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.
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.
- Although /g/ does not have its own dedicated letter in the Arabic alphabet (except within Israel, where it is spelt with چ), it is very common: أركيلة ʔargiile ‘shisha pipe’; جدع gad e 3 ‘tough guy’; سيكارة sigāra ‘cigarette’. For Jordanian men, it is also a pronunciation of q, for which see below.
- /v/ appears only in a handful of loans, such as فيديو vidyo ‘video’.
- Emphatic consonants are pronounced with the back of the tongue raised towards the top of the mouth. Some words that have emphatic consonants in MSA do not have them in Levantine Arabic: صندوق sandūʔ ‘box’ (not ṣandūʔ). In all other cases, however, pronouncing emphatic consonants as their normal equivalents sounds cutesy and should be avoided.
- /ḷ/ appears in a handful of words, mostly derived from the word الله 2aḷḷa ‘God’: ولله waḷḷa ‘I swear to God’; يلا yaḷḷa ‘let’s go’. For some speakers these words have a normal /l/.
- The consonant j (spelt with ج) is pronounced as a soft ‘zh’ (as in ‘pleasure’) in North Levantine. In South Levantine, it is often pronounced as a hard ‘dzh’ (as in ‘wedge’), except in consonant clusters (e.g. جديد jdīd ‘new’).
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.
- In higher-register vocabulary, ق is almost invariably pronounced as /q/: ثقافة θaqāfe ‘culture’; اقتصاد iqtiṣād ‘economics’; حقوق ḥuqūq ‘law’, although some Lebanese speakers use /ʔ/ here.
In lower-register vocabulary, ق is generally pronounced as /ʔ/: قال ʔāl ‘he said’; حربوق ḥarbūʔ
‘sneaky’; فقع faʔaʕ ‘burst’. But there are exceptions here, which vary by dialect: Syrian وقح wiqe7
‘rude’ and قمر ʔamar ‘moon’ in Syrian contrast with Jordanian wi2e7 and qamar.
- To add extra bite to certain expressions, /q/ may be used even where it would not normally be: انقلع من وشي nqile3 min wišši! ‘piss off!’
- Jordanian men, in some contexts, use /g/ where other speakers would use /ʔ/. While this is not normal in any of the other capitals, it is widespread in the Levant generally and you are likely to come across it (as well as speakers who use /q/ everywhere).
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).
- In lower-register words, these sounds are typically pronounced as /s/, /z/ and /ẓ/ respectively by all speakers: بتذكر batzakkar ‘I remember’; بالظبط biẓẓab e ṭ ‘exactly’.
- In higher-register words, SL speakers usually have the MSA pronunciation: ثورة θawra ‘revolution’; ذرة ∂arra ‘atom’; مظاهرة mu∂̣āhara ‘demonstration’. NL speakers mostly have the /s/, /z/ and /ẓ/ pronunciations in these words too: sawra, zurra, muẓāhara.
- Many words whose MSA equivalents have these consonants have /t/, /d/ and /ḍ/ instead in dialect. These have to be learnt: تلاتة tlāte ‘three’; دايب dāyeb ‘melted’; الضهر i ḍḍuh o r ‘midday’. In some cases, older or more rural forms with these sounds are being replaced by variants with /s/, /z/ or /ẓ/: بتدكر batdakkar ‘I remember’ and مضاهرة muḍāhara ‘demonstration’ are disappearing in favour of batzakkar and muẓāhara.
- Some Jordanian speakers have the MSA pronunciations even in lower register words.
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 /e o/ appear almost exclusively in final closed syllables: كاتب kāteb ‘has written’; بتكتب btuktob ‘you write’. The two very common exceptions (in final open syllables) are the feminine suffix ـة -e and the suffixes ـو -o ‘him/it’ and ـلو -lo ‘to him/it, for him/it’.
- As a rule, final vowels are short, even those that are long in MSA: غربا ghuraba ‘strangers’; زادو zādu ‘they added’. The only exceptions, other than a handful of loans, are words with the silent suffix ـه ‘him/it’: بتشوفيه bitshufī ‘you [f] see him’; ضربوه ḍarabū ‘they hit him’.
- In Lebanese, long ā is often pronounced approaching ē: دكان dikkēn ‘shop’; شادي šēdi ‘Shadi’, and final /e o/ and /i u/ are switched around: Syrian or Palestinian šūfu and šūfo are equivalent to Lebanese شوفو šūfo ‘look [pl]’ and šūfu ‘see him’; Syrian or Palestinian بتحكي bti7ki ‘you talk’ and وصلة waṣle ‘plug’ are pronounced bti7ke and waṣli.
- In all dialects, vowels adjacent to /ḥ ʕ q ḵ ġ r ṭ ḍ ṣ ẓ ḷ/ are pronounced slightly differently. This is most obvious with long /ā/, which in باس bās ‘kissed’ sounds like the vowel in American English ‘hat’ but in طار ṭār ‘flew away’ sounds more like the vowel in ‘car’.
Short /u/ and short /i/ are particularly tricky because they behave very differently in different dialects:
- In all dialects short /u/ and short /i/ can appear as the final sound of a word: شوفو šūfu ‘look’; احكي i7ki ‘talk!’
- In final closed syllables, /u i/ become /o e/ for most speakers, as noted above (بتكتب btuktob ‘you write’).
- In SL dialects /u/ can appear in stressed syllables: بكتبها baktubha. In NL, however, stressed short /u/ becomes /i/ by default: بكتبها biktibha. This produces many of the obvious shibboleths between NL and SL, كنت kunt vs kint ‘I was’ being the most obvious. In Syrian, this short /i/ is often pronounced as an English schwa, depending on the surrounding consonants.
- /u/ does not generally appear elsewhere, with the exception of the SL present tense verbal prefixes, where it harmonises with the main vowel: بتضرب SL btuḍrob vs NL btiḍrob ‘you hit’. And of course it can appear freely in MSA words used in dialect: يعتبر yuʕtabar ‘can be considered’; متغير mutaghayyer ‘variable’.
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:
- In a verb, it immediately follows a syllable with u: تكتبي tukutbi ‘you write [f]’, but تمسكي timiski ‘you grab [f]’.
- The past tense suffix -t is an exception, and invariably takes e: كنتkunet ‘I was’.
- In a noun, it immediately follows a syllable with u and is adjacent to one of the consonants /ʕ ʔ h ḥ gh k g q r/:عذر 3uzor ‘excuse’, بكلتو bukulti ‘my hairclip’, شرب šurob ‘drinking’ (but جملتو jumilto, خبز ḵubez).
It is a in a few exceptional words which must be learned: بحر baḥar.