociolinguistics: Issues and perspectives, Richmond: Curzon.
  • Versteegh, K. (2001). The Arabic language, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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