A brief introduction to the sounds of Levantine Arabic

By Chris Hitchcock

This is a brief introduction to the sounds of Levantine Arabic. Naturally, a dialect area stretching across four countries in a region known for its linguistic diversity has far more variation than could ever be captured in an article of 2,000 words, so we will be focusing on the dialects spoken by the educated inhabitants of the four capital cities: Damascus, Beirut, Amman and Jerusalem. For ‘Syrian’, read ‘Damascene’; for ‘Lebanese’, read Beiruti.

It is tempting when learning dialect to treat it as a simple sound-substitution game from MSA. This is certainly how we were taught when I had my first dialect classes many years ago: take an MSA sentence, change q to a glottal stop, say biddi for I want and hey presto, you’re speaking dialect. If this article does nothing else, I hope that it demonstrates that the sound system of Levantine – just like its grammar and its lexicon – cannot be straightforwardly derived from MSA, but has to be taken seriously as an independent entity.

A note on inherited vocabulary and MSA loans

The point about sound-substitution aside, it is obviously true that many dialect words show clear correspondences to MSA words, and this can help with learning them. It is also helpful to understand these correspondences, insofar as they exist, because the general habit of writing dialect words as if they were MSA (in particular spelling the various different pronunciations of ق identically) means that words that are pronounced differently are often spelled similarly.

For the dialect equivalents of MSA words that in MSA have the letters ق ث ذ ظ there are two broad categories. One category retains or approximates the MSA pronunciation (q and θ/∂/∂̣ or s/z/ẓ). The other has a ‘simplified’ pronunciation characteristic of dialect (a glottal stop, t/d/ḍ). These two groups are often labelled ‘MSA loans’ and ‘inherited vocabulary’ respectively. The assumption here is that the words in the latter category (which include core vocabulary like numbers, ‘take’, ‘midday’ etc) are the product of the natural process of sound change while the former have been ‘reborrowed’ more recently from the written language.

This is a useful rule of thumb, because it is true that most higher-register words (which in English are often of Latin or French origin) use the MSA pronunciation. Unfortunately, many everyday words also fall into this category (just as English’s French vocabulary includes not only ‘regal’ and ‘impeachment’ but also ‘because’ and ‘just’), and these simply have to be learned.

Consonants

All four dialects of Levantine Arabic have more or less the same basic set of consonants: /b t d k g h ḥ ʕ ʔ q f v ḵ ġ m n l r s z š j ṭ ḍ ṣ ẓ ḷ/ (ʕ and ʔ, for those less familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, are respectively ع and a glottal stop). If you’ve studied MSA, these sounds are all probably familiar to you.

The consonants written with ق are worth talking about in slightly more detail. The pronunciation of this letter is one of the most famous shibboleths distinguishing different Arabic dialects from one another.

It is also worth briefly talking about the letters ث ذ ظ. In MSA these letters are pronounced similarly to the English sounds in ‘thin’ and ‘the’ respectively, with ظ the emphatic version of ذ. These sounds (‘interdental’, because they are made between the teeth) are not used by many Levantine speakers (and some speakers, especially NL speakers, cannot even produce them).

Vowels

While the consonant systems of all four Levantine dialects are similar, the same cannot be said for the vowel system. Most dialects have five vowels /a e i o u/, which can all be short or long /ā ē ī ō ū/, as well as two diphthongs /ai au/. But the exact distributions and pronunciations of these sounds differ considerably between dialects.

Short /u/ and short /i/ are particularly tricky because they behave very differently in different dialects:

The sounds ē and ō are equivalent to MSA /ai/ and /au/ in many words: بيت bēt ‘house’; دور dōr ‘turn’. Higher register words, however, tend to keep their diphthongs: بيروت beyrūt ‘Beirut’; ثورة θawra ‘revolution’. Note that in open syllables, many Lebanese speakers have diphthongs even in lower-register words: بيتك baytak ‘your house’ هوني hawni ‘here’ (compare S بيتك bētak and هونه hōne).

Consonant clusters and the helping vowel

The ‘helping vowel’ (written here in superscript: ضرب ḍareb) is used to avoid having to pronounce difficult consonant clusters. It goes without saying that ‘difficult’ here is subjective – what native speakers of Syrian Arabic find hard to pronounce would not necessarily present any difficulty to a speaker of Czech (or even of Moroccan Arabic). Since there are too many possible clusters to list here, you will have to develop an intuition for these yourself.

When words are pronounced on their own, Levantine Arabic permits far more word-initial and word-internal consonant clusters than does MSA: انجليزي inglīzi ‘English’; كلاب klāb ‘dogs’; شربت šribet ‘I drank’. Sometimes a helping vowel may be used before the first consonant in order to make a cluster easier to pronounce: كتاب iktāb  ‘book’. At the same time, many word-final clusters that are permissible in MSA are commonly broken up in Levantine: شرب šireb ‘drinking’; مصر maṣer ‘Egypt’; أخدت 2aḵadet ‘I took’. Some final clusters are broken up by almost all speakers, while some are less common, with NL speakers generally being more likely to break up clusters than SL speakers.

Note, however, that the helping vowel is easily dropped and clusters restored when the surrounding vowels and consonants make the clusters easier to pronounce: أخدت الدوى؟ ʔaḵadt iddawa? ‘have you taken the medicine?; مصر كبيرة maṣr ikbiire ‘Egypt is big’.

There is some variation in the helping vowel between North and South Levantine. In NL it is invariably a short i and is pronounced identically to that sound, although it can never be stressed. In SL, it can be any of i u a. It is u/o when:

It is a in a few exceptional words which must be learned: بحر baḥar.